LEWISTON — The story goes that people used to bring chairs and bags of popcorn to sit and watch the nightly drunken antics on lower Lisbon Street.
Mayor Larry Gilbert, a Lewiston police officer walking the beat between 1969 and 1974, can’t confirm the chairs.
But he can confirm the bags of popcorn and the drunken antics.
“People would drive up and park, and then just sit and watch,” Gilbert said.
“There were the drunks wobbling down the street, the fights and, of course, the police taking everyone away.”
It was that time that made lower Lisbon Street a legend and set the tone for the way people around Maine and from away viewed Maine’s second-largest city.
“There were the clubs and pawn shops,” Gilbert said. “That was about it. Of course, nobody had windows. So there was illegal activity going on (inside) — stolen goods were being bought and sold. So were drugs.”
It’s a different street today. While social clubs, bars and taverns used to thrive on the street, there’s only one social club left there now — the Lewiston Social Club at 351 Lisbon St.
It won the dubious honor of being the sole survivor just this summer when the struggling South End Social Club locked its doors.
“There are still members of social clubs in Lewiston,” said Larry Sanborn, state liquor officer. “There are still bars and clubs that have strong membership in other parts of the city. But it's tough out there.”
There's still a draw for social clubs, Sanborn said. They let club managers pick their clientele, the liquor licenses are cheaper and members don't have to leave the room to smoke. Memberships tend to be cheap, ranging from $5 to $20 per year.
"People typically belong to more than one," Sanborn said. "You'll see them, wandering from club to club and even into the nonmember clubs."
They have a long history in the city, but the things that made Lisbon Street fertile ground for the clubs are gone — some by chance and some by city design.
“I like it much better this way, the way it is now,” Gilbert said. “Before, it hurt the city’s image. The city tried to clean it all up. I think it's worked."
Gilbert can rattle off the names of the membership clubs that have gone away: The Cavalier Club, the Hurricane Club, the L and A Workingman's Club, in addition to the South End and Centreville.
They were joined by the traditional taverns: Pauline's Place, the Manoir Hotel, the Kitty Cat Club, Mary's Tavern and Ma and Pa's Place.
"At one time, the clubs were tied to the mills," said Ron Deblois, Lewiston's deputy director of information systems and a local historian.
"The people all lived downtown and they'd finish their shifts and stop at the clubs on the way home," Gilbert agreed.
At one point, Lewiston accounted for one-third of all liquor licenses in the state, Gilbert said. Many of them were on lower Lisbon Street.
"And that brought in people from outside," Gilbert said. "Just by reputation alone, that brought them in."
The U.S. Navy's Shore Patrol used to park a van on Lisbon Street to collect wayward Brunswick Naval Air Station sailors.
Lewiston Police Lt. Mark Cornelio, who grew up in Jay, said he recalls being driven down Lisbon Street as a kid.
"I was in awe," he said. "There were just so many people. Even 21 years ago, when I became a police officer, there were still a lot of bars."
The city began cracking down on the clubs in the mid-1980s, installing new and brighter streetlights, closing alleys and increasing police patrols. The city opened a new police station in 1986, moving from the basement of City Hall to Park Street, closer to the action.
"They built a walkway, with an arch that came out on Lisbon Street, just to increase the police presence," Gilbert said.
But a zoning change, banning new clubs from opening within 500 feet of other liquor-license holders, changed things the most, Gilbert said.
"That cut down on the density problem, and the clubs began going away," Gilbert said. Some moved to other parts of the city. The closing mills, lack of jobs and dulling economy did in many others.
"They just gave Lewiston a bad reputation," Gilbert said. "See, not all of them were bad. Some were just nice people, older folks that just wanted to get together. But so many of them just didn't care what they did, and they attracted that criminal element."