Kittery's Secret Identity
Saturday at the Crooked Lane Café in Kittery, and the regulars drift in for the day's sweet specials: blueberry and cranberry muffins, sour cream cinnamon walnut coffee cake, buttermilk and cinnamon chip scones, and the tasty house blend of Black and Tan.
Lucinda Williams wails in the background as ten people, twenty- to seventy-something, hunch at the counter or lounge at square tables. It is mid-morning: late enough that the by-the-clock regular who everyone knows only as Kurt has been in for the usual — two scones, two medium Dark Roasts — for himself and the wife; too early for the group of six or seven women who each week settle cheerfully in the corner.Owner Mark Miller has sought to craft "a neighborhood place" here, with its notices from area nonprofits; its walls boasting local art (this month, photos); its mood of "a friendly nod type of thing, where everyone wanders in sooner or later"; even its garrulous employees: "I try to hire people who can talk to a donut." When Miller began the café a few years ago, he looked around at a village in decline and decided it needed "a focal point, a gathering place, where people could find some commonality."
By all accounts, he has succeeded. The café stays busy with locals who often lace their coffee with debate: Red Sox vs. Yankees, Boston vs. Maine drivers, pros and cons of the latest condo project or community center. In a town where, notes Miller, "people have their opinion, and stick to it," the talk remains civil, and wide-ranging. "It's a good, healthy mix," he says. "A happy mix."
In Kittery, this is no mean feat. A tangled paradox of a place, Kittery these days is caught in a complex and sometimes contentious identity crisis. The self-proclaimed "Gateway to Maine," it is the first town that out-of-state visitors hit, yet most are funneled right by, or see it as only a bridge to someplace else. Its mile-long extravaganza of outlet stores — dubbed "America's Maine Street for Shopping" and probably the most common "someplace else" — draws throngs of tourists to such consumer magnets as the Kittery Trading Post, Crate & Barrel, and J. Jill. But few locals make it out to the strip, instead maintaining an uneasy love/hate relationship with it.
It is home to America's oldest naval shipyard, yet that so-called "gold standard" shipyard bears the name of another town in another state: a sleek, brick and glass, domineering neighbor, steps away, that locals here view with either envy or distaste, depending on who you talk to.
It is Maine's oldest town, but is inexorably becoming a place of new business and new people. It is tiny, but encompasses a patchwork of disparate communities. It is a cozy place of fierce battles among residents who sometimes come together to fight an external evil — a casino, a mall, a shipyard closing — and sometimes just fight each other. It is, most recently, the unlikely birthplace of scandal.
Above all, Kittery is a town in flux, with change on all sides. A years-long effort to reclaim downtown's tiny Foreside Zone has brought several new small businesses, the Crooked Lane Café key among them. A dozen more businesses, most offering food from pasta to produce, have sprung up beyond downtown. And increasingly, zoning and other decisions are made by activist newcomers determined to preserve the town the way it once was, even though most weren't there when it was like that.
Some longtime residents blame the newcomers for skyrocketing real estate prices and other unwelcome changes, and some members of each group indulge in off-the-record namecalling: indigenous and unthinking on one side, carpetbaggers on the other. Despite the rifts, though, most people seem to recognize a hard reality: Kittery is changing, change is hard but inevitable, and they better get on with it.
"As we go forward, we have to step gingerly," says Jonathan Carter, who took over as town manager in March 2005. "The trick is to get everyone to walk down the road together."
Settled at the mouth of the Piscataqua River in 1623 and incorporated in 1647, Kittery calls itself the oldest town in Maine and summarily dismisses periodic claims by York to that title. Its original land grant was made by King Charles of England to Sir Ferdinand Gorges, but its early history was dominated by the first of three William Pepperrells, a wealthy landholder whose name graces today's Pepperell Cove. The cove, flanked by Forts Foster and McClary, marks the south shore of Kittery Point. Site of some of Maine's oldest and grandest houses, it is separated from downtown by Spruce Creek, which eventually flows with the Piscataqua into the Atlantic.
But Kittery is known primarily as the home of America's oldest continuously operated shipyard. It was founded in 1800 when a brand-new U.S. Department of the Navy bought Dennett's Island; it later combined five more islands, including Seavey, into what has long been called the Portsmouth yard — unless, that is, you live in Kittery, where it is simply "the yard."
The yard built and launched its share of historic ships: early warships such as the Congress and Washington, the Civil War's Kearsage, the world's first aircraft carrier, the Langley. In 1905, it hosted the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the Russo-Japanese War.
