Moving to Maine…the Black Edition Updated for 2016

I originally wrote this post in 2011 back when I had all of 17 readers and most of the them family members. However, this post remains one of my most-read with requests asking for updated information. And, in light of a recent comment that was left on the blog, I decided to revisit this post. 

Lately, I have gotten a few inquiries about life in Maine as a Black person Specifically, Black folks looking to relocate who want to get the scoop before they decide to actually move here. One of the many reasons that I started this blog was because back in the dark ages of 1999 or so when I realized I might have to move to Maine, there was very little online that gave me a clear picture of what I was getting myself into. I decided to move to Maine in 2001; I had been here a few times but nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare me to what I was in for when I landed in Portland in 2002. So I consider it a service…hell almost my duty…to keep it real so if you are Black and looking to move to Maine you won’t end up like me, where my first two years here felt like I had landed on Planet What the Fuck.

Many but most certainly not all Black folks in the US live in one of two places: down south where many of us have deep roots, or major urban areas like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Philly, etc. But don’t get it twisted. We are everywhere; there is no state where you can’t find us!  But yes, by and large, Black folks in the US are found in urban areas or the south and as such there are certain expectations of what we expect. I mean if you live down south or in a big city, you know you can find yourself a church where you won’t feel like a learning moment for all the other congregants, and you can get your hair done or go to the beauty supply shop (now we all know Sally’s don’t count) where you can pick you up some discount Yaki or whatever ever you need to stay gorgeous and magical.  We are generally used to being able to go to a specific geographic location in these areas and we know we will see people who look like us. We will even be able to get some food that we might like…me, I love my soul food and being from Chicago I was used to being able to go to the Southside or Westside and get myself a plate of greens, Mac and cheese, and rib tips.

The first thing you need to know about Maine: it’s really, really white. So white you will be like oh my! Oh, this past decade we have had a huge increase in the Black population but that is primarily African immigrants. Yep, they are our peeps and while we are connected in many ways, in some ways we aren’t. After all, we do have separate cultures and all people with Black skin don’t come from a cookie cutter; we aren’t a monolith.  However, as far as actual Black Americans, African-Americans, Afro Americans…you get what I am saying…sorry, but we are far and few. So what that means practically speaking is there is no Black hood. You will not find King Drive Blvd and know that you have found your peeps. Black folks in Maine are geographically spread out, though the vast majority of us are found in the Greater Portland area. Portland is the largest city in Maine with a population of around 60,000 folks.

So now that you know not to go driving around to find the neighborhood where we live, I have some more bad news. If you need your hair done, we have two salons in Southern Maine and one Black barber and white folks like to go to the brothas and sistas too. So whereas back home you were used to calling your hair person up and her fitting you in tomorrow or the next day, that does not happen in Maine. Book two to three weeks ahead (so no sweaty sex for you if you are a relaxer-wearing sista). Brothas, start practicing home haircuts now. Back when I originally wrote this piece there was one lone Black barber in Portland and that cat was unreliable, he might be open, he might not and unlike back home wherever that maybe for you, this brotha can do that….why? Do you really want to drive 2 hours to get lined up every few weeks? Yeah, I thought so. So keeping the coif done here is hard. However Trish at Blended Beauty is a braiding goddess and I recommend her though I often get my hair done in Boston these days.

On the faith front, we do have a Black church in Portland, the historic Green Memorial AME Zion, but the last I heard it is a mixed-race congregation. It is a Black church in that historically it was always considered a Black church, and the pastor is Black, but it does have significant numbers of white congregants. Unlike most of the United States where the church hour remains the most segregated hour in America, that isn’t the case in Maine. Granted you can also find yourself in some pretty uncomfortable spaces where a Black person might never have entered the sanctuary, depending on where you go for spiritual edification.

