Has Bangor’s Folk Festival Served Its Purpose?

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The American Folk Festival is in town, and like some Bangor residents who’ve lived here for ten years or more, I’ve become a bit blasé about it. It’s easy to forget what the folk festival has meant for the revival of Bangor’s downtown and waterfront, and thus it was gratifying to read an article in the Bangor Daily News reminding us of its importance in our recent history.

In the Normal Heights neighborhood of San Diego, where I spent the 1990s, there was an annual event called the Adams Avenue Street Fair. It still takes place every September. And like the folk festival in Bangor, it has repercussions throughout the neighborhood that last much longer than the event itself.

I wasn’t here when the National Folk Festival began its three-year run in 2002, but since moving to Bangor in 2006, I’ve attended the folk festival every year. I have never used a car to get there. Nor did I ever use a car to get to the Adams Avenue Street Fair, even though I owned a car then. Normal Heights was, and is, a walking neighborhood, and the 1990s were the beginning of a national movement to take back our cities from the tyranny of the automobile.

Jane Holtz Kay’s seminal book Asphalt Nation (subtitle: How the Automobile Took Over America, and How we can Take it Back) was published in 1997. For forty years, American cities had been busy building shopping malls accessible from freeways and sports stadiums in the suburbs. Downtowns, poorly served by under-funded public transportation, became neglected eyesores, places to be avoided by drivers and pedestrians alike.

Since then, the pendulum has begun to swing back. Municipal governments have begun to invest in their city centers, and Americans are actually driving less than they did ten years ago.

Events like the Adams Avenue Street Fair and the American Folk Festival are well worth the money municipalities spend on them, because they draw people and attention to places where the automobile does not have to dominate. If parking is problematic, that’s part of the point – people can and should be nudged toward getting there some other way. And this gradual change of attitude eventually spills over to other neighborhoods, and other parts of the calendar.

As the BDN pointed out, Bangor would not have the walking waterfront it does today without the impetus of the folk festival. The growing success story that is downtown might not have happened without it. There is much more work to be done in creating a thriving, all-purpose business environment downtown, but movements happen slowly, over time, and there is no question that Bangor is moving in the right direction.

You can see it in the numbers of people on the sidewalks in the evening, in the proliferation of bike racks, in the efforts to expand the Community Connector bus schedule. You can feel it in the friendliness of people on the street liberated from their cars. You can smell it in the breeze blowing up the Penobscot River, truly one of Maine’s great environmental success stories.

If the folk festival has faded in the local imagination, as it has in mine, it’s perhaps because there’s so much more going on now. Ringo Starr and Jimmy Buffett were here this summer. The docks are filled with boats. Kayaks ply the Kenduskeag Stream.

I lost enthusiasm for the Adams Avenue Street Fair, too, after several years in the neighborhood. But the event is still going strong. It hasn’t missed me at all. Like the folk festival, the street fair arrives annually to remind everyone within a certain radius that they live in a community, around a central core.

While much larger than Bangor, San Diego is a city of modest-sized neighborhoods, easily accessible without a car. Both places benefit when the human-automobile relationship is re-evaluated. America is a friendlier country when people get out of their cars and intermingle with each other.

Now if we could just persuade our neighbors to put away their cell phones once in a while. But that’s a topic for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Found My Writing Process on the Bus

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I’m writing this essay on the bus up to Orono. As summer stretches toward its inevitable conclusion, a professor’s thoughts turn toward fall semester classes and the composition of syllabi and the makeup of class rosters. Much work needs to be done before students even set foot in a classroom.

I don’t ride the bus much during the summer, preferring to get around by foot and bicycle, and to spend as much time on the water as I can squeeze in. But the bus is a great place to get work done.

It takes about 35 minutes for the bus to get from Bangor to the University of Maine campus. It takes perhaps 20 minutes to drive, but factoring in the time it takes to park and walk to my office, the total trip length is about the same. And on the bus, these are productive minutes, which behind the wheel would be lost.

I suppose that if I drove, I could dictate this into a recording device, but I’ve never worked that way. And I would have to transcribe it afterward, which amounts to writing it twice. Plus, I have to believe it would be distracting. Driving requires concentration, as does writing. On the bus I don’t have to pay attention to anything.

On the bus, I’ve read and graded countless student papers. I’ve written dozens of these essays. I’ve even written most of a novel, a sprawling saga of more than 700 pages. Whether or not it will ever see publication remains an open question, but it’s finished, and currently in its fourth draft.

