Another Perspective

The Maine Idea

Is the Pine Tree State too white?

By 5.20.02

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Former Maine Attorney General Jim Tierney, now, after failed runs for both U.S. Senate and the governorship, a Court TV commentator, has mounted a new hobbyhorse. Maine is too white, Tierney says. Maine needs people of other colors and other nationalities. Tierney trumpeted this theme (this campaign?) in an April 22 University of Maine speech, the grandly titled "TIAA/CREF Distinguished Honors Graduate Lecture."

Tierney complains that Maine's economy could do better, that its young people are leaving, that its elders are overtaxed (but that, paradoxically, they don't want to leave). The former AG seems to have mistaken the look of commercial vitality in many places (a lot of immigrants making money) with the reality of potential commercial success in Maine. I have vacationed with my family in Maine for almost ten years, and last year had a chance to evaluate the state as a possible place to live, because there was a job offer on the table. No, Maine is not "diverse" in way the bean-counters usually mean. Maine is simply different from the rest of the country, and gloriously so.

And it's really not doing badly at all.

Geography is destiny, as Thomas Sowell demonstrated convincingly in his book Conquests and Cultures. Maine lies on the North Atlantic, with a glacier-shredded coastline offering thousands of island and harbor shelters for boats. So Maine has always had a coastal economy, like Norway, a place it compares to in many respects. Historically, Mainers are sophisticated, worldly people. They were among the first and most prolific traders in North America. They enjoyed the eighteenth and nineteenth century's equivalent of vast oil fields -- tens of thousands of acres of tall, straight pine trees for masts. Mainers lived literally in the world at large. Local historians remark that Maine traders used to run into one another as regularly in Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and Hong Kong as in York. The traders brought their families with him. The Merchant Marine Academy is still there.

It's cold. Even in the glorious seaside summer, it can get so cold by five o'clock on some afternoons that you're grabbing for sweaters and jackets. In the winter, snow falls -- lots of it. And it's not a ski destination of any importance, like Vermont. The wind blows, the waves bash on the rocks. Sleet and freezing rain on the coast turn to snow, like driving into a wall, fifteen minutes inland. If living eight months a year in long johns, boots, parkas, and tire chains doesn't appeal to you, you're going to stay away.

Maine resists ease. You can't get in or out of the state east-west. Wilderness covers ninety percent of the territory. There is one road, the meandering north-south Route 95, petering out 35 miles short of Presque Isle up by Canada, a very good road, true, but one that can back up 20 miles with a little highway work or a bad storm or too big an influx of tourists jamming the Kittery discount malls. You have to have a car, a good one, given the weather. You have to have heat, and that can cost a lot. Portland sparkles with a model mix of new construction and traditional preservation, but outside of that, you live with the picturesque and the funky and roomy. And you bundle up.

All in all, not the kind of place likely to appeal to today's immigrants, as opposed to the fishing and homesteading Scandinavians and Germans of yore. There are no foreign-language enclaves, no Chinatowns, no Spanish or Japanese TV channels, no churches sharing sanctuaries with Korean congregations. With so much homeboy comfort on offer so nearby (New York, New Jersey), with so much opportunity for characteristic immigrant urban enterprise elsewhere, why choose Maine? Maine is not urban.

Many people do choose Maine, and not just for vacations. You can see the pattern in house prices. Portland costs about two-thirds as much as Boston. North of Portland, you can buy a house on the coast for less than $200,000. The line moves northward every year. And Maine gets more diverse all the time as it does so.

The southern coast, from Kittery up through Kennebunkport, where George H.W. and Barbara Bush spend their summers, is now called "gay Maine" by knowledgeable New Englanders. An easy hour's drive up from Boston, it has been settled by that city's prosperous homosexuals, and the merchants have cheerfully gone right along, stocking up on goat cheese and arugula, opening restaurants, art galleries, antique stores, interior decorating businesses, and nightclubs, and trousering the hefty real estate commissions. On our first vacation there, in 1994, when Sally was pregnant with Bud, we strolled into Ogunquit on a Friday night, me with clarinet in hand, looking for a jazz pianist and a jam session. We found one, no problem. And let's just say that the hills were alive with the sound of music.

Yet right in the middle of the gay Maine coast lies Ocean Park, a seaside village with one of the prettiest beaches in the world, a tiny township of half a dozen stores, a traditional summer encampment for evangelical Christians for more than a century. We have stayed there twice. At the tabernacle on the main street, there is a church service at least every night. The New England Baptist Youth Choir meets there for two weeks every summer. Robert Frost, as a teenager, taught tennis on the still-existing clay tennis courts that once fronted a long-gone wooden hotel. Ocean Park's library stays open all summer, and the local ladies read stories to visiting children.

Up the coast just a bump you find Old Orchard Beach, honky-tonks, carnival rides, barkers and booths. Summer-long, families of tattooed bikers bring their kids -- along with everybody else, cheerfully and unworriedly doing the same thing. Here, hurly-burly with the big leathery dudes and their ladies and their children, you notice something, something that prevails no matter where you are, that pervades the gay scene on a weekend night in Ogunquit, and the narrow gauge railway museum on a spitting chilly day along the Portland harbor front, that informs that open-handed welcome of the costumed guides at the old fort in Augusta. Everybody is nice. There is no "edge." People don't curse, not usually. In all my visits to Maine, the most hostile confrontation I ever saw was between a hulking drunk despairing teenager and a street preacher who was challenging him to come to Christ.

There's the appeal Jim Tierney overlooks, the appeal of what some have called "the last good place." The Eastern corridor, that jam-packed, commerce-driven strip, ends at Boston, and so do jam-packed, commerce-driven problems. Once you drive north past the Somerville Powder House, the metropolitan East just plain stops. Lots of people like it that way.

Some foreign immigrants will discover Maine, the way the Portuguese did in the past, and for the same reasons. It reminds them of home. Maybe Northern Japanese. Maybe Chileans. Maybe Danes, fed up with the EU.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.