Last year’s proposition to formally unite the governments of Lewiston and Auburn failed spectacularly and it is no wonder. The proponents waged a purely political campaign (which is to say, one of persuasion), trotting out endorsements from all of the local elite and appealing principally to community members’ pocket books.
If a community were merely a business, the proposition might have proceeded; but a community is not merely a business. A successful merger campaign, if there ever is one, will have to address the substance of community, which is its identity.
The proponents of the merger had aspirations to challenge the primacy of Portland among Maine communities. But in addition to size and location advantages, Portland has been deliberately cultivating its current identity since 1965. In 1965 a fine iconic building, Union Station, was torn down for no particular reason, and was replaced with a very non-descript strip mall and parking lot. That event sparked the founding of Greater Portland Landmarks.
Today, Portland school children, thanks largely to Greater Portland Landmarks, visit the key icons of the city’s identity: the Observatory, Eastern Cemetery, Tate House, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House and the Victorian Mansion, among others. It is a rare sight to see Lewiston and Auburn children visiting the historic sites that embody the identities of our cities.
Adults who have not been raised to know the stories and fabric of our cities are (apparently) difficult to persuade that Lewiston and Auburn are one community. Perhaps a people who have grown up with a detailed knowledge of the lore and fabric of our communities will be less so.
Regardless, the school departments must be tasked to deliberately build the positive historical DNA of the two communities into the children. Merger or no merger, our children need to have a better idea of who we are as a community. The “Dead Mill Town” story is the only story most people know of the two cities, and that is a non-starter for economic development.
Do Lewiston and Auburn schoolchildren grow up knowing that Auburn began at what is now West Auburn? Have they visited the old schoolhouse there, the church, or the site of Maine’s first shoe factory? Do they visit the Knight House and Downing Shoe Shop at the falls? These sites demonstrate the beginnings of Lewiston and Auburn.
Do Lewiston and Auburn schoolchildren visit the Bates Mill and Museum L-A? Some do, surely, but why not all? Have they toured Auburn’s shoe mill district, and the Foss Mansion? Do they tour Gas House Patch and Petit Canada? Those sites demonstrate the industrial age that made the cities of Lewiston and Auburn.
Do Lewiston and Auburn schoolchildren know that a Lewiston man led the Boston Red Sox to two consecutive World Series championships, and returned home after doing so? Do they know that a world-renowned mountaineer and founder of the Patagonia company was born in Lewiston? Do they know that a renowned national newspaper columnist and poet built the most prominent mansion in Auburn? Perhaps they don’t know because nobody told them. Perhaps we don’t know because nobody told us.
If Lewiston and or Auburn want to challenge Portland’s primacy among Maine communities, then we have to impart our historical DNA better. Our schools are the natural place to start. When we understand that history happened here, and to our families, then perhaps we will take it more seriously and carry a little more pride in our hometowns.
“Here” is a critical concept. It is the local that our children understand, because they can see it. If they don’t know the history of the cities they see every day, how can we expect them to connect with the state or national story? If they don’t know the story of their own community, how can they add to it?
I see a lot of potential in Lewiston and Auburn — we have bred champions here in the past — but I am not hopeful about our economic future. As a community, we will spend thousands upon thousands of dollars for consultants from hundreds and thousands of miles away to tell us what to do; but we will not spend a dime with our own children.
If we don’t transmit our historical DNA to our children, they will move away to places such as Portland and Boston (or farther afield) that celebrate their identities and stories. Building our historical DNA into our children and grandchildren is not just an investment in education, it is an investment in economic development.
Look up the names “Bill Carrigan” and “Yvon Chouinard” and ask yourself why every schoolchild in Lewiston and Auburn doesn’t grow up knowing those names. Ask yourself why there isn’t a statue of them anywhere in Lewiston-Auburn, or even a playing field named after them.
Winners celebrate winners. It is contagious.
John Henderson is an independent scholar living in Auburn and employed by the Auburn School District.