Street Talk: Bad vibes in Lewiston, then and now

·7 min read

Jul. 26—It was an early summer evening in 1995 and I was riding around downtown with two of the newer Sun Journal photographers.

I don't remember what we were doing out there in the hood specifically, but the discussion eventually got around to the matter of whether downtown Lewiston was a dangerous place. And if it WAS a dangerous place, how dangerous was it?

"There isn't a single neighborhood in this city where I'd be afraid to walk at night," said one of the photographers. I don't think it was just machismo making him say it. The photog was from a much bigger city, by golly, and in his considered opinion, Lewiston's downtown just didn't compare to a real combat zone.

A month or so later, in passing, the photographer mentioned that he'd changed his mind about all of that. Lewiston WAS a dangerous little place, he conceded, and he'd be wary of walking in certain areas in the dark of night.

I never found out exactly what caused his change of heart. Maybe it was the relentless fury of the crack cocaine trade, and the unpredictability of the violence that came with it. When crack was the drug of choice in Lewiston, one never knew where the next volley of gunfire might commence. Inside the tenement at the corner of Knox and Spruce? In the center of Kennedy Park? Out in one of the quiet neighborhoods near Bates College?

In the mid-90s, it felt like every other person you met on any given street might be blasted on crack and you could never know for sure if they might turn on you for reasons clear only in their dope-addled minds. Back then, big time dealers from other states would come to Lewiston and set up shop in the apartments of locals addicts who were more than happy to accommodate those dealers in exchange for some free product.

Wander around the downtown too much and a hapless soul could unknowingly find himself treading on some paranoid dealer's territory. It wasn't real hard to inadvertently encroach on gang territory, either, and yes, by God, there WERE gangs in Lewiston at the time.

There were hardcore gangbangers all over the downtown. They came from Lawrence or Providence or the Bronx or Hartford to hide out in this little Maine city with the bad reputation. And yet those hardcore types weren't the most dangerous of the gang members you might meet on a walk to the corner store on Bartlett Street. That distinction went to the aspiring younger gangsters: the local teens and even pre-teens who burned with desire for a place within the criminal underground. Those youths — just kids, really — would do just about anything to prove themselves to their older and more hardened peers and, man, that made them plenty dangerous, indeed.

Back then, big crime news was a daily thing and juveniles were very often right in the middle of it. A trio of them slashed a cab driver's throat and left him for dead in a church parking lot. Others armed themselves and stormed into the homes of the area elderly, tying up those old folks, terrorizing them, and robbing them blind.

There were savage beatdowns on the streets and in the school yards. There were horrific stabbings, brawls across entire city blocks and shootings all over the place. If you were required to be out and about in downtown Lewiston back then, you wore your best running shoes and learned to grow eyes on the back of your head.

As a novice crime reporter, it was, for me, trial by fire. And for the next 25 years, I'd write column after column waxing on about how dangerous Lewiston was in the mid-90s and how we haven't seen anything like it since.

You know. Until now.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a story called "Are we having a crime wave?" to take a look at some of the recent violence that has vexed the Twin Cities. During the course of writing it, I got a lot of solid opinions from a couple police chiefs, a pair of mayors and a whole bunch of ordinary folks. It being a news story, I wasn't allowed to offer my own opinion on the matter, but that was OK. Photographer Russ Dillingham more or less said it for me.

"All I can say is there is a distinct negative vibe whenever walking around downtown," the photographer said. "A palpable hostility."

Bingo.

Russ, like me, isn't comforted by the fact that the latest crime statistics don't show any specific spike in violence. He's not soothed by the fact that politicians say all we need is one more program or one more "community partner" and we'll get this ugliness under control.

If you spend a lot of time in downtown Lewiston — as Russ and I both do — you don't require any kind of scientific study or earnest crunching of the numbers to reveal what your gut is screaming at you like a klaxon: tread carefully, brother. There is danger afoot.

You ignore that voice at great peril.

After the crime wave story ran, I heard from all sorts of people, many of whom felt that the story didn't state the dangers of the city strongly enough. One woman compared the Lewiston mayor's promises of better days to the fictional Mayor Larry Vaughn of "Jaws" fame reassuring the Amity public that it was perfectly safe to swim in the ocean.

The same woman faults the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency for a tepid response to the city's drug problems.

"This downtown district is overrun by drugs, but at what point does MDEA actually start cutting off the supply?" she demands to know. "The enforcement looks more like we only focus on the demand and let the supply do whatever the hell it wants!"

She accuses the Lewiston Police Department of inviting tips on crime and then largely ignoring any tips that are sent its way.

She faults Lewiston school administrators for downplaying violence within the schools.

She blames the district attorney's office for not prosecuting violent offenders aggressively enough. And her list goes on and on.

Other letter writers have offered similar complaints, and many have their own ideas on how the matter of violence in Lewiston should be addressed. Would any of those ideas actually work? Is there some elegant solution to all of this madness?

Beats me, bub. Like Dillingham, all I can tell you is that there's a prevalent vibe out there on the streets and — to me — it's every bit as sinister as it was in the mid-1990s. That "palpable hostility," is likewise as real as any of the numbers revealed in the crime statistics. You feel it everywhere you go, whether you're walking down Bartlett Street or riding down Walnut and quietly hoping your car doesn't get swarmed when you stop at the intersection.

The only thing I can say in Lewiston's defense is that it is most definitely not Lewiston alone. That negative vibe? That free-floating hostility? The klaxon call of impending danger on every corner?

That's not just Lewiston, man. That's everywhere. The police staffing shortages are everywhere. Fentanyl madness is everywhere. This city didn't lose its mind all by itself; the whole world lost its mind and Lewiston just followed suit. One can't just dismissively remark that all this crime and violence is just Lewiston being Lewiston when the same kind of mayhem can be found in just about every city across the country on larger or smaller scales.

It's happening here?

For fairness sake, maybe Lewiston should resurrect that old motto and add another line for clarity.

"It's happening here," the signs might say. "But it's happening everywhere else, too, so just get off our backs about it!"