Regular STSO readers are well aware that I’m a proud Maineiac. I was born and raised in Portland; Michael and I were married there and we visit often as my family lives in the greater-Portland area. My parents were both raised in Portland, as well. My Mom grew up on Peaks Island and my Dad grew up in an East End neighborhood called Munjoy Hill.
My brother and sister and and I have heard about ‘the Hill’ (as it is affectionately known) for as long as we can remember. Our paternal grandparents, Rose and Max owned a three-story apartment building on Vesper Street about three-quarters of the way up the physical hill. In one of those three-bedroom apartments they raised six children, including a set of twins (my Dad and my Uncle Mike).
Last Thursday I drove to Maine and spent the day with my Dad. We met at the Hilltop Coffee Shop for some caffeine before wandering over to Vesper Street. My Dad proudly showed me his old stomping grounds and where he and my Uncle Mike played catch (they were passionate little-leaguers). Half-way down the block he pointed out the house his grandparents lived in. He also pointed out where the Navarros, the Beatties and the Nappis lived with crystal clarity. He told me about his paper-route and playing basketball at the house on the corner, which had the only outdoor hoop in the whole neighborhood.
I’ve read a lot about Munjoy Hill in the past few weeks, so indulge me as I bestow a little hometown knowledge. Geographically, the Hill is situated east of Portland’s downtown district and leads up to the Eastern Promenade, a picturesque park overlooking Casco Bay. There’s some debate as to where the Hill’s boundaries lie, but much of what I’ve found considers Washington Street base-camp. The area was largely used as pasture land for cattle as far back as the 1700’s. In July of 1866 a major fire destroyed vast areas of Portland and many residents erected a tent city on the Hill. Eventually the area attracted an ethnically diverse working class population and dozens, possibly hundreds of triple-decker-style residences were built. Many of these homes were right on top of each other (and remain that way today). Last week my Dad pointed out the building next door to his childhood home. The two structures were so close that my grandmother would pass clothes and cloth diapers out the window to her next door neighbor who would help with laundry.
My Dad tells great stories of closeness, togetherness and Hill loyalties, “We were six kids growing up, living on one floor, three bedrooms, one bath and the most loving wonderful parents ever. I remember every family who ever lived in every house on every street. I remember all four schools I attended, none of which remain as then today. I remember the corner stores which are now restaurants. I remember the fields and parks where we played sports from dawn to dusk and my parents never worried where we were or who we were with. Munjoy Hill remains an incredible place, one which will remain part of me always.” My Uncle Jerry shared a similar narrative, “I think about listening to the Red Sox games with my Dad, playing touch football on the street, snowbanks that were seven-feet-high, watching the fireworks display on the 4th of July and walking to Jack Junior High School in the bone chilling cold. Most of all, I remember all the tight-knit families on the Hill. Nobody had much money, but the friendships were real and the people genuinely cared about each other. The Hill forged bonds that endure to this day.”
When I was growing up, the area had developed a dicier reputation. I could never quite connect the Hill that my Dad adored to the Hill that for the most part, we avoided. By the time I was in high school however, a neighborhood organization had formed and went to great lengths to beautify the neighborhood and create a much safer environment. Over time the Hill evolved into a highly respected community with beautiful restored homes and popular restaurants. Now it’s one of the most highly-coveted and expensive places to live in the entire city of Portland.
My Dad and I moseyed up to the Eastern Prom high above a very choppy Casco Bay. There’s a steep hill leading down to a beach where my Dad said he and his pals would go sledding in the Winter. My Aunt Sharon shared with me sweet stories about Summer days spent babysitting neighborhood kids at the playground on the Prom. The street overlooking the water features many lavish old homes, the majority of which have benefited from recent restoration projects showcasing their stature and beauty. We looped through a few side streets and found ourselves at the foot of the Portland Observatory. Friends, are you looking for some coastal Maine maritime history? Well, boy have you come to the right place. The 86-foot-tall observatory tower was built by a retired sea captain by the name of Captain Lemuel Moody, who in 1807 recognized the need for a watch tower to look out over Casco Bay. The harbor was the lifeblood of the city and Moody would hang flags atop the structure to alert residents when their ships were pulling into town. The tower is now a national landmark and the city provides guided tours from May through early-October. Our tour was capped off with a beautiful view of Portland and beyond, including a glimpse of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, about 80 miles away. If you’re an architect or history buff, I highly recommend a visit to the tower. The 103-stair-climb was easy, the docent was very knowledgeable and the stories were really interesting. The observatory is closed for the season now, but if you’re in the area next Summer, they offer a sunset tour every Thursday evening, which I think would be stunning.
Our cultural exploration completed, we stopped by one of my favorite spots for lunch, the Blue Spoon on Congress Street. I love their Blue Cheese Toast appetizer. They also have a flan on the menu, which is truly amazing – and I do not care for flan. True story. They have delicious cocktails like the rye and maple Leaf Peeper I had last week. After lunch we wandered across the street to the Rosemont Market. I perused the wine and specialty foods while my Dad picked out a delicious gingerbread cookie from the bakery (he shared half with me).
This past week as I sat on the couch reading a Munjoy Hill Historic Guide pamphlet, I asked Michael if he had ever known me to nerd-out so intensely over a project. “Uh, yeah,” he replied, “it’s kind of your thing. You do always do this. You did it with challah, with Cleveland, Paris.” I suppose he’s right – I do tend to get a little wrapped-up in planning a trip or a new recipe. Truthfully, though, when I first pitched this idea to my Dad, I fully-intended to write a post revolving entirely around food. I imagined we’d eat our way up and down the Hill and I’d share a list of trendy restaurants. It turned out to be so much more than that, though – it was a really special day where I saw my Dad relive many happy memories. I know Rose and Max would have been very happy and proud to see us exploring the Hill as it stands today.
MUNJOY HILL HOTSPOTS
DRINK & TASTE
MUNJOY HILL EXTENDED