In the yard's heyday, more than 20,000 workers broke world records in construction and submarine repair during World War II. Many of the workers were housed in Kittery's Admiralty Village, a marvel of 600 assembly-line modular units, built in tidy rows within a year, that people here call "the village."
Today, the yard's sprawling metalscape, soaring blue and yellow cranes, and massive U.S. Navy water tank dominate Kittery visually, as well as economically. The yard's primary mission is to overhaul, repair, and refuel Los Angeles class nuclear submarines, having emerged victorious last August from its latest closure battle thanks to "Save our Shipyard" activists, community members, and Maine and New Hampshire congressional delegations, who successfully fought yet again to keep the yard open. Over time, the workforce has shrunk to 4,800, about evenly split between Maine and New Hampshire residents, with almost 400 hailing from Kittery. Though the federal yard pays no local taxes, it is the town's largest employer. Each year, it also pays Kittery about $1 million for water, $500,000 for sewers, and more than $200,000 for off-base housing. Of the "mini-city" in their midst, Town Manager Carter says, "the navy yard is Kittery."
And to a large extent, he says, so is Portsmouth. The interconnectedness of Kittery's 9,543 citizens and Portsmouth's 20,784, he says, renders moot the slender strip of water between them. "In a de facto world," he says, "we are one."
For years, Carter says, people in Kittery have gone south for everything: for work, for shopping, either in Portsmouth or at Newington's mall or Wal-Mart, or even for lunch, an easy stroll across the battered green metal of Memorial Bridge. They read and are written about by Portsmouth's two newspapers, and their shipyard gets ongoing support and advocacy from Portsmouth legislators — in contrast, Carter argues, to Maine lawmakers who "only pay attention when there's a crisis."
But because this is Kittery, the sense of kinship to Portsmouth is changing and becoming less than unanimous. For many old-timers, Portsmouth has always been and remains what one calls "the place to go if you want to do anything." But for others, many of them newcomers, today's Portsmouth has become what they don't want Kittery to be: "a mini-Boston," "a place to be seen," a "high-end, cookie-cutter" enclave of condos and Gap stores that has been "ceded to the yuppies."
Sarah Bailey, manager of Seaview Lobster Company, levels the common if less than precise complaint that Portsmouth is "too chichi." Kittery, in contrast, is "regular people — it has more of a sense of the real."
Nowhere is that sense of down-home community more evident than in Kittery's tiny, densely populated Foreside, with Wallingford Square, harbor views, and helpful signs pointing to the so-called "downtown shopping loop" — a loop, it must be said, so diminutive that if you blink twice, you'll miss it.
For years, says Ray Smith, chair of the Kittery Foreside Committee, a consensus developed downtown that "we were beginning to lose a sense of our own history." Now sixty-three, Smith grew up here. He worked at the shipyard and then across the river in Newington. He remembers a village with one policeman, three grocery stores, several barber shops, and, out toward Route 1, the Sparkle Spot, a combination convenience store and car wash.
By the 1990s, he says, it was all "shaved off to nothing," with empty storefronts and dwindling local interest. Over time, the downtown had lost all its anchors: a new town hall was built a mile away near the traffic circle, the post office moved outside the village, the courthouse moved to York, and "there was nothing to draw people in," Smith recalls.
The Foreside Committee was formed in 1995 and disbanded ten years later. Its task was to revitalize downtown, to "bring it back to the life it had a few decades ago," Smith says. Unlike the outlets — the town's second-largest employer and the source of 10 percent of its taxes, but viewed by many as a traffic-plagued, alien presence best avoided — the downtown inspired loyalty. "Those of us who knew what it was," says Smith, "didn't want to lose it."
Committee members also wanted to stave off the chain stores, high rises, and condos they were seeing go up all around them. "We'd had our fill of it," Smith says. "Almost all of us wanted to see that kind of stuff stay in the malls."
The committee started slowly, rebuilding streets and adding trees, sidewalks, and street lights to create a walking area. They crafted a comprehensive plan for Foreside with strict zoning rules aimed at curbing the growing tendency of developers to tear down historic old buildings and put up glitzy new ones. They upped the required size of lots and limited the height and footprint of new buildings. Later, they worked to bring in new small businesses: art galleries, antique stores, eating places.
Smith says the committee, split about evenly between newcomers and natives, worked smoothly together. No battles. They got compliments wherever they went in town. Smith speculates that the equanimity stemmed partly from their modest expenditures — about $300,000 — and partly from a shared sense of purpose.
