Two programs aim to revive the sense of community to the often-troubled neighborhood.
Westbrook resident John Bernier grew up in a small house on King Street in the Frenchtown neighborhood of Westbrook, a historic network of residential streets lined up between two large mills and the Presumpscot River.
He has fond memories of the neighborhood.
“That was a corner store, and that was a corner store,” he said, pointing to nearby intersections. “There was a pool hall, two barber shops – it was a community.”
Just recently, AJ’s Market, the only remaining corner store on Brown Street, also closed.
Now, two programs launched within the last year are aiming to return the sense of community to the neighborhood – something Bernier and others say has been lost through the years as problems with crime and substance abuse increased.
But, Bernier and those involved in the programs say there is an energy in the neighborhood waiting to be untapped.
“People want to help each other, they want to get out to events,” said Megan Perry, who is the coordinator of the Frenchtown community policing office at 192 Brown St., which opened last year.
A block away, the newest neighborhood program will establish a “hub” in a city-owned building at 13 Reserve St., a place where residents can host community events and share resources. It’s meant to function as a satellite community center.
Deb Dunlap, a regional director for Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, a community initiative operated by the Opportunity Alliance, said the needs of the neighborhood were clear.
She said Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, which also runs programs in Portland, South Portland, Biddeford, Lewiston and Bangor, chooses specific neighborhoods for its community hub programs.
“We look at community data that shows us where families are experiencing the highest levels of stress,” she said. “That’s why we’re here, because there are a lot of stressors for families.”
She said that while those “stressors” include drug activity, mental-health issues and poverty, the neighborhood-building program is meant as a support tool, not as a way to point fingers. Some of the biggest issues faced by residents in the area are appropriate housing and food insecurity.
The aging Reserve Street building, with peeling red paint, is set to receive significant upgrades, due in large part to a $38,900 gift from the Cornelia Warren Community Association, and additional funds from Eastpoint Christian Church, which partners directly with Community Partnerships for Protecting Children. The building used to house a Headstart program, and according to Bernier, was also a polling location.
The Frenchtown community policing office opened last fall, and since that time, coordinator Perry says, it’s been well-utilized by neighbors. On her second day on the job in October, the department planned for 50 people for a neighborhood block party just outside the office. Some 200 showed up. Another is planned for Aug. 2 this year.
The office also hosts weekly events, such as a reading hour for children, which has been well attended. A recent community cleanup day in the city drew more than 50 people in the neighborhood outdoors to help.
On Tuesday, a six-week cooking class began at the office, with guest chef James Tranchemontagne of the Frog & Turtle. Participants were trying some homemade pizza, and following each class, they’ll bring home a free recipe book and groceries courtesy of Hannaford.
Laura Reynolds, a resident of the neighborhood, said she’s excited for the opportunities that both the community policing office and the new hub can bring. She’s planning to start a summer science class to be hosted at one of the locations. Referring to the cooking class, she said, “I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.”
Since she was hired in 2014, Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts has opted for a community-based form of policing, which has included proactive initiatives such as the Community Approach to Stopping Heroin and events like a school safety forum at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.
Westbrook Police Capt. Sean Lally said the extra presence of the community policing office doesn’t mean the department wasn’t serving the neighborhood before.
“We’ve always been bringing services to this neighborhood,” he said. “But we’ve always wanted to get out here with a satellite office and partner with neighbors to solve problems in the neighborhood.”
This summer will mark the return of two patrol officers on bicycles, who will cover the entire downtown district.
Perry said the majority of residents who come to her with issues are desperate – some facing eviction or unsure where their next meal is coming from.
“The role of this office is to make things more accessible from all angles,” she said.
She said some residents who come to her feel cut off from the rest of the city and its resources, with the Presumpscot River buffering the neighborhood from downtown and the Westbrook Public Safety building on Main Street.
“Megan has a huge level of initiative and compassion,” said Roberts on Wednesday, adding that the events hosted by the office, and at the hub once it’s open, allow neighbors to meet and establish more trust. “I have high expectations for that office in the next year.”
Roberts said that while she hasn’t pooled call statistics for the neighborhood lately, she knows calls for service are down. She said the community policing office is eliminating some non-crime calls that the department would normally get, and is also seeing more residents come forward with concerns – a sign that more trust has been built between residents and the department.
