Wild Deering Center

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Mayor Baxter Woods

I love the idea of worlds that lie between and behind city streets, and Deering Center is a perfect place to see that.

Stevens Avenue is a busy, trafficky street. Take a few steps in a couple of different directions, though, and you’re on dark forest trails or gazing at a chain of little ponds nestled between woods and the graves of some of Maine’s most prominent citizens.

There’s kind of a sacred aura about Mayor Baxter Woods — the trees are tall and there isn’t much undergrowth, so just about everything you see is starkly vertical. Here and there the light streams in; otherwise, it’s dark. There’s a lot of silence — sometimes. Sometimes, though, what you hear is the sounds of happy canines reveling in their time off the leash — leashes aren’t required in Baxter Woods.

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Hartley Street runs alongside Mayor Baxter Woods.

Walk straight ahead through the woods and you’re on busy Forest Avenue. I didn’t do that the other day, though. I veered onto a path to my right and came out onto Hartley Street, one of several streets that Portland Mayor James Phinney Baxter established and named after his children, after he bought the estate of former Congressman and railroad executive F.O.J. Smith. Baxter sold another part of the estate to the Roman Catholic Diocese and retained the third part as woodland.

Baxter’s son, Maine Governor Percival Baxter — for whom nearby Percival Street is named — gave the wooded part to the city in 1946 to honor his father.

Kitty-corner to Baxter Woods is Evergreen Cemetery, a vast expanse of imposing monuments and simple slabs commemorating the existence of Mainers famous

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Entry to Baxter Woods from Percival Street

and not-so-famous. Walking there, I always feel physically gripped by the poignancy of human lives that come and go. Nostalgia rises up in me for other people’s lives. Once, though, I saw a very old stone marked “Hattie,” and felt a particular pang, because my mother, whose name was Hattie, had died a few months before.

I’ve come across the graves of people I actually knew (though none very well), and it feels strange to think of them, so recently alive, resting in this place that’s so redolent of dignified eternity.

To the side and back of the cemetery lies a thick border of woods criss-crossed by trails. I like to walk that woods, and will do a separate post on it. At the edge of the cemetery are several ponds, where some kind of wildlife can usually be seen. I saw many ducks and a heron — possibly a great blue? I’m not sure of my herons.

Farther down Stevens Avenue, toward Brighton and actually located on Leland Street, there’s another little patch of woods, confusingly named Baxter Pines. It’s a lovely spot, though so small that you’re always aware of that you’re in the middle of a residential neighborhood. But actually, that’s part of the charm for me of these urban havens.

 

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Pond at Evergreen Cemetery

 

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Walking the tracks

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The end of Arcadia Street

The view above, the end of Arcadia Street, is what gave me the idea of writing about what lies between and behind Portland’s streets. I’m fascinated by dead-end streets — the ending really isn’t “dead,” in my opinion. It can be an open door to sights I’ve never seen and experiences I have to go “out of my way” for.

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Arcadia Street runs off Veranda toward Presumpscot Street. Part of this neighborhood faces the outflow of the Presumpscot River, though it’s hard to see through the houses and foliage. Come fall it will be easier.

The other part of the neighborhood — this part — runs down to the railroad tracks that in the last couple of centuries were heavily used as transport between here and Canada. The Grand Trunk roundhouse and other buildings still stand on Presumpscot Street, though they’re used as offices and for other purposes. According to my reference, “Deering: A Social and Architectural History” (William David Barry and Patricia McGraw Anderson, Greater Portland Landmarks; 2010), Presumpscot Street also was the site of railroad-related industrial facilities including a grain elevator (not sure if there was more than one), stockyards, and a rendering company.

So I’m guessing it wasn’t as pleasant to walk along the tracks then as it is now.

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These days it’s all quiet once you cross the narrow strip of trees from Arcadia Street to the tracks. The back of Presumpscot Street is right there ahead of you, but nature has made its inroads on the in-between strip. Well, except for the occasional auto part discarded beside the tracks.

The beauty of this spot is subtle. It’s the appeal of the giant human footprint fading out as nature takes over. To either side of you, the human population has plenty going on, but you’re in the middle, out of the fray, gazing at goldenrod.

I’ve approached these tracks often from the Sherwood Street side, through a peaceful wooded area with a cemetery where my neighbors from the 18th and 19th centuries are buried. I’ll post about that some other time. I’ve also walked the short distance to the dramatically beautiful end of the tracks at Casco Bay (see “Fish Flakes, Anyone?”). This current walk is not flashy, not spectacular in any way. I just like it.

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Looking toward the Veranda Street overpass

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