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Pride and Prejudice
A bid for affordable housing upsets the social order in northern Maine.

Snob Zones-Lisa Prevost

IAn unexpectedly contentious zoning meeting in affluent Darien, Conn., provided the spark that became Snob Zones, by Lisa Prevost '84. Struck by the rancor generated by a proposal for affordable housing in the Manhattan suburb, Prevost, a real estate writer for The New York Times, decided to delve deeper into attitudes toward zoning across a range of New England communities, from wealthy enclaves to working-class towns. From the Connecticut Gold Coast to Down East Maine, she explores the corrosive effects of overpriced housing, exclusionary zoning, and aging populations in a series of narratives that raise thought-provoking questions about what it means to be a community in post-recession America, a place where "opportunity for all" has come up hard against "I was here first."

In the chapter about Milbridge, Me., Latino immigrants take the jobs that even locals living below the poverty line reject. A struggling fishing village, Milbridge seems like the last place where a bid for a low-income apartment building would meet resistance. But resistance—and then some—is what Prevost finds when "outsiders" propose a six-unit building that locals fear will irrevocably alter the face of their town.

Lisa Prevost

The people behind Maine's "The Way Life Should Be" campaign obviously never set foot inside one of the state's sea-cucumber factories. Preparing the slimy brown cucumbers for human consumption is a revolting process that requires slashing open the creatures and scraping out the meat. Confronted with bin after bin of the tubular blobs, workers in the factories spend their days slashing and scraping as fast as they can.

Mainers certainly aren't known for shying away from hard and unpleasant work. But even the hardy have their limits. When a sea-cucumber factory opened in a small Down East coastal town in the late 1990s, the locals kept their distance. Located in Milbridge (pop. 1,300), a village so far northeast of the lower Maine border it's closer to Canada, Cherry Point Products had previously processed sea urchins. But as that fishery declined, the owners, Lawrence and Drusilla Ray, invested in the equipment necessary for processing the previously shunned cucumbers for Asian markets. Figuring into their calculation was the rural area's desperate need for jobs—but they failed to consider the "ick" factor. As Drusilla once explained it, the work "was dirty. It was cold. It was wet. It was repetitive. It was smelly. It was—how many adjectives are there? It was everything that was not appealing."

When the locals failed to line up for the work, the Rays turned to an alternative labor force, one known for taking on tasks that native Mainers have come to avoid. They recruited Hispanic migrant workers, the laborers who travel by the thousands to Maine every summer to help with the harvest of the state's star indigenous crop, wild blueberries. Maine is the world's largest producer of the tiny, tart fruit, most of which is harvested in sprawling Washington County, where Milbridge is located, on the thousands of acres of flat, sandy plains known as "barrens."

The Rays tapped into the migrant network. They set up a trailer park for them to live in and only charged for utilities. In the course of three years, the Rays were employing dozens of migrant workers. The jobs that repelled locals had the opposite effect on migrants—many viewed the work as a good reason to stay put. They settled into Milbridge with their families and enrolled their children in the public schools.

If locals found the influx unsettling, they mostly kept it to themselves. "Things were maybe a bit touchy with local people at first," Drusilla Ray told Down East magazine in 2008. "Now [the Hispanics] have become accepted." It was as though the town's tranquil setting had set the tone for smooth cultural relations. The elementary school hired a teacher to help the new students improve their English. The downtown BaySide supermarket rearranged its shelves to make room for Goya products. At community potlucks, baked beans rested easily alongside burritos. And perhaps most surprisingly, on Main Street, in front of a small white house, a sign went up reading Mano en Mano (Hand in Hand). Founded by a social worker and a nurse practitioner, the organization provided a space where Hispanic newcomers could find help with everything from learning English to filling out paperwork to math assignments.

The picture looked all the more serene when compared to the nearby city of Lewiston, which had absorbed hundreds of Somalian refugees, beginning in 2001. A city of 36,000, Lewiston's initially warm reception had quickly iced over as the number of refugees topped a thousand. That was when Lewiston mayor Laurier T. Raymond Jr. wrote an open letter to the Somalis of Lewiston asking that they discourage others from following. "We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly," the mayor wrote. "Now we need breathing room. Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally."

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