‘A town within a town’
Brown Street, from Bridge Street to High Street, came to be known as Frenchtown due to the influx of French-speaking families attracted by mill jobs in the mid to late 19th century.
According to a Westbrook Historical Society document, during the Civil War the Westbrook Manufacturing Co. received a tremendous amount of business from the U.S. government, resulting in the need for laborers and, attracted by the good wages, Canadian workers came, mostly from Quebec.
“The new immigrants tended to settle near their countrymen and so they formed their own French-speaking community along Brown Street,” it reads. “Grocery stores, variety or general stores, a barber shop and a beauty shop, a furniture store, a shoe shop and a doctor’s office, all owned by local Frenchmen, sprang up in the neighborhood. French was the predominant language spoken here and French Town became a vital and thriving area.”
Throughout the decades, as the mills closed or downsized, the neighborhood has seen a variety of demographic shifts. Police have routinely marked the neighborhood as the city’s highest in calls for service.
However, Brown Street resident Peter Burke, who is also a member of the city’s Recreation & Conservation Commission, said this week that there is a positive buzz in the neighborhood, with new families moving in and buildings being renovated.
Burke has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and has two young boys. He said he’s noticed changes while waiting at the bus stop with his son.
“A dramatic change we’ve noticed just in the last year is that our bus stop has exploded with new families,” he said.
Two years ago, he said, there were about two to four children at the stop. Now, there are about 20, plus parents.
“And these kids are from all over the world. It has become truly multicultural, reflecting the changes to the neighborhood and Westbrook in general,” he said. “It’s interesting to live in a place called Frenchtown that has all of this cultural history that at this point has now evolved into something entirely different.”
Brittney Sampson, who will be the coordinator of the community hub on Reserve Street, was greeting the immediate neighbors of the city-owned building last week, and it was apparent that they already knew her. A toddler playing with sidewalk chalk said hello as she walked by, as did a group of children standing by St. Anthony’s Church.
“There’s tremendous strength in this neighborhood,” she said. “We have to harness the resources of the folks here.”
She expects work to begin on the hub in about two weeks.
A collective effort
Part of the goal of Community Partnerships for Protecting Children is to use networking to pool resources for its communities. The group is described as a collective effort among parents, the Department of Health and Human Services, schools, police, faith communities and more.
Bernier pointed out three people walking down the street and compared it to when he was growing up. He said that while people may be stressed, they feel safe.
“That’s what I remember – people comfortably on the street,” he said.
Bernier, who is a longtime member of the Cornelia Warren Community Association, walked through the Reserve Street building with Sampson last week, and it’s apparent how much work needs to be accomplished. A kitchen will be installed in the basement, a large open room will be revamped upstairs and an ample back yard will allow for outdoor activities.
Sampson said she wants the hub to be a place where residents “can show their strengths.”
So far, she said, there are 11 programs planned for this summer. While Sampson will act as coordinator for the hub, they’d eventually like residents to take the lead in much of the hub’s activity.
Dunlap said many of the families that are most stressed in the neighborhood are often isolated, and the community programming is focused on providing a place for people to make connections and help one another.
“It’s not a service, it’s something fun that can also bring people across the river,” added Perry.
Allen Moore, who owns Live at 212 (formerly Skybox Bar & Grill) on Brown Street, said the neighborhood has seen setbacks in recent years, but he’s hopeful for the future. He recently rebranded his business, which is the only neighborhood entertainment option, to include stand-up comedy and more live music. The establishment had been a prior source of contention among city officials due to a multitude of police calls for noise and fighting complaints.
“After three years of losing ground, the neighborhood appears once again to be heading in the right direction,” he said Tuesday. “As long as the community keeps a watchful eye and open communication, things should be good.”
Sampson currently works 20 hours a week in her role to establish the hub, but she seems to have a constant presence in the neighborhood. Bernier said he’s counting on Sampson, and the hub project, to further impact the community.
While walking to the Reserve Street building last week, Sampson picked up a candy bar wrapper lying in the middle of the street and put it in her bag. She didn’t say a word.