A few years ago at Western Connecticut State University, I attended a lecture by the author Dan Pope on “The Writing Process.” As the author of five published novels, I thought I knew all about process. To complete a novel manuscript in a reasonable portion of your lifetime, you must do three things. You must devote time to it every day. You must set achievable deadlines. And, hardest of all, you must write forward, from beginning to end, despite the temptation to revise flawed early sections before you’ve finished a first draft.

Pope’s presentation struck me, at the time, as a penetrating glimpse into the obvious. He told us of various authors and their varied routines, and how messing with their process often messed with their ability to turn out finished work. Big deal, I thought. Every writer has a process. Tell me something I don’t know.

Thing was, though I didn’t know it then, I was a writer without a process. I had this idea for a novel, but it had been a while since I’d written one, and even longer since I’d published one. What I needed was the time to get it done.

As a younger man, I used to get up at five in the morning and write, before going to whatever job was paying the bills. Often these were manual labor jobs that didn’t require much thought outside working hours. Teaching and journalism aren’t like that. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to value my sleep.

But I did have those 35 minutes every weekday morning, and many afternoons. When I set out to write my sprawling family saga, I decided that every time I got on the bus, I would open my laptop and work on the novel. No more reading of books or student papers. No more yakking with my fellow passengers about politics or current events. No music in my ear buds. Just the novel.

Obviously, I worked on it at other times, too, but bus rides became sacrosanct. And I thought back to Pope and his meandering lecture, and realized that I owed him a big nod of thanks. Because, bizarre as it was, I had discovered a process that worked for me, and his talk was the inspiration.

The proof is in the finished manuscript, down from its original 830 pages to, at this writing, 758. It’s a lot of work to write a long novel. I wasn’t sure I could do it. And, as I’ve said, I’m not sure it will ever be published. My longest published book tops out at 309 pages.

But if I owned and drove a car, like most adults I know, I don’t think I could have finished it. The desks of many writers are littered with half-novels. Life gets in the way. I’m glad I don’t waste too much of it behind the wheel.

How is Aroostook County like Outer Space?

 

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Six years ago this week, I drove my boss’s car to research a story on McCain Foods, which manufactures French fries and purchases a third of Aroostook County’s potato crop. Much of it ends up in fast-food restaurants like Arby’s and McDonald’s.

My boss had a sweet little Toyota Camry, with cruise control, a good CD player, and over 200,000 miles on the odometer, which he drove all over the state for business. I drove up alone, as our photographer had other assignments to do before meeting me at the McCain factory in Easton.

Even in the middle of a Maine summer, the interstate was utterly uncrowded. I rolled along on cruise control for an hour, gliding past the occasional car going slower and allowing the faster ones to pass on the long stretches where I could see for a couple of miles and there might not be another vehicle in sight. Even the trucks seemed few and far between (though McCain, as I was to learn that day, sends out 30 to 40 trucks a day full of processed potato product, and if they aren’t on the Interstate, where are they?).

From Houlton, I followed U.S. Route One north. A few years ago, a professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle put together a group of volunteers to create a scale model of the Solar System along the 40-mile stretch between Houlton and Presque Isle.

Most such models are compressed, because the planets are tiny compared to the distances between them. Not this one. It was created before the demotion of Pluto, which is about the size of a crabapple and sits in a display case in the Houlton visitors’ center.

The other planets are on posts along the side of the road. It’s easy to miss Neptune and Uranus, each the approximate size of a beach ball, if you aren’t looking for them, but Saturn, just past the town of Mars Hill, is fairly striking. Each planet is nearly twice as far from the Sun as the next one in (except for Mars and Jupiter, separated by the asteroid belt); the distances between them steadily decrease as you approach Presque Isle. A partial model of the Sun is squeezed into a building at the University. It’s necessarily huge, because the Sun contains 99% of the matter in the Solar System.

The scale is one mile per astronomical unit (An AU is the average distance between Sun and Earth). Thus Earth is a mile from the university, and Neptune more than 30 miles south. Long highway miles pass between the outer planets. The inner planets go by in an eyeblink.

It’s a fabulous physical demonstration of the size of the Solar System, and it can only be appreciated by car. Oh, I suppose you could do it by bicycle, but it would be a long day, and you would have to get the bicycle up to Aroostook County in the first place.

