Yesterday my wife and I bought a house in Portland, Maine. We’ll be moving there soon.
I thought you might be interested in how we chose Portland, after 40 years of living near Boston.
Why New England?
I moved to New England — Cambridge, Massachusetts — in 1979 at age 20 and I’ve been here ever since. That’s basically my whole adult life.
During that time, I developed an affinity for New England. As my career developed, I thought it might be advantageous to move to Silicon Valley, but when I proposed that move to my wife, she said “Well, I’ll miss you.” That was too high a price for me, and in all this time in the suburbs of Boston I’ve put down roots and made friends.
Even though I’ve lived near Boston, my connection is to the whole region. In contrast to bigger states like Pennsylvania or California, in the New England states all of us share a connection. We’re all (or almost all) Red Sox and Celtics fans. We share a respect for the winter snow and the beaches on Cape Cod and The Islands. With a due nod to Yale, we know Harvard is the center of the academic universe, and education is important to us. We’re hardy and hard workers. We’re not all liberal, but a lot of us are.
Boston (metro area population 4.6 million) is the hub that the whole region revolves around — nobody would seriously attempt to put Hartford (1.2 million) or Providence (1.6 million) in that role. We read the Boston papers, mostly the Boston Globe, and we all have friends across state lines.
At this point in our lives, my wife and I didn’t even need to talk about it. We knew we’d end up in New England somewhere, because we needed to be close enough to see our friends and family here — we have two kids now living in central Massachusetts.
Here’s a series of completely unfair thumbnail impressions of the New England states.
Connecticut lost any appeal it might have had for me based on my memories of unpleasant visits with my in-laws from my first marriage in West Hartford. My impressions of Connecticut are of a state with a bunch of rich New York suburbs at one end and an insurance-industry-dominated city in the middle. I’m sure that’s not fair, but there was no way we were going to end up in Connecticut.
Rhode Island is just what you’d expect — too small. There’s nothing there to draw me in. In any case, I believe global warming is real — it’s getting hotter, and I wasn’t going to live in “The Ocean State.” This meant that we wanted to live in a place that’s not too hot, and not all on the seacoast: Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or Maine.
Vermont is too rugged and rural. The biggest city is Burlington at just 43,000 people and there are only 600,000 people in the whole state. We considered it, but wanted to be closer to a more urban environment. Burlington is on Lake Champlain, but Vermont has no seacoast, and we wanted to be somewhere near the ocean.
New Hampshire is known for being flinty, with low taxes and a stingy government. We wanted better services than that, and didn’t want to be part of the once-every-four-years circus that is the New Hampshire presidential primary. New Hampshire also has only the tiniest sliver of seacoast.
Massachusetts still held some appeal, and we considered moving west to the Berkshires portion of the state. There were three reasons we didn’t — first, we were ready to try something different; second, we wanted to give our kids some breathing space; and third, Maine sucked us in first.
As for Maine, people from outside the state often take their impressions from Stephen King novels about small and insular towns. But Maine is the biggest state in New England by land area, and it has everything — a rocky seacoast, lots of beaches, impressive mountains, and Portland, a small but amazing city only two hours from Boston. Its politics is mixed, split between the left-leaning southeastern coast and the vast rural parts of the state.
Mainers certainly aren’t warm and friendly on the surface like lots of people in the South, but I’ve always found them to be willing to give you a fair shake if you give them a chance.
We also had some connections to the state. My wife had been coming to Maine since she was a child to visit her grandparents and uncle. And her mother lived in Freeport, Maine, for a long while in her retirement until she died a few years ago, which meant a lot of fond memories of our family visiting her up there. Maine sure isn’t Boston, but I grew to love it.
Portland, Maine, is an amazing place.
Portland is the biggest city in Maine, but only has 67,000 people. Into that small city is packed a lot of culture and diversity. The Old Port district is bustling with creative activity, including art galleries and diverse restaurants. There’s plenty of access to big retailers, but most of it is tucked away in South Portland rather than spreading through the whole city. There are lots of suburban neighborhoods, but they’re very close to the small city. It has a farmer’s market that’s been going since 1768.
It’s 15 minutes to the small but well-connected airport, and from there you can go anywhere. (It will actually be faster to jet to see my parents in the Philadelphia area than it used to be when I lived in the Boston suburbs and had to deal with the congestion getting to and through Boston’s Logan Airport.) Staring from my house in Portland, I can be in New York City two hours after I set foot out my front door.
Portland is close to a bunch of awesome things. The ocean beaches are close by, but so are beautiful mountains.We can be back to see our friends in Boston or visit the theaters and culture in Boston in a couple hours. Acadia National Park is three hours away. Quebec City and Montreal are five hours away, and on a fast ferry, Halifax is just three and half hours travel.
The neighborhood we chose is ten minutes from a beautiful nature preserve on the Presumpscot river. But it seemed like everywhere in Portland is close to a green space or a beach.
If you want to be near the coast, the beach towns south of Portland are swollen with tourists in the summer, and we didn’t want to deal with that. Portland doesn’t get that big seasonal surge. North of Portland it thins out, and while there are are cute spots like Freeport (home of L.L. Bean and a hundred retail outlets) and Brunswick (home of Bowdoin college), you begin to get too far from anything that could properly be called a city. Inland is mostly pretty rural, and while we looked at some houses there, we didn’t want to be at the end of a dirt road and far from the services and health-care of a decent-sized city.
All of this somehow doesn’t get to what really matters, though. We just feel comfortable with this new place. It’s going to be fun to explore, but it feels like home. And since I’m shading into retirement, it’s going to be our home for quite a while.