Tony Luci has watched abandoned buildings proliferate across Howland and class sizes shrink. So he decided to do something about it.
After reading an online post about Howland being an ugly town, Tony Luci launched an online fundraiser. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

It hurt Tony Luci’s heart to read it.

Someone forwarded him a post on an obscure website about the “ugliest cities in each state.” Skimming through the story, he found that Howland — halfway between Bangor and Millinocket where the Piscataquis and Penobscot rivers meet — was deemed the ugliest one in Maine by the article’s anonymous author.

“How can you say that so easily? I doubt the person who wrote it had ever even been to Howland,” said Luci, who moved to Howland in 2013 from his home state of Minnesota, lured to the area by the opportunities to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors. “I’ve been all over this country, and I chose to live here. How do you judge one town against the other?”

Luci, who has watched abandoned buildings proliferate and graduation numbers at Penobscot Valley High School shrink over the past decade, decided to do something about it.

Last month, he launched an online fundraiser, hoping to raise money in order to build sidewalks, improve public park and boat launch facilities, and generally “un-ugly” the town.

The goal is $3 million, though Luci knows it is a major longshot.

“I know we’re not going to raise all that money, but I wanted to do something kind of big, that would draw attention to the fact that people say these kinds of things about our town,” he said. “We need help, for sure, but more importantly we need to take a little more pride in our town.”

Across Maine, there are communities that have developed unpleasant reputations: that they are dirty, ugly or unsafe. They are compared to an armpit or a pile of trash. If you’re from here, you probably know what towns people are referring to.

“People call us the Dirty Lew. People call us all sorts of names,” said Cara Courchesne, a communications specialist from Lewiston. “People have a lack of imagination when it comes to these sorts of things. It’s easy to just say something really mean and hurtful and say it’s a joke. But it helps perpetuate really destructive beliefs.”

Rumford is one of those Maine towns, often current or former mill towns, with poor reputations. For those from those communities, those imposed reputations can shape how they think and feel about their hometowns. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Aimee Thibodeau, who grew up in Rumford and is now interim director of Bangor International Airport, almost can’t remember a time when people didn’t make fun of her hometown and its people.

“Whenever our sports teams would beat another town that had more money, the other team would always say they only lost because our air was so dirty they couldn’t breathe,” Thibodeau said. “Things like that kind of get into your brain. They make you feel like you are less than.”

Search through Facebook comments or Reddit posts, and you’ll find numerous examples of people railing against towns for things like their perceived high rates of crime and homelessness, their high numbers of people addicted to and selling drugs, and their run-down buildings. Others just repeat longtime nicknames, like the “Dirty Lew,” “Disgusta” for the state capital or the mocking “SkowVegas” for Skowhegan.

Almost everybody does it, whether or not they want to admit it. Even if people don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, the longer those beliefs are upheld, the stronger the sentiment gets, so much so that even some that live in those towns begin to believe in their own unworthiness. What others say and how things look can affect how people feel about the place they live in.

“It becomes this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Ian Houseal, Sanford’s community development director. “If people say it enough, you start to believe it yourself, and it just builds on itself after that.”

Beyond the psychological implications, those reputations also can translate into decisions made by both private investors and government entities.

“When a town is perceived as not a good place and isn’t worth it, what you are saying is that the people aren’t worth it,” Courchesne said. “It makes it so opportunities simply aren’t there, because of that perception. What people think about a place can translate into real-world decisions about whether or not to invest in a community.”

One thing nearly all of these places have in common is that they were once mill towns, economically dominated by companies — generally from out of state — making paper and textile products. When mills began closing across Maine starting in the 1950s, the economic fallout left cities and towns struggling to replace lost jobs and maintain what were once thriving communities. Few had major success. People began to struggle to make ends meet, and rates of drug and alcohol abuse began to grow.

Most Mainers are familiar with Lewiston’s reputation as “The Dirty Lew,” and a reputation like that can mean opportunities disappear for those living there. Those reputations overlooks those who call the city home like Bisharo Abdi (left) who spins a jump rope for Nadia Adam as others line up for a turn at the at Tree Street Youth, and those who recreate (top right) along the Androscoggin River. Meanwhile, the city, like all others, is undergoing change, with some older buildings, like this one at the corner of Bartlett and Walnut streets (bottom right), make way for newer ones. Others defy the reputation of The Dirty Lew by cleaning up the city like Travis Johnson and volunteers from Take Two (bottom). Credit: Russ Dillingham, Daryn Slover and Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

There are also elements of racial and ethnic tension that play into it. Thousands of Somali and other African immigrants have come to the Lewiston area since 2000, bringing a new vibrancy and helping to grow the school-age population in contrast to almost everywhere else in Maine. There has been some resistance, including a mayor’s 2002 letter urging slower immigration.

Going even further back, first- and second-generation immigrants from French-speaking Canada, Italy and Ireland made up large percentages of the workforce in those mill towns. Mainers directed slurs and even physical violence toward French-speakers, and outlawed the language in schools. That sort of discrimination may have diminished over the decades, but the lingering psychological impact remains.

The end result is a swath of communities that struggle to overcome systemic poverty, addiction, infrastructure problems and lack of economic opportunity — be they Maine’s second- and seventh-largest cities, like Lewiston and Sanford, or smaller towns like Mexico, East Millinocket and Howland.

But people still live there. Despite the jabs and the challenges, people love their towns and the lessons they teach them about resiliency, kindness and staying hopeful against all odds. 

“My parents made every effort to make sure I had a great education, but growing up, it seemed like the only opportunities I had were to work at the mill or be a teacher,” Thibodeau said. “As I got older, I realized that not only was that not the case, but that I was tough enough to go for it. And that’s definitely because I grew up in a place like Rumford.”

Courchesne said some people don’t bother to look past the tough stuff. If they did, they would see a much different city.

“I see a community of people that care about each other, and commit every day to making this a better place to live,” Courchesne said. “I love Lewiston. I chose to move back here. And I’m proud of it.”

Like other towns and cities in Maine, big mills (left) once dominated in Sanford. And like other Maine communities, Sanford is clearing a new path for itself and those who live there. Credit: CBS 13 and Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Houseal moved to Sanford in 2016 to work for the city, after years working for Portland and Lewiston. In the nearly seven years since, he’s worked hard to help shepherd numerous initiatives to improve Sanford, which for decades suffered from a poorly maintained housing stock and rising poverty levels after the city’s mills closed for good in the 1980s.

Though the process is ongoing, Houseal said he’s seen a shift toward forward progress in the community in more recent years, exemplified by the citywide vote last fall to fund the demolition of the 136-foot smokestack from the former International Woolen Mill, a towering symbol of the past taken down in April.

“I think that’s the kind of thing that symbolizes that a town is ready to move forward, and to shed the old wounds and scars,” Houseal said.

Back in Howland, Luci doesn’t expect the town to change overnight. Nor does he expect to see a sudden influx in population or investment.

He just wants people to stop calling his town ugly, and for Howland residents to take a little more pride in where they live.

“Everybody deserves to feel good about where they live,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be perfect. It’s just supposed to be home.”

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Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.