Car congestion is hardly a problem up there. Everybody drives, even the kids. Those too young to get their licenses tool around on ATVs. The distances are too great and the population too sparse to live any other way. The car makes life in Aroostook County possible, and people think nothing of jumping on the nearly empty interstate and driving two hours from Houlton to Bangor for a day of errands and shopping. Bangor’s bigger than anything they’ve got up there.

But Aroostook County is not typical of the country as a whole. It’s more like the solar system, with a few outposts amid vast spaces. Public transportation isn’t needed or wanted. Driving in a sparsely populated area is necessary and uncomplicated. But we can’t make policy for everyone based on the needs of remote rural areas.

On a side note, the management people at McCain Foods told me that rail transport was crucial to their business. Much of their cooking oil arrives from the Midwest by rail. A spokesperson at McCain confirmed that this is still true six years later. Better and more efficient rail service would enable them to ship product by train as well. Though there are timing issues with perishable potato products, any upgrade to rail service in northern Maine would translate into a better bottom line for one of the area’s largest employers, and an improvement in the area’s economy overall.

Even in remote areas like northern Maine, spending money on alternatives to cars and trucks makes good, long-term sense.

Opportunity For Sale in Downtown Bangor

 

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An entire block of buildings, across the street from the office where I write this blog, is up for sale. It’s a significant chunk of downtown Bangor, and whoever develops it will have an opportunity to influence the direction of the city’s future.

I wish I had $1.92 million to invest. But as a friend recently said, “I’m a middle class American. I don’t have any money.”

I hope whoever buys the block encourages some downtown-appropriate businesses. I’d love to be able to walk out of my office building and buy an ink cartridge and a ream of paper, or some glue and a few nails. But there isn’t an office-supply store or a hardware store within easy walking distance.

The buildings are within sight of the site of the old train station, which used to be the center of town. The tracks are still there, but Union Station was torn down in the 1960s, as the automobile took over the American economy.

It was a shortsighted decision, as nearly everyone acknowledges now. Even before trains come back – as they surely will, in some form – that historic building could have been refurbished and reused. Rockland’s train station and attached bar and restaurant draws patrons whether or not the seasonal Brunswick train is running that day.

Downtown Bangor has plenty of bars and restaurants. Nightlife isn’t a problem. That hasn’t happened by itself, of course. It took a city government willing to invest in the downtown, and a citizenry invested enough to vote for a new arena and civic center. And new groups of energetic volunteers have sprung up to improve walking and bicycling trails around the center of the city. Bangor, to paraphrase the Beatles song, is getting better all the time.

Still, I wonder what can be done to bring more real business serving real needs back downtown. I mourned the closing of the hardware store in Penobscot Plaza, on the footprint of Union Station. My eye doctor used to be there, too, until abandoning the spot for a new building out on the Brewer Strip. And it’s hard to find anyplace other than the Sunday farmers’ market to buy an onion or an apple.

Continued support from a committed city council is crucial. But engaging citizens in changing their transportation habits is just as important. Demolishing train stations and building shopping malls had the effect, all over America, of driving commerce out of downtowns. It’s time to reel that back.

Fortunately, there are signs that this is already happening. The first thing anybody talks about when it comes to downtown businesses is parking. But not everybody wants to shop by car, especially for small, portable purchases. Realizing this, cities are beginning to rethink their parking requirements for new developments. As writer Ben Adler points out in a recent issue of Grist, zoning regulations over the past 50 years have encouraged people to drive, by mandating more parking than is often necessary:

“The costs of building that parking get passed on to residents and customers whether or not they drive. By subsidizing parking in that way, we encourage people to drive. And surrounding every building with parking makes cities less friendly to walkers and eats up green space.”

Parking requirements drive up costs of commercial and residential development, which get passed on to tenants and retail customers. When I rented an apartment within walking distance of downtown, I got a parking space, whether I used it or not. I imagine this is the case throughout Bangor. Tenants without cars receive no break on their rent, while tenants with cars get a parking space subsidized by the rest of us.

But individual attitudes have to change, too. Why will people walk across a parking lot at the mall but not an equal distance from a downtown parking garage or bus depot? There’s good news on that front, too. In a story for the January 16, 2016 Atlantic, Julie Beck documents the declining percentages of Americans willing to accept driving as a way of life:

“According to a new study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the percentage of people with a driver’s license decreased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. For people aged 16 to 44, that percentage has been decreasing steadily since 1983.”

Central to all of this is a good system of public transportation. Which is why Bangor’s bus hub must remain downtown – close to new business opportunities, and the old train station that may someday rise again.