Now you want to make yourself a home-cooked meal…y’know, some comfort food? Get ready to make a real expensive pot of greens. Seriously, when you do find collards (mustard and turnip are very hard to find) you can expect to pay a good $2.50-3.00 a bunch and you know how many bunches it takes to make a pot like ya Granny used to make cooked in fatback or salt pork. So rather than try to recreate what you used to eat, do what I have done and just start sautéing your greens with mushrooms and onions. Besides, it’s healthier! I won’t even talk about what it’s like for a sista with Mexican roots, the lack of spice around here most of the time turns me into a real sad panda bear. Good thing I like to cook, but even cooking myself there are limitations. However, while we lack soul food joints and taquerias, much less Cuban eateries, we do have a fabulous Salvadorian hole-in-the-wall place and the Salvadorian sista who runs the place is good people. I go there and feel like family. Last time I was in, hell I thought she was gonna ask us to wash the dishes.

By the way, if you plan on moving here and you do not have a life partner, unless you have no desire for companionship, you must be open to interracial dating. Let me repeat that again, you must be open to dating white or else your chances for dating are about as good as winning the Powerball. A sista friend of mine spent 10 years here before she found a man to date and that was only when she decided she better go white, otherwise what few brothas of sound body and mind are like joints at a party. They have been passed around. Believe me, while the Black community in Maine is not geographically centralized, we know each other and people talk. Now you can go to Boston, but do you really want to get a boo two states over? But I should also point out the I know very attractive white women who say dating here sucks, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Though one sista I know lucked out and found a Puerto Rican brotha who she promptly took to another state once they settled down.

When it comes to working in Maine, it can have its moments. Up until 2014, I was worked in the state of Maine but working and living here took a toll on me. For far too many of us, the workplace politics and microaggressions are very real and it’s something you need to be aware of. Within weeks of moving to Maine back in 2002, I landed a decent gig but I also had people referring to me as the colored girl. During my time in Maine, I have worked as a non-profit consultant, executive director and teacher and the snipes and disrespect at times nearly overwhelmed me. I hear from others that they too have faced similar challenges. It can be hard to be the only non-white person in a work space up here because unlike in other places, the odds are that even in other parts of your life here, you will be one of few if not the only one. To never see yourself reflected in the world around you can be a challenge and it’s something one needs to consider before calling the moving company.

People often ask if I can recommend areas to move to. I spent over ten years living in Saco, a town just 20 minutes south of Portland that honestly might as well been the moon when compared to Portland. Outside of Portland, it can be far easier to decent-sized home for far less than what you would pay in Portland but you do have to think about your quality of life. What will it feel like when you show up for PTO meetings, the grocery store, etc.? Will you be greeted and treated with respect or will you always be an outsider? I spent years trying to be active in my community. For five years, I headed up a community program for local youth and at the end of my tenure, it was clear that I was never going to be accepted. Similarly a sista friend who once lived in Kennebunk who also went the same immersion route eventually left Maine when her then eldest son started to reach the middle school years and suddenly was seen as suspect simply because he was well on his way to becoming a young Black man. My friend, having been an active and involved parent at her local PTO, eventually concluded that she was fighting a system that was simply too much for one woman to handle. They are now living well down in Southern New England and her sons are thriving.

As for me, after the breakdown of my marriage, I moved to one of the barrier islands that is technically part of Portland and its been like night and day. I sometimes wonder if my marriage could have been saved if we had left small-town Maine sooner. It’s hard to thrive in a place where just a family walk feels like you are being put under a microscope waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So why move to Maine? It’s a gorgeous four-season place, where nature is accessible and, compared to many other places such as Boston and New York, the cost of living is far lower. The pace of life is humane and it’s a place where you can feel your own humanity. Growing up in Chicago, Lake Michigan used to be the balm for my soul but now that space has been filled by the ocean. I walk to the end of my block and there sits the ocean and I can afford to still eat. Maine in many ways is a magical state and despite being known as a shit-disturber around racial issues, I ultimately live here because what Maine gives me is far more than what it takes from me. But it is an imperfect space. Then again, I am an imperfect being.  There are some good people here who are white and I can say that despite having a clown of a governor who keeps Maine in the spotlight with his bigotry, the needle is moving on race in this state, albeit slowly.

So with that welcome to Maine! (Or maybe not if I’ve scared you off…)
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Do You Miss It?

