A Walk in the Park: Kennedy Park is Lewiston's "Forever Park"

Published on 1 June 2023 at 16:48

Inn at the Agora's memories of a rich past inform efforts to meet present challenges and build momentum toward a greater future. The story of the inn necessarily is a story of our community. From its roots as Kelsey Hall in 1850, to its transformation to a rectory and later an inn, these walls have taken on roles that shaped, sustained, and in turn have been sustained by our community. We are in a unique position to speak to the character and resilience of the neighborhood.

These were my thoughts recently, when I took a stroll in Kennedy Park, across from the inn. I thought of how much the city has transformed over the last 150 years, yet how traces of the past are ever present. As a city making a comeback from tough times, I am reminded that we have been here before, and resilience is in our DNA.


I walked past a park bench and the newness of it made me wonder what it was like before the benches or the paved paths. I scanned the landscape and wondered what a walk in the park would have been like when Simones' Hot Dog Stand was new. (It's a favorite diner across the park from the inn, over 140 years old!) In the 1800's, industry had turned Lewiston into a thriving shoe and textile mill town and its multinational heritage was established by this very means.


City Park is born:


Standing in Kennedy Park, facing the Inn at the Agora and the Agora Grand Event Center, the grandeur of the structures speaks to the magnitude of the faith in our community. I refer to not only belief systems, but faith and hope in the future of the neighborhood and for what exciting things are yet to come. From that vantage point I looked to the right at the apartment buildings that are home to generational Mainers and new Mainers alike. In the early 2000's, a wave of immigrants and refugees found themselves relocating to Lewiston and established a community that contributes to the vibrant diversity of our neighborhood and businesses. The tale has come full circle a sense, since Lewiston's mill economy was built at the hands of immigrant laborers. Originally, the apartments were built as tenements to house the mill workers and their families. The Franklin Company owned much of the land in Lewiston, when then-new Mainers (Irish and French-Canadian immigrants) flooded the city for work. There was a recognized need for the workers to have some form of recreation. In 1861, the company deeded the land to be used as a park, on the conditions that the city invest in improvements to the parcel and that it always be used as a park. By 1862, City Park became Lewiston's first dedicated green space, and we enjoy it today as Kennedy Park, because of the Franklin Company's forethought of conditions on the deed.


I stopped in front of the gazebo and imagined the scene in 1960, when then-candidate John F. Kennedy spoke from that very platform. I pictured what people might be wearing, the hairstyles, families, Bates College students, and in the sunshine of my mind the weather was perfect that day. I learned my imagination is slightly flawed and perhaps a bit rosy. Billie, the innkeeper, let me know that people waited for hours in the cold for him to show up! The truth is, it was November, it was at night, and it was very cold. A crowd of 14,000 gathered for JFK's speech, scheduled for 9pm. He didn't arrive until midnight, but thousands waited, bundled up and freezing, eager to hear from the man who would become the next president of the United States. This is another example of resilience -- the willingness to face the bitter elements and participate in American History was, and remains, more than a metaphor for this community.



Even through difficult times in the city's dynamic history, the park has always offered respite to those who would enter and spend a little time. Throughout its history, the park has supported the neighborhood not only by providing recreation, but a place to get together and work through life's challenges with peers as well. Seeing a familiar face and sharing a passing moment is sometimes all it takes to get a person through a day. I think that if the park grounds could speak, the stories they could tell would include every kind: the not so happy endings as well as the cherished moments. Lewiston changed the name from City Park to Kennedy Park, not when he gave the speech, but 13 days after his assassination. It doesn't only serve as a reminder of a sad moment in history, it elucidates the ability of this city to never forget those who have created positive change. Every now and then, you can look around and surmise that there are indeed people struggling, perhaps more than others in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, Lewiston was not spared the housing crisis evident all over the country. The park's remarkable history demonstrates there's no solution we can't materialize by working together, and we will never forget the confluence of hardships that have often led to our successes and resilience. It's nice to know there is a dedicated space downtown where anyone, no matter their place in their life, has a place here. All are welcome to rest for a while before continuing on their journey, no matter what that path looks like. Lewiston has always been a place to find common ground... it's like a walk in the park!

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