The task of explaining how a city became what it is has traditionally fallen to historians, or perhaps novelists. But a Bowdoin student is spending her summer creating a different sort of account of the Portland waterfront. Jenny Ibsen ’18, who has a Phocas Family Fellowship from Bowdoin, is starting her capstone project for her self-designed major of urban studies. In addition to writing a thesis paper, she is building an interactive website that combines journalism, sociology, art, and history to tell the story of a transforming Portland waterfront.
Over the last century, Portland’s waterfront has shifted from being a transportation nexus — with goods loaded from train to ship and vice versa — to a fishing hub. But as fishing declined, tourism has become more prominent. Lobster boats now moor next to high-end restaurants and condos.
Starting in the 1970s, the city took a more active role in balancing the needs of fishermen and others who make their livelihood from the sea with commercial interests. In Ibsen’s eyes, “Portland is unique compared to other coastal cities,” as it has actively taken efforts to preserve its functional harbor. At the same time, waterfront businesses have helped themselves by catering to tourists in some cases, such as by offering ferry boat tours and dining on a floating restaurant, such as DiMillos . “The waterfront has found a way to make people interested in fisheries,” she said.
“Ultimately, my research will provide an in-depth look at the role the city of Portland has played in shaping its waterfront and the effects that urban control has on the physical space and community,” Ibsen writes in her grant proposal.
Now, besides relying on old maps of the waterfront from the last 100 years and digging up city documents on zoning, developing and preservation policies, Ibsen is meeting with people with ties to the waterfront industry. So far she has interviewed the city’s waterfront coordinator, a local journalist, the Portland Library archivist, a boat captain , and a couple of restaurant owners.
As part of the interview, Ibsen asks each of her subjects to sketch the waterfront from memory. While they draw the piers and businesses along Commercial Street, she prods them to talk about important landmarks or changes they have noted at specific points — perhaps a condo complex that was once a chandlery. “It’s called mental mapping, or cognitive mapping,” Ibsen explained. “The point of cognitive mapping is to see how people perceive space. People’s maps show their different perspectives.”
Ibsen said she first became interested in Portland, and urban studies, when she took a computational studies class, The Digital Image of the City, with Bowdoin professor Jen Jack Gieseking, in her first year at college. The course shows students how to use technology and large data sets to design hypothetical civic projects that can improve urban life, such as more efficient bus routes or urban parks that filter and clean rainwater.
Ibsen, who is from outside New Haven, grew up exploring both her home city and New York City. “I love how cities are changing constantly,” she said. “They’re never the same thing, in terms of infrastructure and who is there, but also my city is always different from your city.”