‘Lewiston Strong’: After mass shooting, residents show up with determination

On a bright October morning, with the peak of fall foliage ablaze with red and yellow, Lewiston residents emerged from two long days of isolation Saturday to a city forever changed.

Stores reopened. The sidewalks came alive. And the families of the 18 people killed in a mass shooting here Wednesday night tried to move on in a haze of grief, their losses piling an almost unbearable weight on a place that prides itself on its resilience.

Lewiston, Maine – a city of 36,000 that feels more like a small town – is far from the picturesque harbors and privileged enclaves of the coast, in the interior of this vast rural state. With a history filled with two waves of immigration, a century apart, and hollowed out by the lost textile factories that once defined its economy, foreigners often describe it with worn, vaguely disparaging adjectives. Gritty. Scrappy. Blue collar. Down on your luck.

Some chafe at the notions of what they see as the demolition of their home, its old brick and three-story buildings, its deep French-Canadian heritage and its new African migrant community. But other local residents, including Kristen Cloutier, a state representative who served as Lewiston’s mayor and city councilwoman, embrace the idea of ​​Lewiston and its sister city, Auburn, as hardy survivors.

“The damaged and the rough are central to this place,” said Ms. Cloutier, who grew up there. “People say Lewiston is tough as nails, and it’s true. The place is genuine – what you see is what you get – and the people are committed to it in a way that feels deeply personal.”

That commitment and the city’s faith in its own strength will help it come back together, she said, after the worst violence the state has ever seen.

The gunman in the mass shooting, Robert R. Card II, 40, of nearby Bowdoin, opened fire on a bowling alley and bar, killing 18 people and wounding 13 others. Among the dead were a longtime youth bowling coach in the 70s and his wife; 14-year-old high school student and his father; and four deaf men who play in a cornhole league, one of them a father of four young children.

Signs of the city’s resilience emerged a day after the gunman was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, ending two days of uncertainty and fear when residents were ordered to shelter in their homes. On Lisbon Street downtown, paper hearts attached to trees bore simple handwritten messages of devotion — “To My City”; “To My Neighbor” — and “Lewiston Strong” — popped up in the windows.

A family from Westbrook, 30 miles away, came Saturday to hand out daisies and carnations to strangers in a downtown park. Eve Ali, 30, a Lewiston resident who immigrated to the United States from Djibouti six years ago, gave away stacks of donuts and cups of hot coffee to remind her fellow citizens of the love and care in their midst.

“I want people to remember that we should focus on what unites us, not what divides us,” she said, standing in a corner of Kennedy Park as an unseasonably light breeze ruffled leaves from the trees. “We make the decision as a community and together we can choose love and forgiveness.”

Some of the region’s resilience stems from its climate, with long, harsh winters requiring raw endurance. The local sport of choice is ice hockey, where players risk frostbite and brawls to clear the bench; Lewiston’s greatest sports history is the 1965 heavyweight boxing championship at its Colisée arena, where Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston in less than three minutes and stood over his fallen rival yelling, “Get up and fight, you jerk!”

Another effort is required by the area’s economic struggles, as new industries have failed to fill the gaps left by closed mills. In the years before the coronavirus pandemic, small businesses proliferated downtown, creating new momentum, Ms. Cloutier said. But the pandemic and the resulting shutdown hit hard, undoing much of that progress. Tourism was also difficult to nurture.

Yet instead of seeing its population shrink like other parts of the state, Maine’s central city has become a destination for thousands of African refugees and migrants who began settling there 20 years ago, driven by a search for a safe and peaceful home and housing shortages in southern Maine and other parts of New England. The influx transformed the city into one of the whitest states in the country, but the adjustment, which is still ongoing, has not been easy, as fear, mistrust and resentment of the newcomers, mostly Muslim Somalis, by some white residents has fueled lingering tensions.

In one sign of progress, voters last year elected Rep. Manu Abdi, a Democrat from Lewiston who ran unopposed, becoming the first elected Somali-American legislator. Ms. Abdi came to the United States as a child after her family fled war in Somalia.

Politically, Lewiston’s position in central Maine, between the liberal south and the more conservative north, makes for a complex mix of opinions and cultures, African Muslim women in hijabs coexisting with burly bearded white men in work boots and camouflage. The city is home to Bates College, an elite liberal arts campus with a new black president; it is also surrounded by forest, farmland and small rural towns where hunting is a way of life and the rights of gun owners are fiercely defended.

It is too early to say what political developments could occur as a result of the violence. A day after the shooting, Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston-born centrist Democrat and combat veteran, reversed his longtime position and called for a ban on assault weapons, expressing remorse.

Kerri Arsenault, a writer who grew up in Mexico, another Maine factory town, said Lewiston’s underdog identity reflects changing attitudes toward blue-collar workers across the country, with low-wage workers routinely disparaged.

“In the past, the working class was considered honorable, loyal, hardworking,” she said, “but that has changed. Nevertheless, work and work ethics are part of the local identity, the pride of the place. ”

That willingness to dig in the hard work will be needed now, she and others said, as the city moves through a different kind of darkness.

“The people of Lewiston are known for our strength and courage,” said Carl Sheline, the city’s mayor. “We will need both of them in the coming days.”

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