Munjoy Hill group enjoys revival after enduring internal strife

The organization plans to expand its programs and resume publishing its monthly newspaper.

By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer [Portland Press Herald]
 February 24, 2009
 

”]John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Friday.,February 20, 2009. Will Gorham, president, and Katie Brown, vice-president, of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization are leading an effort to rebuild during its 30th anniversary year seen here outside the office in Portland. [Press Herald Photo]PORTLAND — Thirty years after its founding, the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization is rebounding from internal strife that nearly destroyed the city’s oldest neighborhood group.

The group is retooling its organization, its free monthly newspaper and its Web site to attract and serve a broader range of residents in one of Portland’s most diverse and densely populated districts.

“This is a rebuilding year for us,” said Will Gorham, the group’s president. “We’ve been through a period of upheaval. But we’re addressing our problems and moving forward, one step at a time.”

Upheaval and change are nothing new to Munjoy Hill. Located at the tip of the downtown peninsula, overlooking Casco Bay, it is one of Portland’s oldest neighborhoods. It dominates the East End, which is home to about 4,800 of the city’s 64,000 residents.

Through the centuries, Munjoy Hill has hosted one wave of immigrants after another, most recently from Africa, Asia and Latin America, though its population remains largely white. Traditionally a Democratic stronghold, the neighborhood recently has experienced an infusion of Green Independent party members.

In April, the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization will reassert its community prominence when it resumes publishing the Munjoy Hill Observer, a neighborhood fixture since 1980.

The board recently hired Lisa Penalver, a graphic designer who lives on Peaks Island, to redesign the Observer and involve a broader range of residents in producing stories, columns and photographs. She was chosen from more than 30 applicants. She starts in March.

The board suspended publication of the Observer last summer, shortly after a new slate of officers was elected in June.

The officers shut down the newspaper because some members were concerned about bias in and potential liability of its content, said Katie Brown, vice president. Members were particularly concerned about coverage of issues such as the future use of the former Adams Elementary School and the planned opening of a parole office on Washington Avenue.

“It had become more of a personal newsletter, covering opinions and stories of a select few residents,” said Brown, who has been on the board for three years.

NEW GUIDELINES FOR NEWSPAPER

The newspaper’s troubles reflected problems in the neighborhood group overall, Brown said. The situation hit a low point in late 2007. Membership had fallen to about 75 people from a high of about 500 registered residents in the 1990s.

Personal attacks were common at monthly meetings, and conflicts between members often kept projects from getting done, she said. Several of the group’s 15 board members resigned.

“A lot of really good people left the board because they were fed up with the way things were going,” she said.

The ship started to right itself last June, with the election of a new board. A member nominated Gorham, a past president and former city councilor, for the top spot. He was elected without opposition.

“He’s a fairly no-nonsense kind of guy, so things started to improve right away,” Brown said.

At the time, a husband-and-wife pair of volunteers, Heather Curtis and Ed Democracy, had been running the Observer since September 2006. They took over when the former editor, Jim Hanna, resigned after several years on the job.

Curtis was coordinating editor. Democracy was calendar editor, advertising director, circulation chief and a regular columnist. They defend their efforts to keep the newspaper alive after Hanna left.

“We tried to maintain it as a truly community newspaper and not just a publication of the board,” Democracy said. He said the neighborhood group’s personal dynamics could be “vicious” sometimes, especially when board members and others tried to control the content of the newspaper.

Curtis said she published news items from 10 to 20 contributing writers each month and bent over backward to keep coverage balanced.

“If people sent us news, we printed it,” Curtis said. “After a while, dealing with the petty politics got to be overwhelming.”

Curtis and Democracy said they’re glad the board has hired a new editor, and they hope she has better luck navigating the politics of the job.

“I hope the board steps up and gives her the support she needs to do the job well,” Curtis said.

The board has set parameters for themselves and the editor. Before the board advertised the position, a restructuring committee developed a new guiding policy for the newspaper. It stipulates that the Observer will be overseen by a managing committee and must be run by a paid editor rather than volunteers.

“The goal is to have an editor who is accountable to the board and the entire organization,” said Gorham, who joined the neighborhood group in 1983.

A NEIGHBORHOOD RESOURCE

Once the Observer is back on track, the directors plan to upgrade the group’s Web site, munjoyhill.org. They hope to add features that provide vital information and help connect various facets of the neighborhood, including families, artists, business owners, immigrants and senior citizens.

Now, the group has a full board of directors and membership is on the rise, with more than 100 registered residents, Gorham said. He recently persuaded Cynthia Fitzgerald, a charter member, to return to the group and head its membership committee.

“My hope is that we attract new productive community members to the organization and welcome back people who have been involved in the past but felt burned by the experience,” Brown said.

Looking ahead, the group plans to augment its role as a neighborhood resource by expanding programs for young people, immigrants and other community members. It has applied for a $27,000 federal grant through the city to hire teens to do yard work and other chores for seniors throughout the neighborhood.

The directors also have started talking about building an addition to the group’s headquarters at 92 Congress St. The Munjoy Hill group is the only one of Portland’s 17 neighborhood associations that owns its headquarters, a single-story building it shares with community police officers and other community groups.

Joe Gray, Portland’s city manager, said he’s glad to see the Munjoy Hill group is on the upswing. He meets monthly with his Neighborhood Advisory Committee, made up of representatives from the various associations, to stay in touch with community issues.

Gray said the membership and activity of neighborhood groups commonly ebb and flow over time. Conflicts among members can lead to frustration and burnout. When that happens, he said, a few dedicated members can keep an organization from falling apart.

“That has been the strength of Portland’s neighborhood groups,” Gray said. “Invariably, a few people step forward and reach out to re-energize the organization with new blood.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

Copyright © 2009 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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