By H.H. Price
The early morning sunlight freshened over Back Cove onto Baxter Boulevard as I walked along it in mid-May, 2013. Back Cove is the large salt-water inlet in the middle of Portland, Maine, sometimes called Back Bay, rimmed by a three and a half-mile recreational trail. The Boulevard hugs the trail for one and one-half miles on its western side and until May 2007 was part of U.S. Route 1.
In good weather my husband and I walk daily. We fall out of our third floor apartment to the Boulevard before breakfast and hoof the trail to and fro. Sometimes we walk together, sometimes separately. For a series of May mornings in 2013, I walked alone. It was the sixth month of the Boulevard’s closure to vehicular traffic because of a large federally mandated wastewater project.
Cyclists, runners, and we walkers had been enjoying the road closure to no end. In fact, it led to an ad hoc petition to the city, to close this part of the Boulevard every Sunday afternoon from May to October after the construction was finished so the public from all around could use it as we had. The City Council approved the move, and now we have our own little “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” like the painting by George Seurat.
The morning I snapped to and did what I had been thinking of for many days was like all the others, basking in the beauty of the path of old linden trees, the view of the city on its hill, and the special peacefulness as I swung my arms and headed home. I had taken to walking in the middle of the Boulevard without traffic, except occasional trucks with sand or stones and machinery on tractor-trailers. Gradually I paid more attention to the tree shadows on the embankments. Without the hillsides topped by Boulevard houses there would be no “standing” shadows. Wouldn’t they make good pictures? I thought those mornings. But who would care?
“I care, “ must have been the answer to my interior dialogue that morning, because I pulled out my cell phone and took the first of 50 or so photographs, half that day, moving south; half the next day, moving north. My impulse to start photographing almost exactly half way in the half mile of ideal embankments, backdrops for the shadows, was a surge of living in the moment. If not now, when? If not me, who? I stood in the Boulevard roadway (something no one could have done for any length of time before the closure) with the rising sun behind me and only the shadows in my camera lens. The trees were just beginning to leaf out so their trunks and limbs were perfectly etched against the Irish green hillsides.
Lindens are not the only variety that flank the Boulevard roadway like silent sentries. Some are maple or birch. I photographed only the trees on the hilly westerly side of the Boulevard between Dartmouth Street and almost to Chevrus High School. The criteria were that the shadows had to “stand up,” which required a hillside behind them. None of this was calculated on my part. I was just documenting images –- a place in time — when one could linger and look because there was no traffic. I thought in the future an arborist or Olmsted devotee might take my little album with them as they checked on the historic trees’ development. After all, it had been nearly 100 years since many, if not most, had been planted.
“How do Portland’s tree gardens grow?” one might ask in 20 years.
The European linden trees were first planted on nearby Forest Avenue, Memorial Day, 1920, and then transplanted along with others the next Memorial Day to honor Portland’s veterans who died in World War I. Each tree is dedicated to an individual. There is a little quarter-sized metal tag with a number corresponding to the veteran’s name struck into each linden tree at varying heights, on the oldest trees now slightly above where if one were installing them they would be hammered in at eye level.
The history of these trees is fraught with meaning and memory, not only for the veterans’ families but for everyone. They stand as tributes to men who fought in good faith in the First World War, the one to end all wars. Peace, or peace education, is frequently on my mind, and the linden trees are friends to the cause.
James Phinney Baxter, several times Mayor of Portland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, had the vision of linked parks for the city, including the creation of the Back Cove Park we have now. The Cove was grossly polluted and stinky from toxic, industrial run-off. Portland had the same sanitation and health issues as Boston, with its swamped Back Bay Fens and rivers oozing into the Charles River tidal basin. Baxter visited Boston and the renowned landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted who created green spaces for urban dwellers in many places and a long-term solution for Boston. Olmsted put his son, John Charles Olmsted, and Charles Eliot onto the task of studying what would work in Portland, both to solve the functional problems and eventually to attract a stronger tax base of residences and businesses. It would be twenty years for Baxter’s vision to take root because of politics: when elected he led on the idea; when not in office the plan was shelved.
“All’s well that ends well,” however. Many people with expertise and hard work created the Boulevard, shored up the Cove, planted the memorial trees, made a recreational path, and, finally, a posthumous naming of Back Cove Boulevard in the memory of the man who saw its possibilities: Baxter Boulevard, indeed.
In 2009, the City of Portland estimated that 250,000 people used the Boulevard’s recreational trail. That number does not begin to reflect how many vehicles drive along the road. One does not have to be a commuter to enjoy the Boulevard. There is a host of cars carrying plain, old-fashioned people who appreciate beauty and a magnificent view.
At night, before the 2008 economic downturn and therefore the reduction of streetlights, the Boulevard wore a necklace of diamond lights that held a great cluster of sparkling gems atop the city’s skyline. The necklace rested on the midnight-blue gown of Cove and sky, nothing quite like it in other cities because this necklace has a clasp. We used to take our grandchildren out as the sun set to get ice cream cones and then parked our car to face and view Portland’s “necklace.”
My maternal grandmother, a Vermonter born in 1874, came to Maine the last few summers of her life when she was widowed. She and my aunt, Gramma’s oldest child of her eight children, divided their year between Southeastern Vermont in the winter and Bowdoinham, Maine in the summer, both areas where my aunt was employed. What Gramma liked best in Maine was Baxter Boulevard. On a summer’s day-off in the late 1940s and early 1950s my aunt would drive her to see the Boulevard. I imagine they stopped at the brick bridge with built-in seats and outgoing water rushing beneath them. Since Gramma had lived through two World Wars, the deaths of three of her children, and my mother’s debilitating illness, I also imagine she appreciated the meaning of the growing, thriving linden trees.
The linden trees offer beauty with their white flowers, scented essence and busy bees in early summer. Why were lindens chosen? At least two theories have surfaced over the years: linden trees grew all over France and the French people paid dearly with their lives in WWI; and, the Baxter Boulevard designers wished to copy the Unter den Linden in Berlin, a famous city park of the time.
After the linden trees were first planted, veterans looked after replacing them when needed. Now, the trees suffer from automobiles crashing into them, diseases, and for the young ones a mowing too close to the bark and roots like shaving a man’s face by the lips or ears. It appears that more trees on the eastern side of the Boulevard, next to the trail, are either damaged, need care or replacement, or are replaced. I might think that, because I walk on the trail and not the road. That is why I took the photographs May 13 and 14, 2013: The road was there for the standing, the early morning sunshine was a gigantic search-light, and the city engineers and designers had chosen to build an embankment, or used an already existing hillside, as a fertile green backdrop for the memorial shadows a century later as we remember the Veterans of WWI.
[H.H. Price has donated the full album of photographs to the collections of Maine Historical Society.]