Getting Lost in My City, and Finding It

Before the season's first snows came, I had the unusual experience of getting lost in my own city.

Bangor, Maine, is not a big town (pop. 35,000), but, like many small places, it aspires to be a big place. In its attempts to become such, it has made some disastrous planning errors. In the early 1960s, it succumbed to the frenzy of "urban renewal" and bulldozed nearly all of its old riverfront neighborhoods, replacing Victorian faades with boxy bank buildings of concrete and glass. It dynamited its grand old Romanesque Revival train station and, during the '70s, on the outskirts of town, covered farmland and meadows with a mall and a random sprawl of cinder-block chain stores and fast-food restaurants. Almost overnight, downtown became a ghost town.

I have found these "improvements" so disconcerting that I try to drive along routes that keep me from even having to look at the desolation. Which is how I came to lose my way one evening.

There was still enough daylight to see by, but when I turned to cross a bridge over the Penobscot River, I saw a sign up ahead that the bridge was closed for repairs. My only option was to exit down a ramp I had never used before.

The next thing I knew, I was coursing up and down streets that were foreign to me. There was almost no traffic, so I was able to slow to a crawl and found myself studying architecture I never knew existed in Bangor. Every building was unique, the product of a distinct idea, and I ran my eyes over eaves, cornices, and pediments of singular beauty. The roofs spoke of ages past, and I wondered what lives and stories had transpired under Bangor's mansards, gables, imperials, and turrets.

I immediately resolved to act on impulse. The next morning, I drove downtown, parked on Main Street, and began to walk as many streets as possible. What I found were survivors - pilot lights in a city that had in many ways been darkened by planners' well-intentioned designs. Even in the most neglected neighborhoods I could read the architect's hand in care-worn faades. Here a small stone church staked its claim among clapboard homes; on this corner a general store, by its very hanging on, announced that people should not have to drive to buy bread; on that street a used bookstore - a mere hole-in-the-wall - provided a life of the mind for Bangor's poorest neighborhood.

THERE is real beauty in this view of a city, for it is the day-to-day undertakings of its residents - more than the designs and desires of anonymous developers and visitors - that form the bedrock of a town. I think that when places like Bangor, and Maine in general, take a drubbing for cheap cosmetizing in the form of malls and neon shopping strips, it is because much is being overlooked.

I am reminded of an essay by the late, great E.B. White, who adopted Maine as his own. In "Homecoming," he takes to task a Harper's columnist who lambasted the Maine coast for being "full of drive-ins, diners, souvenir stands, purulent amusement parks, and cheap-Jack restaurants." White bristled at this assessment, stating simply that the road into Maine, "like highways everywhere, is a mixed dish: Gulf and Shell, bay and gull, neon and sunset, cold comfort and warm, the fussy faade of a motor court right next door to the pure geometry of an early-19th-century clapboard house with barn attached."

After my jaunt through Bangor's heart, I realized that this city, too, is a mixed dish of clapboard and plastic, general store and mall, developer aglow with ideas and aged woodsman for whom life has gone hard. Walking through the city was one way of coming to terms with it all; but I chanced upon another way of rising above the incongruities.

When the snows finally came, in early November, the flakes seemed to float down as large as tissues. They came to rest on city streets, sidewalks, and rooftops, nestling into every crack and crevice. The bridge over the Penobscot reopened, and I happened to be driving across it during the snowfall, just after sunset. Bangor's lights had come on, throwing a scrim of small-town brightness up against the sullen sky.

I don't know what caused me to look back over my shoulder at that moment, but there it was, huddled against the soft white hills rolling down to the river, its spires striking just the right note of warmth and optimism: a town looking as if it should be sitting on cotton batting under a Christmas tree. The snow had erased every doubt, every dark corner. Home and hearth, bank building and general store, Main Street and interstate now formed a common meld, bracing one another against the storm.

Time and city planners are not always kind to people and places, but the seasons have their moments.

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