Oak Street in Rockland has been closed for the past year, allowing the public and businesses to sprawl and gather. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine — Turning onto the short side road of Oak Street from Rockland’s stretch of Route 1, you step into another dimension — one made up of bright colors and geometric shapes painted on brick walls, the street, concrete barriers and other surfaces.

The smell of burning wood from Cafe Miranda’s fire pits and wood-fired oven wafts through the corridor of the closed one-way street. On weekends — with a backdrop of twinkling lights — you’re likely to hear some form of music.

The atmosphere is the direct result of a street closure authorized by city officials last summer as a way to give abutting businesses and the public a safe space to gather outside during the pandemic. When the street closed, a community artist and a group of volunteers quickly sprang into action to extend an existing wall mural onto the surface of Oak Street.

In the year since being closed to spur business, the street has become a micro-destination that abutters and advocates hopes stays around for the long-term.

Most recently, the space has spurred a collaboration of downtown businesses and local nonprofit organizations who are working to bring public concerts, fundraisers and other events to Oak Street. Last month, the group, Oak Street Presents, sponsored a free punk concert, where it collected donations for the Midcoast Music Academy.

“I feel like we are creating something interesting and vibrant and it’s colorful and it’s fun and it can be loud sometimes and it can be messy sometimes and it’s beautiful for all of these reasons,” said Rockland City Councilor Ben Dorr, who also co-owns a downtown business that is part of the Oak Street Presents group. “We’re demonstrating that if you give people an opportunity to come together and make something beautiful, they will.”

The Rockland City Council has authorized the street to remain closed to vehicle traffic through the fall. But after that, it’s uncertain. The city has not yet made a final decision on what the future holds for Oak Street.

However, Cafe Miranda chef and owner Kerry Altiero said they’re working with the city to determine if a permanent closure of Oak Street could happen and what it could look like. Altiero said he envisions trees being planted in the space and perhaps even an archway at the entrance of the street.

“The idea is to build this public space as an example of what can happen in other towns or in other parts of Rockland,” Altiero said.

City Manager Tom Luttrell did not return a message on Thursday.  

While the street space itself is open for the public to both sit and wander through, abutting businesses including Cafe Miranda as well as nearby Rock City Cafe have been permitted to establish seating areas in portions of a parking lot that sits in between Oak Street and neighboring Orient Street — which remains open to traffic.  Lulu’s Ice Cream and Fog Bar and Cafe have set up a small dining area on Oak Street as well.

This summer, Cafe Miranda approached Alexis Iammarino — the community artist who was the driving force behind the Oak Street murals — to once again expand the mural, this time further down the street. Iammarino also painted a strip of the parking lot behind Rock City Cafe to create a clear, connecting pathway to the neighboring street and businesses.

Rockland City Councilor Ben Dorr, left, and muralist Alexis Iammarino, right, demonstrate how to use the new “color corridor” on Oak Street. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

Iammarino said the interest that Oak Street has garnered is the perfect example of how art can be used as a gathering place.

“It’s such a simple thing to do, just to paint a surface, but it kind of envelopes people,” Iammarino said. “There are always people taking time to take pictures or play [on Oak Street]. It certainly feels rewarding.”

It’s not just a draw during the warmer months either. Cafe Miranda operated entirely outside over the course of last winter, with patrons enduring below freezing temperatures to enjoy dinner and drinks around custom-made fire pits. As the restaurant celebrates its 29th year in Rockland, Altiero said he’s glad  he took the risk on the city before it was considered a cool place to be.

“It was interesting that when we opened [29] years ago, people said, ‘Oh my god, a side street in Rockland? You’re out of your mind.’ So now we look like geniuses, which is amusing to us because we’re just scurrying around like cockroaches when you turn the light on,” Altiero said.

When the pandemic forced cities to rethink the use of public space, Rockland was one of the first Maine towns to explore the idea of closing down streets in order to give businesses more space to sprawl. 

Oak Street is the only side street that remains entirely closed for a second summer. However the city has continued to allow restaurants to use parking spaces for outdoor dining areas elsewhere in the city.

“We don’t need all of these parking spaces. We’ve given so much of our community to vehicles. Oak Street is unique in that we were able to close it and it hasn’t been a significant or even a minor disruption to the flow of traffic in Rockland,” Dorr said. “Nobody has suffered for that being closed in any real capacity, has it been an inconvenience sometimes for some people, sure, probably. But I still drive through Rockland every single day and my life isn’t worse because the street has closed.”

He hopes the experiment on Oak Street becomes a permanent fixture in the city and can serve as an example for how to create more pedestrian-oriented public spaces.

“What I have learned from it is that we should be giving restaurants and businesses more access to public space. Carve it out, turn the music up, people want to be outside, this summer especially. But even going forward, lets’ let things spill out into the street more,” Dorr said.