Friday, October 14, 2005


Commercial Street: An Urban Symphony

I was recently given an assignment in my History of Urban Form class that asked us students to pick a lively street that we knew well, and to describe what made it so successful. This was to be done in homage to Jane Jacobs, and her Hudson Street Ballet (p. 50-54 of Death and Life). I chose Commercial Street in Portland, Maine.

Commercial Street, which runs along the waterfront of Portland, Maine’s historic Old Port district, is a grand stage for highly diverse human activity. Due to an ever-evolving variety of uses and excellent human oriented design, Commercial Street produces a constant ebb and flow of pedestrian activity. Whether it is morning, afternoon, or night, the drama of humanity performed on this stage is akin to the various acts in a play or the various movements found in a symphonic opus. Though each act or movement is interesting on its own, they could not truly stand on their own, as the entire meaning would be lost. Each is dependent on the other, which is the essence of urbanism.

On Commercial Street the early morning belongs to the men and women of the working waterfront. From any number of vantage points, one can witness hundreds of fishermen and lobstermen crossing the street, swigging their coffee, boarding their vessels, and preparing for a long day at sea. These very same fishermen provide distinctive odors and fresh catch for the thousands of people who later in the day will inevitably flock to the restaurants, bars, and piers, that graciously adorn the street. The most popular, but least tasty is DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant. Though the tourists “from away,” create endless opportunities for people watching, those who know the local restaurants would rather walk a few more blocks to The Porthole. The Porthole is a local gem located down a dirt, pot hole infested pier. Though some of the defunct fishing piers have been retrofitted in to posh condo developments, this particular one is gritty and looks more like the main street of a decrepit western ghost town than a quaint small New England City fishing pier. Nevertheless, the Porthole often has live music on the back patio where you can literally look over the railing at fisherman bringing in their daily catch.

After the fishermen head out to sea for the day, a second wave of inhabitants arrives by foot, bus, bike, and car. These are the folks who work in the offices above the first floor retail and eating establishments, and who single handedly keep the small markets, corner stores, delis, and coffee shops in business throughout the year. After all, in Maine tourists are hard to come by in January.

After the morning “rush hour” is over, the real rush begins. Somewhere between coffee and lunch, the street and its pleasantly wide sidewalk seem to shrink and pedestrian gain a more intimate knowledge of each other. Shop doors open, sidewalk displays beckon weekending Boston boutique shoppers, and camera laden tourists purchase sandwiches before boarding the ferries to the Casco Bay islands. The foot traffic in and out of the storefronts is so consistent that it almost seems mechanistic, as if there is an urban puppet master conducting the entire show.

Even though the summer tourists are largely responsible for the crescendo and decrescendo of this special place, over time the regular participants in the Commercial Street symphony do not even notice them. The regulars will notice that the man with the long black hair and worn black boots who always strums his guitar by the hot dog stand has worn the same t-shirt for 4 straight days. Deciding that he might actually need the laundry money, a regular might be coerced into actually placing a few coins left over from their morning coffee purchase into his guitar case. Though he is not a homeless man, he makes a daily wage from those who recognize him, not from those who do not.

The afternoon hours on Commercial Street are the most varied. People of all ages and all agendas can be seen walking the sidewalks, frequenting the restaurants and lunch stands, sitting on benches, skateboarding, tripping on the uneven cobblestone cross walks, exiting and entering the fairy terminal, and crossing the street in such enormity that automobile traffic truly is a secondary concern. Though there might be a brief lull in the action around 4 o’clock, it is not long until the island hoppers return to the mainland, the fishermen tie up for the day, and the professionals exit the offices. Many will flock to the restaurants and bars to recount the happenings of the day over happy hour food and drink specials. If they are smart they head to Three Dollar Dewey’s, which offers free popcorn and cheap Shipyard Ales – Maine’s finest microbrew.

As the daylight fades into twilight, an entirely new population reveals itself. Commercial Street, and the Old Port in general, becomes a playground for the hip and socially active. It is at this time that most of the older professionals, fishermen, and tourists head home and call it a day, while teenagers, creative classers, and twenty- somethings are just starting their evenings. Not to mention the Bachelor or Bachelorette parties that are inevitably attracted to the most vibrant district in the only real city in Maine. The demographic shift is not only noticeable, but the increase in energy is tangible. Bars begin to fill up, dance clubs begin pumping music, and posh sushi restaurants entertain the young and successful, many of whom live nearby in waterfront condos or apartments.

As one might also expect, a sizeable police force begins roaming about, looking for late night revelers out of control, or to simply tell the bongo players for the 10th time that they must tone it down. After the bars, restaurants, and clubs close down for the night, the action begins to slowly fade as the young dissipate for the night. However, Bill’s Pizza remains a hot spot until nearly three in the morning, as it is the only place on Commercial Street that provides late night nourishment. Bill’s Pizza has been serving the late night crowd for years, and is somewhat of an institution on Commercial Street. As the smell of pizza and alcohol radiates out on the sidewalk, just about anything can and does happen.

By the time Bill’s pizza has finally closed down for the night, Commercial Street receives a much deserved rest. Yet, this rest only lasts for 2-3 hours as the earliest of fishermen will soon be arriving, coffee in hand, ready to reinvent the Commercial Street symphony.

As you can see, Commercial Street thrives on the varied combinations of people and uses. Take away one of these movements and the whole Commercial Street symphony suffers. Though each act or movement is interesting on its own, they could not truly stand on their own, as the entire meaning would be lost. Each is dependent on the other, which is the essence of urbanism. This interdependence is best characterized as ordered chaos, and the feeling of the street transcends space and time. This is the trademark of humankind’s most gratifying places, and as a culture we need to build, maintain, and preserve more of these special places.

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