PORTLAND, Maine — Last week, 60 vibrant banners were officially unveiled on light poles around Congress Street. The vertical pennants all sport summery color schemes and many bear sassy slogans relating to the city’s historical past.
The banners are a collaboration between Portland Downtown, a nonprofit improvement district, and students at the Maine College of Art & Design.
But some locals say the history tidbits and factoids on the cheerful banners are wrong and a bit insulting. In fact, one banner is already coming down.
“If they’d just talked to a historian, or even a history major, they could have gotten it right,” said tour guide Leigh Rush Olson, who runs Old Port Historic Tours.
She said one of the more egregious banners which reads, in a barbed dig at Portland’s west coast namesake, “We were here first Portland Oregon. You’re not even a port.”
“I was shocked to read this as it’s not only insulting to the people of Oregon, but also insulting to the people of Maine who know this is incorrect,” Olson said.
It’s true that Portland, Oregon, was named, via a coin toss, after Portland, Maine, but both cities are named after a location in England. Recently, Portland, Maine even amended its city charter acknowledging the only people who can rightfully claim “we were here first” are the Wabanaki peoples who called the peninsula home before white settlers arrived.
Also, Olson points out, Portland, Oregon, is in fact a port on the immense Columbia River. A 2015 report stated that combined public and private marine terminals in Portland, Oregon, handled nearly 21.3 million tons of cargo that year. The same report reckoned cargo-related commerce generated about $111 million in tax revenue.
That’s the banner that’s coming down on Thursday, said Portland Downtown Executive Director Cary Tyson.
“We tried to have our tongue firmly in our cheek,” Tyson said. “But that did not come across to everyone.”
Still, other banners have also made waves for their dubious treatment of facts.
Further down Congress Street, another banner reads, “We’re so hot we burned down. Twice.”
Portland historic tour operator Dugan Murphy pointed out that while fun, it’s not correct. Portland has burned four times. Murphy runs Portland By the Foot, a walking tour focusing on the hidden histories of the city’s marginalized groups, including women and African Americans.
It’s generally accepted by local historians that the city burned down twice during the French and Indian Wars, in 1676 and 1690, and also in 1775 when bombarded by the British warship Canceaux.
“Of course we burned it down ourselves in 1866,” said Portland historian and educator Herb Adams, referring to the fireworks-sparked blaze which took out much of the downtown.
Because of its frequent burnings, the city adopted the Latin motto “Resurgam” meaning “I rise” as in a phoenix from ashes.
A related banner, also on Congress Street, reads, “We rebelled before Boston made it cool.”
Historically speaking, this claim is also dubious.
The tussle with the Canceaux took place in 1775 while Boston’s famous Tea Party happened in 1773.
Another Portland Downtown banner is less historic in nature but also wrong. It reads, “Without us, no lobster for you. Reel that in.”
Last year, Portland was fifth on the list of Maine’s most valuable lobster ports. According to government figures, city lobstermen caught $18.26 million worth of the crustaceans. Number one on the list was Stonington at a whopping $44.69 million.
Since 2018, Portland hasn’t ranked above third place.
Tyson said it’s unfortunate that people have taken offense to the banners, which were supposed to be a bit of fun.
When asked about the other banners, Adams shrugged his shoulders.
“Just coming out of COVID, whatever gets people out and makes them feel good about their city,” he said. “Though it would be nice if they were accurate.”