Is Augusta really one of the best small towns? It depends which side you’re from

I was thinking about Augusta being “ranked 50th best small town in which to live” by the website Livability.com. As someone who has lived here for decades, I’m inclined to agree, for the most part. I’ve raised two children here who attended our public schools and benefited from the influence of some talented educators.

We have proactive community members and business leaders committed to making Augusta a great place, as can be seen in the support of organizations like Lithgow Public Library (which, along with the state and UMA libraries, makes three libraries in one town!), the ongoing revitalization of the downtown/riverfront area, the Augusta Boys and Girls Club, and others.

We’re the kind of town where electing a black mayor was no big deal. Bill Burney served both as mayor (1989-1996) and on our school board (1997-2011) for years. Though black in this “white state,” around here, Burney is just another one of our tireless community leaders who is as Augusta as the counter at AHOP where I first met him when I was waitressing as a teen in the early 1980s.

Maine artist Elizabeth Busch's work titled "Home" hangs in the glassed atrium at the Cultural Building in Augusta on Sept. 17, 2015. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Maine artist Elizabeth Busch’s work titled “Home” hangs in the glassed atrium at the Cultural Building in Augusta on Sept. 17, 2015. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

It’s the kind of town where a bald, black, Navy veteran senior citizen was just about every student’s favorite substitute teacher. I’ve written about my friend Cobby before, and it sounds like a friend bragging, but it’s true — you can ask around. In his retirement years, he worked as a sub and was well into his second generation of adoration from students when he passed. Teens and adults all over the greater Augusta area and her diaspora were devastated.

And Augusta has the storied history of Cony Athletics, of which I played a teeny, tiny part. My boys and their friends have mocked my former jock-ness by pulling out my varsity jacket from time to time to wear jokingly, but truth be told it’s kind of nice to be part of a local legacy, and it was a nice place to grow up.

Some things have changed since I was young, though. As the article about Augusta’s new ranking pointed out, the city was also ranked the most dangerous place to live in Maine by another ranking site in early 2015. This ranking was due to a high incidence of property crime, which police attribute largely to Maine’s drug problem. I don’t agree with the idea of characterizing Augusta as dangerous per se because I think there’s a difference between having a property crime problem and being a dangerous place.

Among the many reasons for differentiating is, as many Maine families know, some of the property crime happening in the name of supporting addiction occurs between people who know each other, even among family members.

But putting the two rankings together in my head got me to thinking about the opening lines of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I was thinking about the difference between the residential neighborhood in which my mom lives and the neighborhoods that were available to me when a long-term relationship ended and left me in a financially compromised situation several years ago. In my mom’s neighborhood, if the car and house doors are locked at night, I feel safe.

The neighborhood I landed in as a broke single mom of two felt anything but safe. My immediate neighbors included folks who had a variety of frequent visitors for variety of reasons. The woman and man across the street hosted local law enforcement at least two to three times a month during their domestic squabbles, enabling me to witness my first live forced “cuff and stuff” at gunpoint.

The woman in the apartment next to theirs had a variety of men who visited her regularly. They usually stayed for a half hour to an hour, and some seemed to be regulars with standing weekly appointments. One of my former students reported that she shared the nature of her business and her pricing methodology with him, but he declined her offer.

My other neighbors and fellow tenants came and went during my couple years there, but they, too, had their own questionable traffic going in and out of their apartments, occasionally distracting law enforcement from the couple across the street. I feel pretty confident in saying that some amount of criminal activity happened within spitting distance of me while I lived there on a daily basis. Anyone who visited my family at that location, except those who came looking for the previous tenant to hook them up with “stuff,” would second that statement. Many prompted me to write a book about my time there.

It would be a sad story to write, though, and one not unique to Augusta. It’s the story of “small town everywhere” in Maine, and it’s the story of Maine itself. It’s the tale of two Maines.

Looking back over the years, there’s only one major factor to which I can attribute our state’s demise into this dichotomous reality where there are those residents who are very financially secure and successful, and those residents who struggle: the loss of manufacturing. I’m not speaking from a place of facts and figures, but a sense of how things were when I entered adulthood in Augusta and how things are now as my children do so.

Manufacturing offered work and wages all over our state like a giant economic safety net. Growing up in Augusta, it was a commonly held thought that, no matter what, you could walk into Carleton or Statler or Digital or any of the other manufacturing entities in the area and get a job that paid the bills. Sure, you could go to college or undertake some other career endeavor, but if all else failed, and even if it didn’t, you knew there was a job on an assembly line waiting for you somewhere.

Now, if all else fails, and even if it doesn’t, you can patch together a meager lifestyle with an assemblage of retail and telemarketing jobs. If there are kids involved, the patchwork lifestyle might include some amount of public assistance. Big box stores can’t match manufacturing as an economic safety net, and neither can a focus on tourism alone, a subject I’ve harped on before.

Augusta, like most Maine communities, is among the best places in America to live, but it is also facing the challenges of a changing economy and resulting economic despair.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.