That question is posed to me on a fairly regular basis by folks asking how it is that a Black woman from Chicago came to live in a place like Maine. To be honest, I get tired of answering the question and decided to blog about my feelings on the matter. For starters, of course I miss it…hello! I was born and raised there, in many ways I will always be connected to it but at the same time it represents my past.

My original decision to come to Maine was made for me, the fact that joint custody of a child does not work well when your child is racking up as many frequent flier miles as a salesman was the deciding factor. My ex at that time was unwilling to move back to the midwest and it put me the position of needing to move closer to him. Originally we were planning on moving to Boston but I realized that even Boston was too far plus it was too damn expensive. So we figured after having spent a few days in Maine’s largest city that we would live in Portland, little did I know when we actually moved here that I would get a job in a town south of Portland that included a discounted apartment. That in a nutshell is how I can to not only live in Maine but in a small town though technically my town is a city but with a population of barely 16,000 I still call it a town.

Now when the plans were made to move here, we figured we would be here until the boy turned 18 and then we would blow this popstand. Well the boy turns 18 in a few weeks and at this point I have no plans of moving anywhere this year unless the job offer of the century turns up.

I admit the first few years here were rough, I used to joke I was like a mobster who had been put in the witness protection program and relocated to someplace far away where no one would find them. It really did feel that way at times. The first year I was so lonely, I scared myself at times. Packing up your life and relocating 1100 miles away to a place where the only folks you know are your husband, ex-husband and in-laws and son is a hard thing. I walked away from a lot to make this move happen. Professionally I gave up a lot, at the same time I announced I was leaving Chicago, my boss at my previous job in Chicago announced she was moving on and I was approached by the board of directors about applying for her position. That shelter now just completed a multi-million dollar renovation and is one of the leading agencies on homelessness in Chicago. Their current director was my former co-worker who was just under me, it’s a position that had I landed it would have been a true feather in my professional cap. As it is they are still using policies and programs that I laid the foundation for before leaving and had I stayed I can assure you I would be earning a lovely salary.

I won’t lie, in the tough moments here, I think about that. I think about how since moving here my career has taken some twists and turns and not always good ones. Instead though I focus on what I have gained, the personal growth that has happened within me would have been harder to come by if I still lived in Chicago.

I miss the hustle and bustle, I miss living in a place that never sleeps. I do miss knowing fabulous waffles and burritos are available at 3 am if I so desire. I miss my close friends and even what is left of my family that still lives in Chicago. Yet I have come to enjoy the solitude of living in a true 4 season place, I love following the natural rhythms that occur here…that ole man Winter requires that we slow down and take stock of our lives. I love that if I run outside to grab a coffee and am wearing sweats,I won’t feel bad…hell, no one will notice.

I love the sense of community that happens when you live in a small town. I love that I see the librarian and her family at the art walk. I love knowing that if on a rare bus ride to the city if I should happen to not have my bus fare that the bus driver knows me and will still let me ride…good luck trying that one on CTA!

Racially, yes its lonely at times more so since my best sista friend decided to leave the area but this is where I rely on the internet and phone to keep me connected to my sistern. I admit it would be great to have a Black hair shop nearby without having to travel so far but hey we do at least have one decent shop in Southern Maine now. Progress is happening.

I don’t miss the political correctness that permeated life in Chicago where on the surface there was far more diversity but truthfully things were pretty damn segregated. Folks come together for work but by and large folks live in areas where everyone looks like them. Granted that was not the case for the Spousal Unit and I and I do miss our old neighborhood. A place where a walk down the street, meant passing Mexican, Swedish and Lebanese eateries as well as a host of other diverse places. Where culture and entertainment did not involve seeking it out as we do in Maine but literally just stumbling into it. I miss being able to hop the bus or el to downtown Chicago and wandering the museums on free day. I miss eating Mexican seafood stew at 24 hour taquerias. Don’t even get me started on the thrifting…so much choice.

Yet I am in a different place where there are good things as well and while I have no idea how long we will be here since every time I run the numbers taking into consideration increased salaries, we would lose a certain peaceful  quality we now have were we to move back to Chicago or any large city. So for now I call Maine home and while its natural to miss what we are used to, no longer does that longing feel my every moment.

