Following the opening of the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art building earlier this summer, a mini explosion of angst erupted among certain longtime Rockland residents about the city’s changing cultural identity. And it didn’t help when the Portland Press Herald ran its stomach-churning headline, “When it comes to art, Rockland’s ‘where all the cool kids are.’”

Naturally, it wasn’t long before a few local writers (including one in our own paper) began channeling the most recent resurfacing of the very-familiar-and-very-often-told tales of Rockland’s past glory days. In June, a retired Bangor Daily News reporter was inspired enough to dig up and dust off one of his old essays that fondly recalled the good ol’ days when Rockland was known as a great place to get a beer and a bottle upside the head. Back to a time when Rockland was just a humble li’l drinkin’ town with a big fishin’ problem.

It was a time — as we’ve heard ad nauseam from various veteran Rockland war correspondents — when the NSKK biker club roamed the streets with their big mean dogs. One of the “delightful stories” the reporter recalled was when a police officer was beaten unconscious at the old Oasis (now the Myrtle Street Tavern). For a little wholesome fun, we could bomb around the rotary, rumble in the McDonald’s parking lot or beat the tar out of some out-of-towner at the Lobster Festival. Did I mention that you could fill up your gas tank for just two bits? Alas, now in the place of the beloved Winter Street pool hall, which was shut down after police discovered it was being used for a cocaine dealing operation in the late 1990s, is CMCA (eye roll).

“Art center?” the BDN columnist sniffed. “I still miss the NSKK.”

We also didn’t have all those hoity-toity gelato shops and froo-froo ethnic restaurants back in the day because most of the stores on Main Street were boarded up. We had Chuck Wagon (now the Time Out Pub) where the real men ate supper. Jobs, you say? Well, we may not have had those “silly” artists and hipsters with their fancy degrees and made-up jobs, but we did have the sardine cannery where we could toil late into the night for pennies. And if menial piece work wasn’t your bag, there was always the Seapro rendering plant that for years enveloped the town in a thick stench of rancid fish waste. 

Sure, some likened that rank odor to “baked vomit,” as the BDN columnist noted, but [some] “locals said that was ‘the smell of jobs.’” Thirty-three jobs, to be exact, and goodness knows how many other businesses were driven away by the putrid smell. These days some Rocklanders seem to still wear the city’s unofficial former slogan “Rockland by the smell” like a badge of honor. But certainly not all of them.

 


“For some reason, especially during a prosperous time of the year, some feel the need to ‘let everyone know’ what Rockland was like years ago, and throw some shade on the thriving main street and the art community in general,” said one lifelong Rockland resident, who for years worked at the now-defunct National Sea Products plant. “In the process, the very tired ‘Camden by the Sea, Rockland by the Smell’ slur is trotted out for a new and unsuspecting audience.… The old men around town were once little Rockland boys that had to hear it when they visited Camden. Rockland has been a place of change since well before the decade of the ’70s and will continue to change. Let us welcome change, not piss on it.”

But although the Rockland economy has gone through several transitions — from the lime capital, to a booming boatbuilding center and then a predominantly fishing village — its latest transformation to an arts and food mecca is unprecedented. That’s because for over 150 years, Rockland has been primarily a blue-collar town and its hardworking, resilient citizens have never been afraid of getting their hands dirty to get by. Now, not only are they forced to adapt to a new industry, but it’s a world that many don’t connect with. And while the arts and nonprofit sectors may offer better wages for a few people with the right skills and specialized degrees, they’re usually not available to the 63 percent of Rocklanders without a college degree. 

With a median household income of just over $36,000 per year, many Rocklanders can’t afford to go to those fancy restaurants or sample the latest local craft brews. And as the city garners headlines for being one of the “best places to live” for its arts, food and entertainment, the housing rents have skyrocketed faster than in even Portland’s insanely overheated rental market. As it’s been proven time and again, the process of gentrification starts with the artists and hipsters attracted to a city for its authenticity and low housing costs. Then come the wealthy, who price everyone else out and destroy that working-class authenticity that drew many transplants there in the first place. So while Portland papers describe Rockland as the “jewel of the midcoast” and “a working-class city with maritime roots and a Brooklyn vibe,” it’s understandable when a local boy might have the urge to take his jacked-up mud truck down to the latest art opening and chirp the tires.

It’s an uncomfortable topic for many, but the reality is that Rockland and much of coastal Maine have long been afflicted by class tensions. Unfortunately, it’s not a unique problem as wealth and income inequality soars and working-class people are effectively devalued and disposed of across the nation. So while romanticizing the past, which was never romantic, and sneering at the artists may make some old-timers feel satisfied, it doesn’t get at the root of the problem and it sure won’t bring back the canneries, Seapro or the NSKK.