"People wanted to see the downtown saved," he says. "It represented the center of what the whole town was."
Today, the Foreside boasts an artists' co-op, a performance space, a stationery store, and a pub. There is Indian and Mexican food, a white-tablecloth restaurant, and the Visage Facial Spa, which advises, "Too much self-denial will make you cranky."
To Sarah Brown, the committee has done "a fabulous job" on "our beautiful little downtown." A thirty-five-year-old newcomer to the Foreside who has served on both the town council and zoning board, Brown grew up in Portsmouth; her father worked as a rigger at the shipyard. After years away, she returned with her carpenter husband to raise their three kids in Kittery. When she began serving on the town council a few years ago, she says, she encountered an old boy network that was "very confrontational. People were angry. They hated me as an opinionated young woman, an outsider, a yuppie."
Today, she calls those conflicts growing pains that eased once people got to know each other. Still, she says there remains a real divide.
"There's that old Yankee mentality that what was good enough for us is good enough for you," she says. "But we're a growing town with a new vision, and what might have been fine twenty years ago doesn't serve the community we have now."
Increasingly, that community is expanding to the State Road area west of Foreside, where a host of new businesses have sprouted: Terra Cotta Pasta, Beach Pea Baking, Rising Tide Natural Foods, Polarity Therapy.
Kevin Cambridge, owner of Terra Cotta, came here four years ago after fifteen years of cooking and catering in Dover and Portsmouth, choosing Kittery because it is "close-knit, comfortable, not spit-shined and polished." He points to the new growth plus the presence of longtime concerns like Carl's Meat Market and Golden Harvest Produce to prove that, whatever the town's clashes or quarrels, "we all have to eat." Like many relative newcomers, Cambridge seems a bit perplexed by the sometimes hostile response to new people and businesses that he says have enhanced the town and the quality of life. He notes that when real estate agents show potential buyers the community they're going to be living in, "they don't bring them to the strip malls, they bring them here."
Kittery's very smallness — eighteen square miles, compared, say, to Wells' sixty-two — would seem to lend itself to harmony. Instead, the fierce shipyard battle was only one of many in recent years: a ferocious, successful fight in 2003 to keep out a proposed casino; another against an outlet expansion; opposition to a senior-housing complex named Meeting House Village; a $2.6-million fire station; subdivisions being carved out of old Kittery Point estates; and endless debate about Foreside zoning.
There have been scandals as well. The longtime Danish Health Club was busted as a brothel, its manager and owners pleading guilty to federal prostitution-related and money-laundering charges. Former Town Council Chairman Gary Reiner was found guilty of the same charges at a trial that featured lurid testimony. And in February, Town Councilor Mark Sousa pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm after shooting at a motorcycle; the council voted to oust Sousa for a crime of "moral turpitude," and he is now in prison.
Most recently, Kittery residents have waged war over a new community center in Admiralty Village. After twelve years of work by volunteers, the project was approved by voters in November 2005 and was about to break ground when it suddenly hit opposition by a newly minted Village Preservation Committee, citing traffic and environmental concerns. Supporters turned around and formed Save Our Community Center, and the project survived another town vote in January. Opponents say they will continue to fight against the center. Let the games begin.
Town Manager Carter seems to take such divisive goings-on in stride, perhaps thanks to the thirty years he has worked in Maine town government, most recently as Wells' town manager, and the eighteen years he has lived in Kittery Point. He notes mildly only that "it is hard to get plurality in Kittery."
Still, Carter concedes that between the internal battles and what some perceive as the overwhelming presence of both the town and the yard named Portsmouth, "our identity is always in question." But while the community remains as multifaceted as ever, Kittery's diverse parts seem to be moving toward a collective acceptance of change as inevitable, and maybe even good.
Milton Hall, 68, is the longtime chairman of Kittery's Port Authority. As a kid, he remembers going downtown to the little grocery store known as "the Greek's," and visiting what he and his friends called the "cardboard village" that was Admiralty.
Today, he grumbles a lot. About "rich people buying Kittery out." About "the old people kinda giving up trying to run it." About downtown's new one-way streets. About the newly prosperous State Road area: "I don't even go near those places." Still, he says, the changes mark a sort of natural progression. And the effort to save downtown was worthwhile, he allows, "because once things are gone, they don't come back." In fact, he goes downtown now to get his hair cut. Then, he stops in at the Crooked Lane Café.
"You can sit right there and watch the cars go by and wave to the people you know," he says. "It's a good little place."