I will always remember the helpless horror I felt in May 2013 as I sat in New Delhi, India, poring over news coverage from my hometown of the fires that screamed through three Pierce Street, Lewiston, apartment buildings, rendering 29 families homeless within minutes.
Then came a swell of gratitude, pride even, that moved me to tears as I watched the outpouring of aid and comfort from the community that embraced the victims, even before the last embers had grown cold. “That’s what the people in my hometown do,” I told my Indian friends. “That’s just what they do … “
It was perplexing then, to return to Lewiston a few months ago and hear that there would be a question on the upcoming ballot trying to block the federally and privately sanctioned and funded reconstruction of the burned buildings.
I learned that the question would be on the ballot as the result of a petition created by certain neighborhood landlords who wish to halt the construction of a new building complex that would house the fire victims.
Puzzled by this seemingly mean-spirited act with neither moral nor economic basis, I decided to do my own research and what I found was, well, exactly that: it is a mean-spirited act with neither moral nor economic basis.
In a political climate where opinions and volume too often successfully masquerade as fact, those who may have been misled to believe that the reconstruction of the burned buildings would raise taxes in Lewiston should take the time to learn the facts of the matter and think about the real and crucial issue, rather than the petition authors’ misleading, fear-igniting collection of signatures.
The outcome of the question is vitally important, as it will set the precedent for what inner city Lewiston, like so many other cities across the U.S., can and should become.
The proposed reconstruction project on Pierce St. would be entirely funded by the landowner, Phyllis St. Laurent, as well as with federally secured funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the State Housing Authority. Not only will the project not require any increase in the city operating budget or property taxes but, in fact, the city actually stands to gain $37,000 in tax revenue if the reconstruction proceeds as planned.
The inner cityscape of Lewiston has for too long now been characterized by varied and endless combinations of vulnerability and opportunism. Those people who haven’t visited the area recently should take a 10-minute stroll around. They would be amazed, not only by the number of empty, weed and trash ridden lots, but by the stunning number of buildings heralding condemnation (red square signs with white crosses) and deemed too dangerous to even enter. Future empty lots, certainly, that will not be generating the tax revenue they would if habitable buildings were standing on them.
If you walk around the neighborhood enough, though, you will see through the neighborhood troubles to what matters the most: it is a community, home to not only to some of the most vulnerable among us, but also to a growing number of residents and organizations committed to improving and uplifting the area.
St. Laurent could easily put her enormous financial investment elsewhere, such as in one of the many communities in our country already committed to urban renewal and the well-being of its residents. If she wishes to rebuild her tragically burned buildings, let us hope that, rather than try to maliciously impede progress, those trying to block reconstruction efforts wake up and see that the phoenix has long been ready to rise from the ashes.
Maura Murphy is a Lewiston native who has lived and worked within and across a wide variety of cultures. She has returned to live in Lewiston.