By Jonathan P. LaBonte
During Lewiston’s Bicentennial celebration in 1995, local writers and musicians created “Lewiston: A New Home”, a play that won a New England Theatre Conference award for “Best Play.” Its narrative celebrated the rich history of the city and, in part, reminisced about the glory days.
While I wasn’t able to attend the play during its first release, in 2006 the Franco-American Heritage Center rolled it out again on concert format. Attending one of those performances, all of which sold out, literally gave me goose bumps. You could feel the energy in the room as longtime residents recalled the days of working in the mills and the social life that emerged from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon Street.
There was great pride in the community among the audience and clearly in the hearts and minds of those behind the production.
Why am I writing about a play and concert, you ask? Well for one, I have been known to pop the soundtrack into my CD player at the amusement of friends. And when I do, there is one specific song I always tune to first: “Lisbon Street.”
The song describes the experience along Lisbon Street during those early years of the city’s growth. It runs through lists of stores and other shops that would be visited by people, especially on weekends on Friday nights. And it includes a phrase, referencing the two lead characters in the play, Madeleine and Donovan, that should become a growing catch phrase for Lewiston: “There’s no place I’d rather be than here with you, on Lisbon Street.”
Many in this community, and likely more from away, know the story of Lisbon Street’s decline. There is no need to tie up space for words that are better left buried, since that is not the community that exists on Lisbon Street today.
During a stop on Lisbon Street over the weekend, it hit me in a significant way that Lisbon Street is about to emerge again as a major hub for the community. And the most exciting part is that it is happening organically, led by individuals and community members that want to bring that vibrancy back, not by city staff or as part of some grant public planning scheme.
People like Eric Agren, Jules Patry, Kevin Morissette and Gabrielle Russell have a vision for Lisbon Street that led them to buy buildings and start renovations to bring back downtown housing and even more creative storefronts.
As I headed down the street, towards my destination of Mother India, storefronts that were more often empty than filled in the last 10 to 20 years now housed successful Somali-owned businesses, and people could be seen walking the streets and talking.
After dinner, moving towards the end of Lisbon Street and seeing J. Dostie Jewelers, I was quickly reminded of the upcoming launch of Art Walk Lewiston-Auburn this Friday, spearheaded by Michael Dostie, and how many of the downtown storefronts would be transformed to showcase the work of local artists.
And, of course, it was not long ago that Lewiston-Auburn hosted its first Film Festival, using many of the same venues along Lisbon Street, but also elsewhere in downtown.
There is likely still a perception in the minds of many reading this that Lisbon Street is blighted and an economic wasteland. And, unfortunately, that perception exists in the minds of many people from away. But it’s changing.
Store and restaurants representing multiple cultures from Indian to Somali to French, an Art Walk series, a growing number of galleries and a growing Film Festival—all on Lisbon Street.
The jingle is already starting to grow on me and hopefully it will grow on you. Because in the next few years, you may find yourself saying that there’s no place you’d rather be than Lisbon Street.