Our Port, Your Port

 
By SARA DONNELLY  |  February 15, 2006

The city council’s latest struggle to reconcile Old Port nightlife with Old Port highlife isn’t as unique as you might think. It may seem like a neighborhood with 73 restaurants, clubs, and bars squashed up next to luxury hotels, boutiques, and apartments would foster a unique culture clash ready to go nuclear, but most cities in the Western world wrestle with this kind of downtown identity crisis, says Jim Peters, co-founder and president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute in Santa Cruz, California.

Last month, the Portland City Council voted to reduce the number of bar licenses available in the Old Port from 27 to 24 (see “Growing Pains,” by Sara Donnelly, January 27). This controversial restriction occurred amid intense debate about whether the area has become a place respectable folk fear to tread after dark.

Since 1983, Peters’s private nonprofit corporation — which has never worked with Portland and says it has never been asked to — has helped hundreds of cities stateside and beyond dissolve tensions between police, elected representatives, developers, and local youth by gathering representatives from all of these groups to hammer out workable nightlife policies.

Peters says friction between the Old Port’s party scene and its affluent retail and residential spots can be boiled down to a generational divide.

“I think a city like Portland has to decide what it wants to be,” says Peters. “The bottom line is [wealthy residents] are going to want to have the places to go to shop and to go to eat. The people who work in the stores and the people who work in the restaurants and the people who work in the parking garages, they’re not 50 and 60 years old. They’re late teens, early 20s, they’re the people who work there. So do you create a world in which the people who work and service this economy don’t live there?”

Peters says the struggle in Portland and elsewhere is thanks in part to media trends. Millennials (young sprites between the ages of 18 and 30) grew up exposed to media glorifying urban singlehood, so they flock to city centers to live in lofts and wait tables at Central Perk. Boomers, bored with the pace of their suburban empty nests and responding to the same media, are also now congregating in urban centers, where they live in luxury condos and sip espressos at Café Nervosa.

The days of avoiding Mom and Dad in the suburbs are so twenty years ago.

“But once [the boomers] move to the city, their expectations are still to have the quiet and peace of a suburban house,” says Peters. “That’s where you get these conflicts.”

Portland could take a lesson from cities like Burlington, Vermont, which has half the population of our city but a downtown similar in size and mix to the Old Port. A few years ago, policymakers there decided the downtown needed to be manged with more consistent, long-range policies instead of the occasional holy-shit-we’ve-got-a-rumble-in-the-street patchwork job. To get it done, Peters helped Burlington form a “Responsible Hospitality Council,” involving police, policymakers, developers, and residents.

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