So when are you leaving?

This is a question that I get a lot these days as my son gets closer to 18. See, when we moved to Maine seven years ago, I figured I would do my time in Maine and when he turned 18, I would head back to Chicago my beloved hometown. Only problem is that life got in the way, it started off with the untimely and unexpected death of my mother and grandmother, the birth of my daughter as well as the purchase of our first home. When we bought the house it was during the real estate boom and we figured we would stay here 5 years or so…well this week marks 5 years that we have been in this house.

The truth is that I don’t know if and when I will leave Maine. Yeah, Maine can be a hard place to live as a Black person from one of the larger urban areas that many folks of color live (NYC, Philly, LA, Chicago, etc)…I mean Chicago the city has 3 million people in the city alone compared to the 1.5 million folks that live in the whole damn state of Maine.

So in the early days here I was in constant culture shock…then there is the practical stuff, like getting your hair done. Southern Maine has a whopping 2 hair salons that do Black hair and one of em is so bad that most Black folks her either travel to Boston, go natural or do their own hair. Which brings up another tidbit about living in the whitest state in the nation, even finding hair products to do your own hair can be hard especially if you want products geared towards Black hair. We have Sally’s Beauty Supply here but poor Sally’s Black section is real small…its a good thing I use natural products and have a fondness for Aveda products or else I would be shit out of luck.

Want to buy a lipstick and you aren’t white? Up until a few years ago, a trip to the makeup counter at Macy’s didn’t net a Black woman too much but we do now have a MAC counter so that helps a lot. A sista got tired of ordering online or heading to Boston for a damn tube of lipstick.

Making a nice soul food meal with collard greens? You can find collards here but they aren’t cheap, even at the farmers market in season I pay over $2 a pound for greens and you know you need a fair amount to make a pot. So I do string beans instead of greens most of the time and forget finding smoked turkey parts out here, its a good thing I still eat pork or else I would be really shit out of luck for indulging in my occasional nostalgia for southern food.

Yeah, people do still look at me like why the hell am I here especially when I am in an area that I don’t live in…or like this past weekend when I decided to eat at an establishment that looked like they had never seen a person of color step foot.

So you might wonder, why the hell aren’t you leaving anytime soon? In a nutshell, Maine has become home, Chicago will always be my hometown but Maine is my home. I have met some incredible folks here, the week after I came home from burying my mother, the Spousal Unit and I were out eating at a local eatery. The owner asked where I had been and I explained, well when I asked for the check he told me it was on the house, it was his way of offering condolences.

I could go on with random acts of kindness that I have only encountered in Maine, acts that are so powerful that it makes the occasional idiots less of an idiot. The physical beauty in Maine is amazing, its been 7 years and the ocean still mesmerizes me and the fact that its only a 10-15 min drive to the ocean is great.

The fact that small businesses here still use the honor system is also sweet, this weekend we picked strawberries at a local farm and the farmers were at lunch but rather than close the farm down they had a box sitting on a table so when you were ready to pay, you weighed your goods and put the cash in the box. Now being a big city girl, that tickles me pink…lets be honest, that would not fly back in Chi-town. Hell folks would either steal the cash or at the very least drive off without paying for the goodies. Or as my son likes to joke, the homeless folks would be in the  fields eating up the food.

Its things though like this that really make me like Maine, in many ways its a simpler place and at this stage in life I enjoy a simpler life though I do wish I had more folks of color here especially since my best Black girlfriend here in Maine decided it was a wrap after 10 years and relocated to CT.

Plus there is the practical issue that should I leave Maine, where do I go? Going back home doesn’t make much sense since I don’t have a job or home to go back to. Hell, both my brother and father live in bachelor style apartments so they couldn’t even put us up while we get settled. Then there is that pesky issue that while the Spousal Unit is self-employed it costs more to live in Chicago and I can’t take my job with me, of course the fact that I now have a house for life provided I pay the taxes and insurance are all good reasons to stay a while.

No, I am in no rush to head back but I would like to see my financial situation get to the point that we can visit more often. So guess I won’t be leaving anytime soon.