Portland, ME: Meeting Place

Man working spray paining a large mural
Photo by Marty Pottenger

How can neighborhood groups harness the power of art to help fulfill their mission?

From her position as an employee of the City of Portland, artist Marty Pottenger noticed that many public meetings were either poorly attended or did not seem to reflect the diversity of people that lived in each area. From those observations, the idea of Meeting Place was born. This project partnered with four neighborhood associations and a team of multidisciplinary artists to encourage new connections and relationships with residents who reflected the diversity within their own communities and to create artwork(s) that celebrate the people and places that make up each area.


Portland, Maine, is a place of tourism, cold winters, and a surprising amount of ethnic and racial diversity. Geographically unique, the city itself is made up of an urban coastal peninsula along with numerous small islands. Well known to summer tourists who visit the city’s Old Port, Portland has gone through a significant rebirth over the last decade. Having a 40% vacancy rate twenty years ago, the city now has a population of over 66,000 and hosts a large immigrant population and a rich tapestry of 19 neighborhoods. The Meeting Place project focused on four neighborhoods on the Peninsula, the center of the city, each of which is known for a significant issue – location of the city’s social service agencies (Bayside), location of city’s wealthiest residents (West End), primary location for the city’s public housing, the state's most diverse neighborhood according to the Census (East Bayside), and the location of a major highway project that destroyed a once vibrant neighborhood (Libbytown).


With settlers dating back to the early 1600s, Portland has a long and rich history as a maritime center. Though historically the area was predominantly Anglo-Saxon, the city has recently undergone significant demographic shifts. After its designation as a Refugee Resettlement community in the 1980s, Portland went from a population that was 97% White in 1990 to 85% today, with a rich mix of immigrants coming from Cambodia, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Project manger Marty Pottenger noticed that many of the new immigrants, along with many long time residents, were not attending neighborhood meetings where decisions were often made about important planning issues. Even those neighborhoods with strong civic associations rarely focused on the larger social and political challenges--like affordable housing, transportation, and job creation--which impacted the daily lives of residents.


At the heart of Meeting Place was the challenge to address this lack of diversity within neighborhood leadership, the lack of involvement in city decision-making processes at the neighborhood level, and the chance for residents to envision opportunities that would enhance their lives, strengthen their ties with each other, and increase community resiliency. From her position of working directly with City of Portland staff, Pottenger saw neighborhood organizations as one of the most significant untapped assets available to cities as they struggle to face increasing challenges amidst diminishing resources. She also knew that Portland’s neighborhood associations were small, often consisting of fewer than 10 active members and containing very few or no people of color, tenants, or young adults. In addition, they were also often organized to react to difficult issues, rather than to proactively initiate projects that add value and increase community engagement.


The central vision for Meeting Place came from Pottenger’s direct work with the neighborhood where she saw the need to, “strengthen neighborhood organizations [to work] as partners with government; expand memberships to reflect true socioeconomic and cultural diversity of residents; [and] increase civic participation and economic development.” It was a strategy based on the notion of creating “community resiliency” by helping neighborhoods to tap into, “the transformative power of the arts” in order to reset the neighborhoods’ identity and move it towards more inclusive representation of the those that now lived there. To direct its activities, the Meeting Place project was organized around five key goals: 1) engaged, active members that reflect the diversity of the community; 2) a collaborative culture with recognized and supported leaders; 3) a knowledge of its challenges and assets; 4) a good relationships with other neighborhoods and city government; and 5) an environment of respect, caring, hope and vision.



Pottenger took the lead in identifying the project’s vast array of partners and helping to keep everyone focused on the same goal. “When I begin a project,” said Pottenger, “I start with basic research and just asking lots of questions about what’s going well, what’s challenging, what isn’t going well, what are you pleased about, what would you like to see different. And also just looking around. This all helps inform what seems possible and what could make a difference. Importantly, it also helps inform who will be actual project partners.” Working at many levels of organization, project partners included both high level sponsoring organizations, businesses, academics, religious organizations, individual community members, and artists.


With many neighborhoods, and many local voices, came many project logistics. It often fell to project leadership to empower others to learn how to lead their local project groups as the project unfolded. As one young artist reflected, part of her growing as a leader meant learning to let other people lead, “I had to let go to let other people help me, and because of that I grew as an artist.” The public engagement plan was the central component of the project. Monthly arts-based workshops were held on topics that aimed to increase civic engagement, pride, and unity and that would ultimately culminate in the creation of four separate neighborhood art projects, called “Gateway Arts Projects.” Each month Pottenger and supporting artists would organize one workshop in each neighborhood - all around a similar theme, which included: 1) Singing (leadership/followship); 2) Story telling (what makes this your community); 3) Photography (of locations that have meaning); and 4) Collage (visualizing demographics). Over the course of the year more than 38 neighborhood meetings were held, and each neighborhood helped raise the funds needed to support a public art installation, and create a neighborhood festival. At the end of the year, completely unique festivals were hosted in each of the neighborhoods– Libbytown, West End, Bayside, and East Bayside. These festivals included neighborhood open houses, guided trail walks, bicycle tours, BBQ, street pancake breakfast, storytelling, photography exhibits, Somali poetry reading, art exhibits, concerts and a (weather-canceled) neighborhood-wide soccer game.


