If the midcoast had a Times Square, this would be it.
The pulse of the midcoast after dark beats in downtown Rockland.
By Will Bleakley
Photographed by Hillary Steinau
A disco ball hangs in the center of Rock City Café, night and day. You know, in case of an emergency.
Rock City is Rockland’s daytime hub, but everyone knows that the town doesn’t go quiet once they stop serving coffee. The café needs to be prepared for whatever night brings. Throughout the day, this warehouse-like space attracts a cross-section of Rockland — suited professionals going over notes, budding writers working on their unproduced screenplays, museum curators, Japanese chefs, retirees reading the local papers. It’s a certain mix of old and young, square and hip, that’s rare for a Maine town without a liberal arts college.
This same crowd — not the exact one, but close enough — can be seen at night going to the Strand, the ninety-year-old independent movie theater, concert hall, and cornerstone of Rockland’s nightlife. If you look down Main Street when the crowd of hipsters and seniors (the target demographics for the Strand’s cinematic fare, i.e., any new Woody Allen film) exits the theater, it can feel like there’s no place more alive in Maine than Rockland at that moment, however brief.
The signs for the Strand and Fog Bar & Cafe, as well as Robert Indiana’s “Eat” art installation above the Farnsworth Art Museum — all reminiscent of marquees on a Broadway theater — light up Rockland’s downtown. If the midcoast had a Times Square, this would be it. The theatergoers pour onto the main drag, often with a dangerous nonchalance, treating it like a pedestrian avenue. Those who are done for the night head to their cars, while the rest disperse around town. In the summer it’s a leisurely stroll. In the winter, a mad dash.
A first date that’s going well continues in the dim lighting of In Good Company, a wine bar. A group of friends, eager to argue about the film, grabs a late dinner at Suzuki, or they split duck nachos at Fog Bar where Casablanca is being projected on the back wall. A married couple heads to 3Crow, Rockland’s newest addition, for a quiet cocktail, while an older man orders a Budweiser at Rock Harbor and watches the end of whatever game is on. In the distance, sounds of a nineties cover band at the Time Out Pub and inebriated karaoke at Myrtle Street Tavern echo in the street.
In November, other coastal towns are shut down for the night, or worse, for the entire season, but the Strand keeps running all year and Rockland stays vibrant. There’s no comparison to big city life, although no one moves to the midcoast in search of that. But Rockland has a pulse, yearround, and on any given night there’s something to do.
I didn’t always appreciate that about my town. I haven’t lived in Rockland long. Just two years. I was in Portland before Rockland, and New York City before Portland. For each transition I always had a somewhat condescending emergency escape plan. In Portland I knew I could easily see family in New York. When I moved to the midcoast, I was a ninety-minute drive away from my girlfriend of four years in Portland’s West End. Right after we broke up, over the phone on a cold January night, I ended up in Rockland’s downtown. The Strand had already gotten out, and Main Street was dead, but the post-show crowd could be seen through the frosted windows.
A new set of lights flashed at the southern end of the street. At Rock City, the tables and chairs had been pushed aside and the disco ball was spinning. Around one hundred people, dressed up as their New Year’s resolution, packed the space and were dancing until midnight. I joined until the last song.
Knowing that disco ball hangs in Rock City, right across from the Strand, in case of emergencies, makes all the difference.