(Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
(Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Nate was sitting with a friend outside of Rock City Cafe discussing local affairs. He enumerated some of the wonderful things in his field of vision: a bicycle rack holding a pair of bicycles; LED streetlights adorned with planted flowers; share-the-road bicycle icons; sidewalk cafe seating, and so forth. He then observed that this pleasant vista was representative of what he perceived (and perceives) as some of the virtues of Rockland as a place to live. His interlocutor responded that these things were true and good, but that it was a shame that almost everyone who passed by on foot appeared to have been a tourist. Where were the locals?

It’s a common notion that downtown Rockland no longer caters to locals and that it is now overrun by art galleries, high-priced restaurants and the like. We think there is some truth to that. But one other thing we notice about downtown is a lack of truly welcoming public space. There are public parks adjacent to downtown, and right on Main Street there are Winslow-Holbrook Memorial Park (partially dominated by the Brass Compass Cafe) and the unshaded park near the ferry terminal. But most people on downtown Main Street are either spending money in private spaces, thinking about spending money in private spaces, or in transit.

Part of this lack of inviting public space has to do with the transformation of Rockland that has occurred over the past decades. In 1992, the City Council unanimously voted to remove downtown benches due to concerns over “loitering” and “rowdiness.” William Francis Fagan, writing in his 2003 doctoral dissertation, “From Lime Kilns to Art Galleries: A Historical Anthropogeography of the Maine Coast City of Rockland,” explains (quoting intrepid and abiding local reporter Stephen Betts from 1992) that:

Merchants had been pressuring the city government to remove the benches because they “give people who misbehave a base for their troublemaking” and that “if there were no benches, they would have to keep on moving.” Various business interests explained about the ways that rowdy loiterers were intimidating potential customers and driving away business. Conditions deteriorated further after dark along the business section. A restaurant owner explained: “Many patrons who eat lunch downtown will not eat dinner there because of the activity on Main Street.”

The removed benches downtown were eventually replaced with the current granite benches, which are visually attractive and reflective of a proud local heritage, but very uncomfortable to sit on! It’s long past time for comfortable and inviting public spaces to make a comeback in Rockland. But how can we accomplish this? After all, there simply isn’t much space physically available along our narrow downtown Main Street. We have a few ideas.

First: More benches! Comfortable ones! With backs!

Next: Sunday Strolls. (Here we credit Matthew Ondra, who brought this idea to public attention in Rockland.) Consider Rockland Main Street, Inc.’s yearly Summer Solstice Celebration, a lively street party stretching the length of downtown. We haven’t done any polling or scientific study, but anecdotally it appears that the celebration attracts a broad cross-section of our community. The closure of the street to vehicular traffic transforms Main Street from something that people sometimes find uninteresting or even alienating into a free, accessible, open-air party. What if we were to do this more than once per year? That’s the idea behind “Sunday Strolls,” which would involve the closure of part of Main Street to vehicular traffic on one Sunday each month so that people can enjoy a purely pedestrian experience of downtown. To those who object, we suggest that if drivers want to avoid downtown, they can do so via Broadway.

Another idea is a publicly owned, drop-in indoor space on Main Street, in which no money need change hands.

Finally, let’s consider a more permanent transformation of vehicular traffic on Main Street. Why do we need two lanes of traffic heading north? Is it because we want traffic to move swiftly through downtown? We think that vehicular traffic should have to move slowly through downtown, not swiftly! We suggest removing one lane of traffic and reclaiming that lane as space for comfortable seating (including for restaurants), green space, and — yes — loitering (aka being a person, relaxing, hanging out in public without having to spend money). This would require cooperation with the state Department of Transportation, but we think Rockland should take the initiative here and reclaim space given to cars as space given to humans!