In her forthcoming book, Bangor Daily News writer Emily Burnham paints a picture of the Queen City half a century ago. Through more than 150 images, most of which are sourced from the BDN’s photo archive, “Downtown, Up River: Bangor in the 1970s” captures Bangor during a crucial point in its transition from its past as the lumber capital of the world to the city it would become.
Below is an excerpt from the book, which is being published by Islandport Press and will be released on Tuesday.
Don’t tell anybody, but I didn’t grow up in Bangor. I was born in 1982, and I came of age in the 1990s, in a little coastal town where there wasn’t much to do besides poke through seaweed along the beach and watch traffic scream by on Route 1.
A day trip to Bangor was a big deal. In Bangor, you could go to a movie theater and see something that hadn’t already been out for three months. You could go to Pizza Hut and play songs on the jukebox. And if you were lucky, you got to go to the Bangor Mall, maybe buy a trendy outfit and marvel at all the people milling around spending money.
It took us an hour to drive up along the winding Penobscot River before getting on the highway to reach what, in hindsight, were utterly unremarkable tan buildings filled with stuff to buy. Still, when I saw that sprawling mall building, I felt I had arrived in civilization.
My 12-year-old self never knew there was anything to Bangor other than the mall, a few motels and gas stations and an ocean of parking spaces. I never visited downtown once as a child, aside from attending the Anah Shrine Circus at the Bangor Auditorium in front of which a Paul Bunyan statue stood a silent, cartoonish watch over the river. Why would we? There wasn’t much of anything there — at least not for us kids.
As an adult, I now know that Bangor once had a thriving urban core, where immigrants from Greece, Lebanon and Russia ran businesses that thrummed with activity. I now know that Bangor International Airport was once an Air Force base, and that the Bangor House was a hotel so grand it rivaled anything found in Portland or Boston. I now know that a century ago Bangor included a red light district, where lumberjacks and sex workers and artists alike caroused and created. And that centuries earlier, Indigenous people named each bend in the river and rise in the landscape.
Bangor’s fascinating and proud history — buoyed by a nineteenth century lumber industry that sent lumber to towns and cities across the nation to help build homes — wasn’t front and center for me. Neither were its people — unpretentious and good-humored in the way most Mainers are, and yet oddly sophisticated, too.
To me, Bangor was a series of chain restaurants and chain stores, not “a star on the edge of night,” as Thoreau called it when he visited in the 1840s. In his day, Bangor was the last stop before the vast expanse of the north woods; a frontier town with the cultural trappings of a much larger city.
It’s not that Bangor’s reputation as a retail and entertainment mecca came out of nowhere. Before the Bangor Mall was built in a former cow pasture off Hogan Road, the beating economic heartbeat of the city was downtown. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century and into the 1970s, a dense crush of businesses operated along downtown streets, ranging from mom and pop shoe stores, clothiers, grocers, and candy shops to large retailers like Sears, Dakin’s Sporting Goods, W.T. Grant and the famous Freese’s Department Store — which for decades featured the only escalator in Eastern Maine.
Prior to the 1970s, shopping in downtown Bangor was a major seasonal affair for people from all over eastern, northern and central Maine. Going back to school shopping in August, Christmas shopping in December, and getting fitted for weddings, proms, and social events the rest of the year were rites of passage for people of all ages — often followed up by lunch or dinner at one of the many restaurants downtown, a drink at a bar, or perhaps even a movie or show at the Bijou, Park or Olympia theaters. For folks from far flung towns in the County or Down East, Bangor was the big city. The Hub. The Queen City.
But by the time I came of age in the 1990s, all that was gone. I was a small town kid, and I knew the mall, and the interstate highway. I knew Bangor was a city, with the same kind of magnetism that all cities have. Almost all those things that had made Bangor the Queen City — the theaters and the bars, the gangsters and woodsmen, the green grocers and tailors — had been erased, in the name of what otherwise smart people thought of as progress. That progress came in the form of the urban renewal era.
I didn’t learn the meaning of urban renewal — a word spat out with disgust by local historians – until I moved to Bangor permanently in 2007 to work full-time at the Bangor Daily News, although I’d lived in the area since 2000. At that time, downtown Bangor was in the nascent stages of a revitalization effort–still a far cry from the buzzy, growing scene there today–and I soon learned why it had to rebuild itself in the first place.
If you are from Bangor or have lived in the city long enough, you may know that starting in the late 1950s, city government, flush with cash from the federal government, embarked on a large-scale plan to clear out slums and unsafe old buildings. The stated intention was creating a cleaner, safer, neater downtown.
As in many other cities across the country, Bangor leaders listened to federal authorities, who sold the idea that car-centric urban cores with tidy, functional buildings were far preferable to the tangle of streets and alleyways and to patchwork of wooden buildings along the Kenduskeag Stream.
The main arguments — that those wooden buildings were unsafe fire hazards, and that vehicular traffic was the prime economic mover — didn’t jibe with the very nature of Bangor, always a place where the past existed alongside the present. Bangor was an old river city, but in the post-war industrial spirit of the 1950s and early 1960s, city leaders wanted it to be a city of the future. And that future city didn’t include tenements or alleyways or the vibrant mishmash of small businesses that had historically operated there.
In the decade between 1964 (when voters narrowly approved the project) and 1974 (when the federal urban renewal program was replaced by federal community development grants), Bangor’s urban renewal authority tore down or ripped up more than one hundred acres of buildings and streets. Although a handful of new buildings were built in those suddenly empty lots, many more lots just stayed empty — creating a scarred landscape and bigger eyesore than what stood there in the first place.
Gone was the huge old City Hall on Hammond Street, replaced with a parking lot. Gone was the Bijou Theater, replaced with a parking lot. Gone was the dense warren of buildings along the stream, which had housed countless businesses over the years, replaced with nondescript office buildings, or, you guessed it, parking lots.
Tenement-style houses along the Penobscot River were torn down, too, replaced with open lots or large apartment complexes. The residents of those houses were moved, in large part, out to the margins of the city. Bangor’s city of the future didn’t include poor people, despite the fact that they very much still lived there.
Mercifully, many historic buildings along Main, Columbia and Central streets were saved, as were a few along Exchange and State streets. Today, those buildings form a central part of downtown Bangor’s charm. In the aftermath of that destructive era, Bangor developed strong historic preservation ordinances — an overcorrection, initially, but one that has thankfully spared many treasured architectural elements from further destruction.
It has taken decades of effort by local people to rebuild what it took only a few years to destroy. That effort didn’t begin in earnest until the early 2000s, and continues today. The Bangor I know and love in 2023, with its thriving small business community and lively nightlife and arts scene, came to exist because of the hard work by a lot of people, who understood what had been lost, and what was possible.
And yet, despite the physical destruction in that short period of so much of what made Bangor unique never went away — its grit, its colorful history, its odd mixture of high and low, its mythical lumbering days and Indigenous heritage. Nor the most important resource any city has — its people.