Across the United States, hundreds of cities have struggled after industrial decline. Some have seen their downtowns gutted. A few have experienced rapid gentrification as the towns have been rediscovered by tech companies, developers, and others.

But some cities follow another, more grassroots, community-based path. Such is the case for Lewiston and Auburn, twin cities on the Androscoggin River in Maine. Here, community organizations, economic development organizations, refugees, and long-time residents have come together to develop a new vision based in collaboration and cooperation.

Lewiston–Auburn is the second-largest metropolitan area in Maine, but with a metro population of fifty-nine thousand, it’s small. Lewiston—the focus here—is located (as is Auburn) in Androscoggin County, home to many farms and small businesses. In the late 1800s, textile mills were built along the Androscoggin River, and soon employed thousands of people, many of whom came to Maine from Quebec. This large Franco-American community faced intense discrimination, including by what had become a very large Ku Klux Klan chapter in Maine by the 1920s.

Over time, however, the Franco-American community became the majority in Lewiston, and French was commonly spoken on the streets of the bustling city. Lewiston thrived for decades, but textile mills, which once employed thousands of workers, started to decline in the 1950s.1 By the end of the twentieth century, the mills were gone, downtown was largely shuttered, and the population was falling.2

Enter a new wave of immigrants, this time from Somalia. The first arrivals came to Lewiston in the early 2000s—some directly from refugee camps in Kenya, while others first went elsewhere, such as Atlanta or Syracuse, but moved to Lewiston after hearing that it was a small, safe city with plenty of housing.

While some local residents welcomed the newcomers, the city government did not. In 2002, Mayor Laurier T. Raymond Jr. wrote an open letter to the Somalis of Lewiston, asking them to stop other Somalis from coming.3 Neo-Nazis from Illinois saw this as an opportunity to organize in Maine, and they planned an outreach meeting in Lewiston. But the mayor’s letter and the Neo-Nazis’ plans backfired, with only forty-five supporters showing up to the outreach meeting and over forty-five hundred people protesting the meeting or joining in a celebration of Lewiston’s new residents.4 During this time of division and conflict, new connections and collaborations started to grow and led to a blossoming of community-based development today.

In 2004, Lewiston proposed building a bypass through the center of the city, right through the poorest neighborhoods—an area referred to as the Tree Streets (because of the many streets named after types of trees).5 This would have effectively displaced 850 residents from their homes. While economic growth was promised, local residents were not convinced and organized The Visible Community (TVC), a grassroots movement that included many low-income elderly, disabled, and neighborhood residents. They opposed the city’s project and put forward their own vision. The result was the creation of The People’s Downtown Master Plan, released in 2008.6 The city’s bypass plan was defeated in summer of 2005, and The People’s Downtown Master Plan laid the seeds for projects and development over the course of the next decade.

Craig Saddlemire, then a recent graduate of Bates College, learned about community organizing from his time working with TVC and applied those skills to forming Lewiston’s first housing co-op, the Faire-Op, with three other friends, in 2008. After the co-op had been in operation for five years, it became apparent that a larger, more inclusive organization was needed to help expand the opportunity of cooperative housing to other community members.

Given that the Faire-Op was founded and led by young, white college graduates, it was clear that greater representation in leadership would be necessary for the project to successfully reach the communities seeking better housing. Joined by other community leaders, they formed the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative and developed a board that reflected the diversity of the neighborhood.7 Soon afterward, they bought a second building next to the original Faire-Op. They expanded again with a purchase of two more buildings, which brought their total to fifteen housing units and fifty residents.8

Today, residents and leaders of the Raise-Op include First Nations people and other long-time Mainers, as well as immigrants from Quebec, Djibouti, Congo, Angola, Somalia, Mexico, Brazil, and Europe. One of those buildings also became home to the Raise-Op’s office and to the Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA).9 Saddlemire said, “We are creating affordable, inclusive, and democratic homes for our people. Through our organization, residents are also able to become more civically engaged, and many are leading neighborhood redevelopment projects, educating their neighbors about cooperative economics, and finding strength in collective action. We are bringing self-determination and community control back to the residents and, most importantly, treating housing as a human right to be protected, rather than a commodity to be exploited.”10

Since moving to Lewiston, the Somali community has been steadily developing businesses, farms, and organizations that are meeting community needs. In early 2002, Fatuma Hussein worked with community elders to form a small nonprofit, United Somali Women of Maine, to increase community engagement and provide services for the growing Somali population.11 Hussein increasingly became a spokesperson and connector for the community. This organization later became the Immigrant Resource Center as it expanded its mission and reach.12 A few years later, members of the Somali Bantu community—from Southern Somalia, and culturally distinct from the ethnic Somalis—started their own association (the Somali Bantu Community Association [SBCA]), and a youth soccer program that later became Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (MEIRS).13

SBCA began by offering cultural programs to support its community. After hearing from community members that they wanted to access farmland, SBCA started a community farming program in 2012, which now supports two farms in Lewiston and Auburn, with over one hundred farmers, and is seeking to purchase permanent farmland for its farmers.

Other Somali refugees have started farm businesses, aided by an incubator farm program called the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP).14 Originally a project of Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (also known as CEI)15—a statewide community development financial institution (CDFI)