Many government agencies and municipal governments have now identified 'community resiliency', which they define as..., as a critical element in a community's ability to maintain quality of life, sustain economic vibrancy, and foster civic engagement, as well as lessen the damage when emergencies and disasters strike. Meeting Place was designed to increase each of the four neighborhoods' community resilience using creative engagement as the engine to increase pride, awareness, deepen relationships, challenge stereotypes, and foster more diverse, sustainable networks. In her effort to both communicate about the project and establish metrics, Pottenger kept close tabs on project results in order to tell others about what effects were being created within the community, and to tie these effects back to the larger project goals of fostering community health and well being.


Although the overall project attempted to deal directly with the issue of social equity, it was not an easy issue to approach. The immigrant communities that the project targeted tended to be more insular than other minority populations and the time needed to build deeper relationships extended well beyond the scope of the project. Some of the project’s deepest impacts were hard to measure. For all the tangible benefits, the project’s success that was most often mentioned was the increased understanding of the community's history and sense of belonging that people had about their own neighborhoods. Most importantly, the greater sense of connection to both the people and the places that make up their areas of the city.


Meeting Place


  • Nathan Cummings Foundation
  • Elimira B. Sewall Foundation
  • Maine Community Foundation
  • Maine Arts Commission
  • City of Portland, ME
  • Portland Downtown District
  • East Bayside Neighborhood Organization (partner)
  • Bayside Neighborhood Association (partner)
  • West End Neighborhood Association (partner)
  • Libbytown Neighborhood (partner)
  • City of Portland (partner) including: Neighborhood Services, Public Services, Social Services, Recreation, Police, Parks, City Council
  • Unity Village
  • Portland Housing Authority (partner)
  • Portland Transportation Center
  • Portland Adult Education/School District (partner)
  • Reiche School
  • Portland High School
  • Portland Library
  • Maine Department of Transportation
  • University of Southern Maine
  • Creative Portland/PACA: (partner)
  • Mayo St. Arts
  • Running w/ Scissors
  • No Umbrella Media
  • Zero Station 
  • League of Young Voters
  • Maine Historical Society
  • Portland Trails (partners)
  • Maine Irish Heritage Center,
  • Preble Street Resource Center,
  • Homeless Voices for Justice
  • World Health Partners
  • LearningWorks
  • 170 State Street Senior Housing
  • Community Television Network
  • Compass Project 
  • Bicycle Coalition of Maine
  • The Root Cellar (partner)
  • Maine Muslim Community Center
  • St. Patrick's Church, Catholic
  • St. Louis Catholic Church
  • Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church
  • St. Luke's Cathedral, Episcopalian
  • Tony's Donuts
  • Coffee By Design
  • Anania's
  • The Paint Pot
  • Cardente Realty
  • Flea For All
  • Bonobo's Restaurant
  • Espo's Restaurant
  1. Annegret Baier, percussionist
  2. Jonathan Cook, visual artist
  3. Tonee Harbert, photographer
  4. Daniel Minter, visual artist
  5. Jan Piribeck, visual artist
  6. Marty Pottenger, storyteller
  7. Kelly Rioux, visual artist
  8. Andrea Kelly Rosenberg, chorale director
  9. Shamou, dancer
  10. Betsy Sholl, poet
  11. Chirstopher Wright, visual artist
  1. Bayside: 'the real Bayside Art Cards', artist Daniel Minter and neighborhood volunteers; 1 block-long street installation that created a cardboard facsimile of a long-desired city park "Creative Placemaking In Action"
  2. East Bayside: Community Sunflower Plant & 'Good Fences for Good Neighbors', four 60' fence murals out of recycled materials
  3. West End: 'West End Snapshots' & Stories/Exhibit at Maine Irish Heritage Center
  4. Libbytown: 'Here's Libbytown' 108 Story/Poetry Banners installed in neighborhood 
  1. Kennedy Park Portraits  (Fence at Kennedy Housing), Artist Kelly Rioux
  2. Blue Wrap Wave (Blue Wave fence), Artists Jan Piribeck + Chris Wright
  3. Woven Wall  (Woven Tarp Fence), Artist Jonathan Cook
  4. Clouds  (Painted Fence), Artist Tim Clorius
  1. Neighborhood History from Dinosaurs till Now: Poetry with Bridget McCormick & Betsy Sholl (5)
  2. What Makes a Community?: Storytelling with Marty Pottenger (8)
  3. Neighbors & Snapshots: place, person & home: Photography with Tonee Harbert (9)
  4. Identifying & Crossing Borders: Drumming with Annegret Baier & Shamou (2)
  5. Thinking about 'Leadership & Followship': Chorale Singing with Andrea Kelly Rosenberg (4)
  6. Maine Historical Society ‘Neighborhood Story Nights’: with Bridget McCormick & Marty Pottenger (4)
  7. 'City in Crisis' Scenario-Based Training: with Fire Chief LaMontagne & Storytelling with Marty Pottenger (1)
  8. 'Who We Are' Portland 2010 Census: with Professor Charles Colgan + Collages with Daniel Minter (1)
  • 150 one-year public art installations that seek to redefine, celebrate and increase awareness of four neighborhoods;
  • 600% increase in positive city/state/regional media coverage for East Bayside;
  • 300 new East Bayside Neighborhood Organization conversations and contacts made with residents;
  • New motivated leadership in two neighborhood organizations;
  • Increase in membership in neighborhood organizations from more diverse residents: racial, national origin, income, and age;
  • New partnerships with over fifteen neighborhood businesses and organizations;
  • Two new neighborhood associations incorporating arts-based community development into their planning.

“The process of making art dramatically increases our ability to access our flexible intelligence, function collaboratively, analyze complex challenges, integrate contradictory perspectives, envision a positive outcome and take inspired risks that lead to innovative solutions.”- Marty Pottenger, Art At Work/Terra Moto Inc.