I spent some time in Pickering Square this week.
No one swore at me or asked me for money or cigarettes.
A gentleman waiting for the bus joined me on my shaded bench and told me he had finished mowing some lawns and was planning on mowing a few more when the day grew a bit cooler.
We chatted for a few minutes and he was off to jump on his bus.
It was the most pleasant part of my visit.
Let’s face it. Pickering Square simply isn’t the most charming place to spend an afternoon. It’s noisy and it smells of gas fumes since it abuts Bangor’s Community Connector bus depot located at the Pickering Square Parking Garage.
There are dozens of city spots that are much more inviting to rest or enjoy a sandwich at lunchtime.
Pickering Square is a bother and has been a bother for more than a decade.
It may have held promise when those bricks were first laid and the fountain erected, but its proximity to the bus depot and its central downtown location make it an attractive hangout for some whom many would just as soon not have in their backyard.
And really, that’s what Pickering Square is: downtown’s backyard.
The Bangor City Council, police chief and downtown merchants met in 1999 to try to tone down the behavior in the square. At one of those meetings, then-Police Chief Don Winslow mentioned that money had been earmarked for a surveillance camera system which would allow for real-time monitoring of the square at the police department.
Apparently that system was installed and it was used for some time but stopped working a few years ago. It has never been repaired or replaced and has been virtually forgotten. Current Council Chairman Cary Weston indicated he was interested in having the system looked at to see if it could be made to work again in order to restore a sense of safety for those who use or walk through the square.
The concerns expressed in city council chambers back in 1999 were largely the same as those mentioned today: panhandlers, foul language, intoxication and a general sense of uneasiness about the place by those who work, shop, play or dine in downtown Bangor.
My time at the square was in the middle of two midweek afternoons. I was not at all uneasy. There is enough foot traffic through and around the square during a weekday that I felt no concern for my safety.
I watched as business people, men and women, together and alone cut through the square from one part of downtown to another. No one seemed even a bit nervous, though there certainly were groups of young people gathered around the various benches surrounding the square’s perimeter.
What appeared to be grandparents talked and laughed as they led a couple of young children through the square toward the parking garage.
No one bothered them or seemingly paid them any attention at all.
But when an elderly man took a seat on a shaded bench, reading a newspaper, presumably waiting for a bus, a young man who had been part of a much larger group broke away, wandered over to the man and proceeded to sit on a nearby step facing him, only five feet away.
There seemed to be no reason, other than perhaps intimidation, for the young man’s movement. Eventually, one by one, other members of the group wandered over, sitting beside the elderly man on the bench and standing around him.
He kept reading his paper. They didn’t seem to be talking with him, but I felt a bit like I was watching a bullying scene unfold on a playground.
Finally, his bus came.
Meanwhile, another elderly man, this one with a walker and wheeling an oxygen tank, sat alone on a bench on the opposite side of the square.
The same young man walked across and sat down beside him, again not saying a word. Again, one by one his friends wandered over to him and they began their conversation, which mostly consisted of foul language.
The elderly man stood his ground and held his place on the bench. After 20 minutes or so the group seemed to grow bored and left for another nearby bench.
The groups that were there the days I spent in the square seemed to just wander from bench to bench. Some would leave, others would join, others would return and the whole time they would wander from bench to bench.
The language was rough and disturbing, but sadly it’s not abnormal to hear the same in a grocery store parking lot or while walking through the mall.
If you are troubled watching young mothers and their friends hanging over baby strollers with cigarettes dangling from their lips and fingers, then perhaps spending an afternoon at Pickering Square isn’t for you.
While I was there a Bangor police cruiser parked for some time near the edge of the park and another drove slowly by two or three times.
Some have said it gets more disturbing in the late afternoon and is concerning for downtown workers leaving for the day. Bangor police have indicated they will have an officer on foot patrolling the area more closely during those hours.
A continued effort to bring interesting activities to the square could also go far to disperse those who hang out there now. Historically, the problem with that plan has been getting people to turn out for those events, especially ones scheduled during weekdays. The River City Cinema’s Friday night movie and Thursday’s Cool Sounds summer series and market on Thursday evenings are both successful.
From what I saw this week, Councilor Pat Blanchette’s suggestion of a smoking ban in the square would certainly be a game changer.
It certainly wouldn’t end the problem, however. It would simply relocate it.