Wednesday, February 10, 2010

We heart these people: Meet Portland's most influential

Published in the Portland Phoenix (an introduction and my segments of a larger piece, which can be found here and on subsequent pages)

We all know Portland is a busy, exciting place to live. It takes a lot of people's amazing energy to keep it going, though. Who's doing the moving and the shaking?

We started with a simple question: Who are the people without whom Portland would be the poorer? But that's not the only criterion. Who is making Portland, and Maine, great for all of us to live, work, and play in today, and even better for tomorrow? Who is spending their time and energy really contributing deeply, in a way we should all notice and appreciate (even if they're too modest — and busy — to seek that publicity themselves)?

We thought about this ourselves and talked about it (quietly) around town. One person we consulted put it perfectly when rephrasing what we had asked her: "Who do I look up to and admire the hell out of?"

Perhaps the best thing, though, is that this list (which we split into categories largely for logistical reasons — many of these people cross the artificial lines we created) could also have been called "Portland's Most Humble," given many of the responses we got after telling people they made the list. "Aw, shucks, thanks," read one e-mail. "Can't be that elite if I'm in it," wrote another PMIer. "Did you mean to send this to me?" and "Are you sure you've got the right person?" were also common responses — even from people with very prominent community roles. But we suspect that most of the people felt like the person who wrote "I'm embarrassed and very, very pleased."

And yes, we know we missed some people — any list like this will never be complete — so if this list is missing you (or someone you know), please let us know.

Even if you've never met RABBI AKIVA HERZFELD, when you call to introduce yourself, you might be invited to a Portland Pirates hockey game with the BlackBerry-toting leader of Portland's oldest orthodox Jewish community, Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.

It's that sort of cognitive dissonance that makes him particularly well suited to be here now. While Herzfeld speaks about his elders, Jewish tradition, and the history of his people with deep respect and feeling — not least because his grandparents fled from the Nazis with his infant father — his eyes are clearly looking ahead, not backward. His congregation, he says with a smile, are "traditional, more than orthodox," perhaps "a little bit more liberal" than their fellow believers in larger cities, such as the Staten Island, New York, community where he grew up.

He works to connect the generations — allowing older members of his congregation to continue in aspects of Jewish life they have long found meaningful, while also reaching out to young people — as in his annual college-student get-together at Shaarey Tphiloh, when he invites Jewish students from colleges around Maine and New England to spend a weekend at the synagogue (and attend a hockey game with other congregation members, young and old).

Beyond his own community, Herzfeld is making a name for himself in the civic life of greater Portland. When Shaarey Tphiloh was vandalized by people who painted swastikas on the sign outside the building, he got in touch with a wide range of people — obviously the police, but also community organizations, and other religious groups — and held a rally to condemn hate as a way of responding to the incident. He's also willing to stop and chat when he sees people looking quizzically at his yarmulke, or is approached on the street to talk about Israel or Judaism. And he just gave an invocation at the NAACP breakfast for Martin Luther King Day.

"We try to be involved in every issue" where Jewish perspective can deepen people's understanding, he says. He has written and spoken publicly about issues that may seem far afield from traditional Jewish rabbinical studies, such as the problems with solitary confinement in Maine's prison system and security in the post-9/11 world.

"Jewish tradition and Jewish values have a lot to offer for people in Maine," he says, noting that one of the security issues he discussed was a report that an airplane passenger had become alarmed upon seeing a fellow passenger — a devout Jew, as it turned out — preparing for prayer by putting on tefillin, small boxes containing tiny copies of the Torah that are strapped to the arms and head during worship.

As governments and societies struggle with how to accommodate with such important and ancient traditions in the modern world, it's vital to remember that many people live those traditions daily. Into that conversation, Herzfeld injects a reasonable voice, not to mention a listening ear and an open mind. "I think our state has a lot to learn from diverse opinions," he says.

It's kind of by accident that PHILIP RHINELANDER, owner of XPress Copy, has come by his influence. Once a musician and music teacher in Vermont, he relocated to Maine more than 30 years ago to open a copy shop on the advice (and the financial backing) of a friend.

"The first five employees were all musicians," he recalls, and he and they had "always felt the pinch of the nonprofits, of the musicians, of the arts groups." In the early years, XPress Copy helped them out by interrupting larger corporate jobs to do small reproduction pieces for art students and the like, making them feel taken care of. Rhinelander confesses to not seeing the benefit of this for a little while, but "within a few years, those art students were office managers" and making decisions about where their companies would get copies, enlargements, and other printing jobs done.

In the '80s, Rhinelander's growing firm gave people credit on their accounts for bringing in paper to be recycled, and even trademarked CleanPrint, an ammonia-free method for making blueprints.

And he always gave discounts to non-profits and arts groups. But it wasn't until the early 2000s that some friends and he hit upon the concept that has made XPress Copy's reputation in the arts and entertainment community around town. Bulk discounts are a given in reproduction, but what if they stopped viewing each organization as an individual? They adopted the idea that "if you're a non-profit, you're part of the biggest customer in Maine" and started giving even bigger discounts.

The program has grown — it has an official name (XPress Non-profit Program) and even a targeted-marketing brochure — and is now a sizeable percentage of the company's business, as well as a significant money-saver for countless non-profits and artists. It's now even serving sports booster clubs, an organization of Mayflower descendants, and pretty much any group that is "doing some good for people."

