Pickering Square behavior concerns residents, councilors, merchants

People gather at Pickering Square to hang out, play games or loiter on Friday, May 25, 2012. Citizens have complained that the area can be scary at certain times of the day.
People gather at Pickering Square to hang out, play games or loiter on Friday, May 25, 2012. Citizens have complained that the area can be scary at certain times of the day. Buy Photo
Posted May 25, 2012, at 7:50 p.m.
Last modified May 26, 2012, at 2:20 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Foul language, shouted curses, public intoxication, panhandling, and fistfights — even in broad daylight.

These are examples of behavior regularly witnessed in the Pickering Square area downtown the last few months that have local merchants, patrons and city officials looking at ways to make a prime downtown destination much more hospitable.

“It’s almost a gantlet of vice you have to go through down there sometimes,” said Niles Parker, executive director of the Maine Discovery Museum on Main Street. “Is this really what you want to have in the heart of the city, especially near a children’s museum? It’s pretty dreadful and it sends a bad message to and for the people of Bangor.”

Parker, who says he has seen fights involving young people and transients, people passed out on lawns and in the park, and regularly hears people screaming four-letter words outside, said the lack of civility and unacceptable social behavior has increased noticeably in the last few months.

“What I find objectionable — despite being from New York — is they yell a lot and use foul language,” said Kathy Tenga-Gonzalez, founder of Bangor’s River City Cinema, which has put on a free outdoor classic movie series at Pickering Square each summer since 2004.

Bangor City Councilor Nelson Durgin talked about an older woman who has to use a cane to get around and regularly uses the bus. She called him to tell him about an incident that scared her.

“She got off the bus, looked around and saw some guy staring at her, and when she moved, he did, too. He never did anything, but it made her very nervous,” Durgin said.

Last week, Durgin personally experienced Pickering’s increasingly seamy side.

“My wife and I were at Paddy Murphy’s having lunch and parked behind Freese’s,” he recalled. “We had a guy come up and ask us for a couple dollars so he could go help a friend.”

Councilor Ben Sprague, who lives in a Broad Street apartment overlooking Main Street, said it’s not just homeless people, the mentally ill and transients causing trouble.

“I think we have some people down there who have nothing better to do,” he said. “There’s a younger crowd of juvenile delinquents occasionally harassing people, too.

“It can be a little dark and intimidating down there, and a lot of people working downtown are used to it, but I think the real worry is people coming in to visit downtown from outlying areas who may be turned off either by a bad experience or a bad perception.”

While the Bangor Police Department has increased its presence in the area recently, people like Parker would like to see more fundamental, long-term remedies.

“I have noticed an increased police presence there, especially lately, but I don’t think it’s a police problem so much as a design and policy issue with all the traffic and idling buses there,” he said. “Nobody’s using the park to sit and read if it’s noisy and they’re breathing diesel fumes. I think they’ve got to come up with a new design.”

Durgin and Sprague said they hope to be able to provide enough budget leeway for police to add foot and bicycle patrols downtown. Other ideas include better lighting for the garage and the square, closing Broad Street to all traffic and relocating the bus station area in front of the parking garage.

“The council is aware that there are citizens’ concerns about safety and security in the downtown area,” Durgin said. “We’re not at the point of making any kind of public announcement as to what will be determined, but we are working with police to clean it up, so to speak, to keep people from being offended or frightened by inappropriate behavior.”

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