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ROCKLAND, Maine ― When a city has been dubbed the “Arts Capital of Maine,” it only seems fitting that when officials close a side street to traffic for five months, a massive street mural is planned and completed in 10 days.
That’s what happened on Oak Street this past week, where an existing vibrant and abstract wall mural painted in 2015 was extended onto the pavement. The city has closed this corridor between Main and Union streets through October to allow restaurants and retail operations — including Cafe Miranda, Fog Bar and Cafe, Lulu’s Ice Cream and Rock City Cafe — to sprawl outside and operate amid COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.
“We’re in such a weird sort of messy moment,” City Councilor Ben Dorr, who helped organize the street beautification project, said. “It feels like a moment where we need to paint the whole world pink and bright green. There are so many problems that we can’t solve because they are so far out of our hands. So, what are some things we can solve? One thing we can solve for is making our community more beautiful and dynamic and fun.”
The driving force behind the mural is Alexis Iammarino, a community artist and muralist based in Rockland. Iammarino collaborated with two other artists to create the colorful Oak Street wall mural in 2015.
Through the school-based Arts in Action program, Iammarino and students from Regional School Unit 13 had been working with the city since May to decorate concrete barriers that would cordon off areas when the city planned on closing Main Street.
So when the city decided to shut down Oak Street, Iammarino thought extending the wall mural there would be a great opportunity to brighten up the street and make it more welcoming, both to businesses that need extra outdoor spaces and for the public to have a place to safely gather outside.
“Every business has a very nuanced personal reason for not opening or for opening. The best thing the city can do, in my opinion, is to try and offer some hospitable spaces,” Iammarino said. “With a space like this, everyone can opt in when they feel safe.”
Iammarino and Dorr put out a call for volunteers on June 17 and by the first day of painting on June 19, nearly 50 had volunteered to help paint. For three days, they worked in shifts of five or six people at a time. The volunteers ranged in age from 3 to 83.
“We have this amazing capacity in Rockland for community support,” Iammarino said. “I never require any experience [to work on community murals]. It’s just people’s willingness to show up.”
The mural aims to help maintain social distancing efforts — there’s a line of brightly-colored ice cream cones that are spaced 6 feet apart, as well as multiple large blocks of color that provide space for picnic tables to be set up safely.
Dorr said the city is planning to bring in lighting, as well as trees and planters, to make the space even more inviting.
Rockland was the first city in Maine to float the idea of closing streets in order to give restaurants and retail operations more outdoor space to serve customers amid distancing regulations aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, but other towns have acted faster to implement those changes.
Last weekend, Rockland Main Street ― which also doubles as Route 1 ― closed Friday evening through Saturday for the first time this summer. Businesses saw mixed results.
Main Street will again shut down this weekend, though the city is still assessing if the closures will continue throughout the summer.
However, small side streets in downtown, such as Oak Street, present fewer logistical challenges when it comes to closing them, Dorr said.
“This is a part of the city we can close without having a dramatic effect on traffic,” Dorr said. “It seemed like an easy equation to solve.”
The Oak Street closure began to take shape when Cafe Miranda owner Kerry Altiero asked the city council if he could use some parking spaces in front of his restaurant to put up picnic tables so patrons could eat takeout from his pandemic-born pop-up business Pizza on the Street.
“They just jumped on it. It was approved at a city council meeting at 8 p.m. and at 4:30 the next morning a public works crew was here putting the jersey barriers in place,” Alterio said.
Altiero never imagined that the city would take his request one step further and shut down the street, let alone agree to turn the space into a “color corridor,” as Iammarino affectionately calls the space.
But Altiero isn’t surprised at the way the community is working to make the most out of a difficult situation. In his 28 years in business, a “can-do” attitude is something he has learned is ingrained in Mainers, especially in Rockland, a city with a particularly gritty history.
In this instance, that tenacity has been translated into a work of art in the face of a global pandemic.
“Rockland is the ‘Art Capital of Maine’ but there is always going to be a little grit in the arugula salad. There is a grittiness in Rockland that is practical and speaks to the values of Mainers, a kind of tenacity and a can do attitude,” Altiero said. “If anyone is going to figure it out, man, we’re going to figure it out.”