There's a lot in Portland's past the "history" books won't tell you
I first heard about Stanley five years ago, from a firefighter up on Munjoy Hill. Stanley was a transvestite who either worked at or was an extremely reliable patron of the Stardust Inn in the 1960s and ’70s. He lived somewhere off Washington Avenue and would walk past the firehouse each day in his finest eveningwear. Next door to the Stardust was a machine shop that used to refill the oxygen bottles for firemen after a call, back when the fire department didn’t have the equipment to do it themselves. Farther down the hill towards the water there were grain elevators, a gas works, and a drop forge. The Stardust, with Stanley dancing on the billiard table, would have made today's Old Port Tavern look like a tearoom.
I was surprised when I ran into Stanley again on the pages of John B. Robinson’s oddball A Concise History of Portland, Maine: An Incendiary History (Warren Machine), one of two new histories of Portland — the other one is Allan Levinsky’s A Short History of Portland (Commonwealth Editions). The key word here is brevity. Both books are light as a feather, not only in length (both clock in under 150 pages), but also in scope. Robinson and Levinsky touch so lightly on the highlights of Portland’s history, they might as well be CliffsNotes, which is a good thing. After all, who wants to sit through 700 pages of dead white men?But here’s a radical idea: local history isn’t about how many trees were chopped down in 1763, or the city budget in 1857, or who built the Portland Observatory or why. Local history is talk. It’s a form of storytelling that’s more like a novel in the way it evokes a world that is lost to the past. Local history leaves the theorizing and inconsequential detail to the academics, and concerns itself with the literal. Ask the people who live on your street to describe the neighbors, the houses, or the corner bar and each version comes out differently. That’s local history: an all-inclusive game of telephone where each retelling is limned by the dim light of memory.
Still, among the standard-issue patriots, pioneers, and poets, I wasn’t expecting a transvestite. As Robinson tells it, Stanley worked not at the Stardust but at the Crows Nest, an Old Port taproom popular with sailors (whether that was because of the jaunty maritime name or Stanley’s legendary striptease, we’ll never know), but the billiard tables, brothels, and nude girls (and boys) are the same. In just four pages, Robinson, who is also a real estate agent, sketches the massive changes that Portland underwent in the 1950s and ’60s — the slum clearances and the conversion of the Old Port from a rough-and-tumble red-light district to the sad carnival for frat boys that it is today. The old Portland sounds like fun, the way everything sounds like fun before it gets gentrified and people start walking their dogs everywhere and worrying about parking. I want a book on that Portland. Leave the rest for somebody else.
In their efforts to be brief and comprehensive, Robinson and Levinsky not only miss the Forest City for the trees; they’re in the wrong forest. Portland isn’t like the rest of Maine; it’s a bastard child of history, a city in a rural state saddled with the myths of rugged Downeast when it’s really New England’s Island of Misfit Toys — a city of immigrants, dissenters, artists, queers, and hucksters, as out of place in stolid Boston as it is in the boondocks. Robinson and Levinsky are traditionalists, though, telling you, in the words on the back cover of A Concise History, “Everything you want to know about Portland and nothing you don’t.” That’s no way to tell a story. It’s time to take Portland’s history back from the tourism-industrial complex of dead poets, lighthouses, and lobster traps and give it back to the people.
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