It's a clever arrangement, business-wise, because Rhinelander has structured the price sustainably: the discount is not so low that XPress Copy loses money — it's just enough to give a small profit that means he can keep expanding the service without worrying about hurting the company. Rather, as Rhinelander notes, "we've found our niche." Some of his most recent additions to the business have been inspired by asking — and answering — the question, "What do the non-profits really need?"

And it has been crucial for business overall, because, of course, pretty much everyone — including, importantly, people who make corporate copying decisions — is somehow involved in an organization that qualifies, whether as the parent of a kid who plays on a team, or a church, or some other community group. The discount gets them in Rhinelander's door, but the service and quality, he hopes, brings them back, with corporate accounts in tow.

The husband-and-wife team of TRISTAN GALLAGHER and MICHELLE SOULIERE could qualify for this category solely on the basis of creating amazing business names: "Fun Box Monster Emporium" and "Green Hand Bookshop" are not stores in JK Rowling or Roald Dahl books, but rather places exploring, from different angles, the fun, fantastic, pulpy, popular side of literacy.

Gallagher, drummer for Covered in Bees and frontman of Man-Witch, and co-founder of the We Hate T-shirts screen-printing company, also has five unpublished books (including illustrated books), some based on his Sam and Timmy zine.

Souliere, who used to work at the Portland Public Library and the University of Southern Maine, runs the Strange Maine blog and Gazette, and has a Strange Maine book in the works, too. She also runs a blog for her bookshop, and somehow manages to find time to work on the Portland Art Horde and any number of other projects she dreams up.

She reports that much of what she and Gallagher do comes from sentences that start with, "Wouldn't it be cool if . . ." and finish with some crazy scheme. For some of those plans, "it just happens."

Gallagher's latest project, the Fun Box Monster Emporium pop-culture trinket shop, has its beginnings in what he calls a "destructively stifling job" that he left to start the screen-printing company in some extra space in their apartment. But then they moved to a much smaller apartment.

"I had to find a place to put the stuff," Gallagher says wryly. He reinvigorated an old eBay business selling toys — which he had also stored around the place but had to relocate when they moved. Inspired by the crazy collective shops like the East Village's Toy Tokyo and Love Saves The Day (which recently moved to Pennsylvania), Gallagher decided to open a store like that here.

Like her husband's business, which shares space with Coast City Comics and lets each side benefit from the other's traffic, Souliere's effort, the Green Hand Bookshop, also pairs up with a complementary endeavor: Loren Coleman's International Cryptozoology Museum (which explains the giant Bigfoot figure in the front window of the store).

Her next idea is to hold events at the shop that are less directly related to books than typical bookstore events, such as a get-together where people use nice pens and nice paper to hand-write letters, encouraging people to focus on the written word.

And after that? Almost anything for Portland's busiest dreamers — who have a knack for turning their crazy concepts into reality. "We've just always been astonished by people being bored," Souliere says with a laugh.

Portland's police chief, JAMES CRAIG, arrived last May and wasted no time in telling us the often-unpleasant truths about life and crime in the Forest City. A transplant from Los Angeles with years of experience dealing with gang violence, drug-related crime, and people who can't get proper mental-health services, he has publicly announced that these and other problems exist in Portland, and asked for help dealing with them. That move removed the scales from many Portlanders' eyes and outright demanded that we look those and other challenges directly in the face.

But he's no "Media Mike" Chitwood — he's far less inflammatory, and much more thoughtful, than the last chief many Portlanders remember (the two in the interim were quiet, if not silent) — and he's not even close to declaring his efforts a success. "I'm optimistic," Craig will admit, but he knows there is a lot of ground yet to cover. He has more ideas, seemingly all the time, to help achieve these solutions, and, for a man whose career has been spent wearing a gun and carrying handcuffs, almost none of them involve arresting people or creating new laws. Rather, they're about drawing different groups of people — including immigrants and students, two groups that have traditionally had difficult dealings with the police — into discussions and activities with the police, sharing time together.

It is true that he has brought aspects of big-city policing to our small burg. Having seen how well Tasers can help defuse situations with distraught people, he introduced them, complete with a trial run and among the strictest guidelines in the country. It was not a slam-dunk proposal, but his moderate approach — including his insistence that no officer would carry a Taser without special training — quieted many potential critics long enough for the officers to demonstrate that they would not Taser people willy-nilly, as we might have feared from watching trigger-happy cops on television.

Craig brought in CompStat, a computerized tracking system that shows when and where crimes occur, and meetings at which he and other department leaders regularly review the information. It helps him decide where to allot resources, and gives the senior lead officers in each neighborhood (also a Craig idea) a real leg up in spotting trouble and stopping it before it gets out of hand.

He has announced that this year the department will focus on gangs, graffiti, and drugs, linking them not only to each other but to street robberies and car and home burglaries that dramatically increase people's fear of crime.

Which gets at the question that seems to be on Craig's mind all the time: Having assured himself that the department is working hard at keeping people safe, he wonders whether the public perception is changing: "Do people feel safer?" If not, he suggests, then the police have to work all the harder.

Look for upcoming efforts including expanding the Police Athletic League to non-sports activities for kids and teens (including possible a late-night cybercafe during the summer), and a play by Portland officers about relations between them and community members — inspired by a similar play put on for Craig and others by Portland High School students.