On July 29, the Sun Journal ran a front page article showcasing new technology being used locally to mitigate bedbugs. This same article finally reported on the issue of bedbugs in Lewiston, an issue that has been the punchline of too many jokes, too quietly discussed, but does indeed affect the residents of this town.

In a subsequent letter to the editor on Aug. 12, the Sun Journal came under fire for reporting on bedbugs, and the rhetoric quickly turned to Kennedy Park and downtown blight. Yet, these are the topics that steer the life of residents of the downtown area.

These topics have been raised before in the city’s history, when the Heritage Initiative was proposed by members of the city government. The proposal consisted of a four-lane boulevard that would increase traffic flow and have “benefits” of urban renewal by demolition, solving both poverty and blight in the downtown.

This proposal was created without concern for the 850 homes that would be demolished, nor input from the over 1,000 residents who would be displaced.

Members of the community joined together, taking a previously invisible population and forming The Visible Community. Formed in 2004, The Visible Community is a community group focused on assisting residents to find their voice and speak to their government about their vision for the downtown.

After The Visible Community succeeded and defeated the road, it moved onto broader projects. The group has since created the People’s Downtown Master Plan, convinced the city to replace Maple Street Park, expanded the bus system to have longer hours including Saturday service and created the Neighborhood Housing League.

The Neighborhood Housing League started by surveying downtown residents and compiling a telling database of issues that need attention. Like the front page article and the letter to the editor, it became apparent that many residents are dealing with housing issues including bedbugs, lead, delayed apartment repairs, and strained landlord relationships.

With these issues now clearly identified, the Neighborhood Housing League has begun the process of addressing them. Not issue by issue but, instead, all-encompassing. The goals of the League are guided by an overall vision of a downtown residential area that offers safe housing: free of toxic lead, free of pests, and that boasts well-maintained buildings filled with neighbors who, along with their landlords, define a diverse, close-knit community. Currently, there is an interest at both the city and federal levels of government to address, using a long-term vision, solutions to the problem of safe and affordable housing in the downtown.

The Neighborhood Housing League will host a series of tenant meetings to join downtown residents together, so that they may advocate for themselves in the identified issue areas, and participate in the visioning process.

In addition to the tenant meetings, upcoming projects include forming a landlord coalition of responsible landlords and an eight-part Good Tenant Certification course. These pieces, built with the residents of the downtown, have the distinct opportunity to shape the vision and create a new Lewiston Downtown. It will also allow residents to engage in the long-term visioning process and offer people solutions to the problems of safe and affordable housing.

The city of Lewiston, as a whole, is at a crossroads. Lewiston’s history is ripe with years of industry and manufacturing prosperity, population fluxes, and economic ebbs and flows. It is clear to all that Lewiston is not at its pinnacle. Many remarks have been made and printed about the city’s most recent decades, but it should also be clear that Lewiston is rebuilding, and refocusing.

Recent additions to the area, in the form of enhanced academic opportunities, high-end living spaces, fine dining, and the expansion of local arts and entertainment, all showcase the rejuvenation of this All-America City. This crossroads presents an opportunity for the city to collaborate with its many stakeholders: business owners, employers, immigrants, investors and, most importantly, residents.

Members of The Visible Community and the Neighborhood Housing League are joining these stakeholders together so that our community’s goals may be realized. After all, it is the residents who will live, work and pay taxes in the downtown, and who have the most to gain, or lose, in future plans.

Shanna Rogers is resident coordinator of the Neighborhood Housing League in Lewiston.

To join in or learn more, attend a Visible Community meeting at the B Street Community Center, Tuesdays, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

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