‘Lewiston Strong’: After Mass Shooting, Residents Emerge With Grit

On a sparkling October morning, with peak fall foliage blazing red and yellow, the residents of Lewiston emerged from two long days of lockdown on Saturday into a city forever changed.

Stores reopened. Sidewalks came to life. And the families of 18 people killed by a mass shooter here on 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 — sits away from the picturesque harbors and privileged enclaves of the coastline, in the sprawling inland interior of this vast rural state. With a history bookended by two waves of immigration, a century apart, and hollowed out by the lost textile mills that once defined its economy, it is frequently described by outsiders with well-worn, vaguely disparaging adjectives. Gritty. Scrappy. Blue-collar. Down-on-its-luck.

Lewiston — a city of 36,000 that feels more like a small town — sits away from the picturesque harbors and privileged enclaves of Maine’s famous coastline.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
Bates College students on campus on Friday.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

Some bristle at terms they consider put-downs of their home, its old brick mills and triple-deckers, deep French Canadian heritage and new African migrant community. But other locals, including Kristen Cloutier, a state representative who has served as Lewiston’s mayor and city councilor, embrace the idea of Lewiston and its sister city Auburn as stubborn survivors.

“Scrappy and gritty are central to this place,” said Ms. Cloutier, who grew up there. “People say that Lewiston is tough as nails, and that is true. The place is genuine — what you see is what you get — and people are dedicated to it in a way that feels deeply personal.”

That commitment, and the city’s belief in its own strength, will help knit it back together, she said, in the wake of the worst violence the state has ever seen.

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

A closed store during the manhunt in Lewiston.Credit…John Tully for The New York Times
Near the location where officials found the body of the gunman.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Signs of the city’s resilience were emerging 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 stapled to trees bore simple handwritten messages of devotion — “To my city”; “To my neighbor” — and “Lewiston Strong” signs popped up in windows.

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

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

Some of the region’s toughness derives from its climate, with long, harsh winters demanding raw endurance. The local sport of choice is ice hockey, where players risk frostbite and bench-clearing brawls; Lewiston’s most storied sporting history is a 1965 heavyweight boxing championship at its marquee arena, the Colisée, where Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston in under three minutes and stood over his fallen rival shouting, “Get up and fight, sucker!”

Eve Ali, 30, a Lewiston resident, gave away stacks of doughnuts and cups of hot coffee.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
In Lewiston, paper hearts stapled to trees bore simple handwritten messages of devotion.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

Another strain of grit is demanded by the area’s economic struggles, as new industries failed to fill the gaps left by shuttered mills. In the years before the coronavirus pandemic, small businesses multiplied downtown, creating new momentum, Ms. Cloutier said. But the pandemic and resulting shutdown hit hard, undoing much of that progress. Tourism has also been hard to cultivate.

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

In one sign of progress, voters last year elected Representative Mana Abdi, a Lewiston Democrat who ran unopposed, making her the state’s 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 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 ringed by woods, farmland and tiny rural towns where hunting is a way of life and gun owners’ rights are ardently defended.

Lili Hirst hands out flowers to strangers in downtown Lewiston on Saturday.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
“Lewiston people are known for our strength and grit,” said Carl Sheline, the city’s mayor.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

It is too soon to say what political shifts might come in the fallout from the violence. One day after the shootings, Representative Jared Golden, a centrist Democrat born in Lewiston and a 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 mill town, said Lewiston’s underdog identity reflects shifting attitudes toward blue-collar work across the country, with low-wage workers routinely belittled.

“In the past, the working class was seen as honorable, loyal, hardworking,” she said, “but that has changed. Still, work and the work ethic are part of the identity there, the pride of place. ”

That willingness to dig into hard work will be called on now, she and others said, as the city navigates another kind of darkness.

“Lewiston people are known for our strength and grit,” said Carl Sheline, the city’s mayor. “We will need both in the days to come.”

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