It’s been 159 years since anyone stood on the river in Auburn, looked across at Lewiston and didn’t see the Cowan Mill.

Without its features, and those of its late sister the Libbey Mill, creasing the skyline, Lewiston is reclaiming its natural, pre-industrial, form. Back then, it was a city with an undeclared future. Some visionaries then saw the riverbank, watched the rushing Androscoggin, marveled at the power of the falls, and realized this was the perfect spot to build themselves a legacy. And did they ever.

Long after the last brick tumbles from the last mill in L-A, the community culture they created will remain.

This identity is rooted in people, not places. Though many see the mills as the essence of this place, many also see them as anchors, weighing down L-A. With the Cowan gone, another city emerges. From Festival Plaza, for example, the ivory-hued shape of Central Maine Medical Center and its layered garage now arches into view. These structures may not stir souls like the mill, but they do show some things that the Cowan hasn’t for many years: life, vitality and growth. 

The past 41 years weren’t good for the mill, after all. Industry breathed its last there in 1968, sparking a four-decade sojourn of plan after plan and  idea after idea being conjured for its stunning rejuvenation, all of which yielded last week to the most non-negotiable of elements: fire.

There was a value in those sentiments, because they coalesced community priorities. But at what point does clinging to the past become a hindrance?

This is not an airy question. But from a seat on the Auburn side of the Androscoggin, it is unavoidable. On Wednesday, as workmen picked through the fallen, blackened bricks of the Cowan, their counterparts in Auburn were laying fresh stone for another community-changing purpose: the Riverwalk, the paved path along the bank to use the river for purposes besides power generation.

When finished, it will be a tremendous community amenity that will further improve the character of downtown Auburn and Lewiston. But why is it being built? To stare across the Androscoggin at blighted reminders of the past, or as a platform to see a brightening future? (To us, the latter.)

Soon, the Cowan will be a cherished memory. Even days after the fire, many folks gathered to watch and chronicle its vanishing act. Instead of mourning what’s been lost, however, the focus should be upon what has been gained.

A new start. A chance to remake L-A’s future, again, from where it all began: on the banks of the river. Almost 16 decades have passed since anyone was able to see clearly past the Cowan to the city its presence and potency helped create.

It is time for a fresh perspective.

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