Bangor wasn’t built in a day. When Samuel de Champlain first came here in 1604, it was already a hub for the Tarratine Indians. Today, a thriving city radiates out from the confluence of the Kenduskeag Stream and the Penobscot River. So we know where Bangor is, but what is Bangor?
Henry David Thoreau famously called Bangor a “shining light on the edge of wilderness.” Now the lights are brighter, but the wilderness is no less wild, as the occasional moose or black bear wanders through to remind us. But the biggest threat to Bangor — and the cultural promise it holds — never came from the surrounding wilderness. It came from within.
This one-time lumber capital of the world has been in search of an identity since the last log floated down the Penobscot. Like an aging ballplayer who can never return to his former glory, Bangor has been tormented by its extraordinary past. The ghosts of drunken workingmen roam Hell’s Half Acre, challenging each successive generation to fill downtown’s vacant buildings like a dram glass.
And while businesses and restaurants have thrived in downtown, for the most part they have been dwarfed by their environment, like the city itself by the woods around it. Dropped ceilings were installed, upper floors abandoned, and life went on. But the ghosts still teased. Is Bangor afraid of its own shadow?
In a scene familiar across America, the few small, locally owned businesses of downtown Bangor have been overmatched by big box stores at the mall with low prices and tons of parking. I had my first job in 1991 at The Wizard of Comics on Central Street. Stocking shelves and ringing up comic books, it was basically a dream job for a 15-year-old. The owner, Arlie Adams, differed from many in his field, believing that comic books were meant to be read, and toys were meant to be played with.
This passed for a revolutionary stance in the collector’s world of the early 1990s, where condition was prized over content. Unfortunately, Arlie’s passion for art, comics, toys and gaming didn’t extend to economics, and “The Wizard” was forced out of business by a slicker operation at the mall.
As the old ghosts happily moved into the abandoned location, in my young mind a line was drawn in the sand (the actual line was somewhere around Howard Street): It was downtown or the mall; only one could survive. Downtown had substance, history, culture and characters. The mall had, again, plenty of parking, and all the awesome stores.
But Bangor’s recent activity has transcended this oversimplified David versus Goliath notion by growing in both directions at once. For every Verve there is a Chipotle, and Bangor seems ready to support both. This is the confluence of more than just the Kenduskeag and Penobscot.
Even Thoreau could see Bangor dwells in contradiction, at once the darkness and the beacon leading out of it. That’s still true today.
Bangor is a city in the middle of nowhere. People travel from an unusually far distance to shop here for essentials, only to travel back an unusually far distance to get away. This is curious. The woods surrounding Bangor are populated with hippies from the back-to-the-earth movement and rednecks from the never-left movement. What these strange bedfellows agree on is that the city is to be avoided.
To these rural folks, Bangor is just a collection of cigarette butts and the bums who smoke them. Or maybe they’re scared of the ghosts. Whatever the case, when it’s time to shop for Christmas, they come to Bangor. Or when Kenny Chesney plays the Waterfront, they come to Bangor. And when — God forbid — they find themselves seriously injured in the back of an ambulance, they shout, “Please take me to Bangor!”
The point is, the people living directly outside the Queen City have a kind of love-hate relationship with it. This is Maine, after all, and I understand wanting to embrace our fine state’s beautiful countryside. But how can a city be expected to thrive surrounded by people in love with the country?
The differences don’t end once you get inside the city limits. As Bangor has grown in recent years there has been a tug-of-war to decide what direction that growth will take. When the city council suggested building the new police station on a convenient piece of real estate off Maine Avenue, well out of downtown, the protests were loud and diverse.
At a public forum on the subject, my former landlady gave a memorably impassioned plea to keep the police station downtown. Opponents to that idea thought it was silly to want the police station quaintly situated near the firehouse, like a child’s Lincoln Log town. The Bangor cops for their part just wanted a new station before the old one on Court Street slid completely into the Kenduskeag Stream. After many deliberations, it was finally decided to build on an old car lot, just down from the fire house, and close to downtown.
Later, partisan politics reared its ugly head in Bangor when protesters from the Occupy movement camped out in the city-owned Pierce Park on Harlow Street. When the city tried to evict the protesters, they moved about 20 feet northwest, onto property belonging to the Bangor Public Library. With a wink, the library declared it had no policy forbidding the occupiers, so it could not, in fairness, ask them to leave. It was suggested that the library’s public funding would be cut if they didn’t comply with the city’s wishes. At that suggestion, the old ghosts raised their glasses in a toast and probably danced a jig, too.
But people on both sides of these disputes share one thing in common: They care about Bangor’s future. (Of course the city also has its fair share of self-promoters, more interested in their own advancement than Bangor’s.) Clearly something is at stake here, and out of these differences a new Bangor emerged.
It would not be like Belfast, with a strong arts community and a ban on big box stores. Nor would it be like Caribou, where residents have recently threatened to secede from the town because of high taxes. Bangor is not, and never will be, a coastal town, trafficking in quaintness. At the same time, it’s not exactly like the inland communities that refuse to change or even seemingly embrace the 21st century culturally.
Part northern, part southern, part coastal, part inland, part small town, part big city, part historic downtown, part newly constructed mall, Bangor’s place in Maine is singular.
The one thing that remains constant through all this is the energy in Bangor. It may not appeal to everyone, but the energy is palpable. Maybe it comes from the feeling you get being “on the edge of wilderness.” Thoreau felt it.
With LifeFlight flying overhead, and firecrackers going off around the corner, I can feel it right now. It’s that undeniable energy that kept downtown on life support during those lean years. Walking through downtown now, one thing is clear: Those years are over. The ghosts are very quiet.
What is less clear is what comes next. The possibilities of a legitimate art scene have never seemed more real. From the folk festival to the art walks, from Waterfront Concerts to Pigeon’s wheatpaste graffiti, and practically everything millennial spitfire Meg Shorette touches, the seeds have been sown for downtown’s renaissance.
But Bangor’s path toward a cultural revival has never gone in a straight line. The recent news that the KahBang festival would be relocating to Portland after five years in the Queen City hit Bangor’s dreamers like a poison dart. But this is really nothing new. Each step forward has always been met with a step back, with both sides tempered by the resistance, and the stakes raised a little higher. The past is prologue, the main event yet to come.
Where the Penobscot River and the Kenduskeag Stream meet, they mix together and become indistinguishable, Maine’s largest estuary. At times it may look peaceful, but below the surface powerful forces are in a constant battle. The tide rises, the currents push back. Fresh water from Allagash country battles the brine of the Atlantic forever, with no clear winner.
Bangorians are no different. Opposing forces never completely dissolve into one another. They churn and clash and come away stronger than before, always giving off that energy. Roger Miller’s vagabond hobo in “King of the Road” said his “destination [was] Bangor, Maine.”
Bangor itself may never reach its fabled destination, but I wouldn’t miss this journey for the world.
Hunter Smith lives in Bangor and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @hunter_smyth.