People say there’s something in the water in Belfast — and it’s no longer chicken grease. With a thriving downtown and bustling harbor, the city is having one big crazy party and all are welcome.
By Will Bleakley
Photographed by Benjamin Magro
“Anonymous comments about Belfast on the Bangor Daily News Web site always call us moonbats,” Hurley laughs. “I like the term.” Hurley co-owns the Colonial Theatre on High Street, a three-screen cinema with an art deco façade and a plaster elephant in mid-trumpet on its roof, and he served as the mayor for eight years and currently sits on the city council. He came to the Belfast area in the early seventies as a back-to-the-lander seeking a simple farm-based life. And in the forty years he’s lived here, he has never been more excited about the city he loves.
He leaves Chase’s and jaywalks across Main Street to his office so he can demonstrate the reason for his enthusiasm. On the way, he stops and points to two rusted vintage bicycles leaning up against a lamppost covered in scarlet runner beans on Belfast’s busiest corner. “It’s called Bike and the Beanstalk,” he says smiling. “I just put it there one day five years ago, and no one said anything. In any other town, you’d get a phone call, but it’s just understood here that you’re allowed to do that kind of thing.” Bike and the Beanstalk exists in the same space as a bench made from the roots of a blown-down cherry tree, a hanging scarecrow constructed of pool noodles wearing exposed underwear, and a tipped-over garbage can made to resemble a mouse. In other words, a typical Belfast corner.
In his office, just upstairs from the rusting bikes, Hurley can’t wait to show twenty-nine photographs. Twenty-eight of them are in an album of shuttered storefronts. When a new business enters the space, he crosses off the old photo with a giant black X. After an incredible twenty-eight businesses opened up in the summer of 2011 (not all were storefronts), only a few are left unmarked. The energy created by this latest boom in Belfast can be felt on the streets of what may be the state’s most eclectic downtown. On Upper Main Street, Weaver’s Bakery, whose window displays a small sign reading “Guns Wanted: Inquire Within,” sits next to the headquarters and gallery for the Maine Farmland Trust. Across the street are two restaurants specializing in locally sourced ingredients and a photography gallery of nudes. Down the block, Colburn Shoe Store, the oldest shoe store in America, resides just four storefronts away from the Green Store, a “general store for the twenty-first century” with a miniature modern windmill emerging from its sign.
Hurley points to one last photo, taken in the late 1940s. It’s of several men chucking debris from their pickup trucks into a giant acre-size pit along Belfast’s waterfront, a literal wasteland. That’s before it became an incidental wasteland spilled with blood, feathers, and bones from the poultry-processing plants that operated here until the early eighties, and later a symbolic one as derelict sardine, potato, chicken, window, and shoe factories deteriorated at the bottom of Main Street.
Now, that photo is finally ready to be crossed off as well. In the summer of 2011, Front Street Shipyard — one of the most capable and impressive private shipbuilding and repair facilities north of Rhode Island — opened on the site of the former dump. That, along with the recent expansion of custom wooden sailboat builders French & Webb, signaled the resurrection of an industry that brought prosperity to the city in the nineteenth century. It’s a milestone in the dramatic turnaround of Belfast from one of the most depressed cities in America in the eighties, when chicken grease coated its harbor, to what it is today — a town that has revitalized its waterfront and built a thriving downtown infused with a moonbat culture that Hurley and others now cherish.
The word organic gets thrown around often, probably too often these days. But it couldn’t apply better than to Belfast — not necessarily to its food (though, by and large, it does), but to the development of the city over the last forty years. Located half an hour northeast of Camden, where Route 3 joins with coastal Route 1 and continues to Acadia National Park, the city of 6,660 people has undergone a process of cultural mixing and matching. Skilled shipbuilders have now joined the nineties bankers, who moved in alongside the seventies hippies, who joined the chicken plant workers who had been here for decades. “What we have today is a tectonic grinding of various identities,” Hurley says. It hasn’t always been pretty (as demonstrated by the battle over a proposed Walmart a few years ago), but the tectonic have plates clashed just right to form this unique coastal city.
Jay Davis came to the Waldo County town of Monroe in 1971 and then moved fifteen miles south to the small city of Belfast a decade later. “I came at a time in America when the things I cared about — justice and equality — were very difficult to come by. Cities were ablaze, and assassinations were going on,” he says. “So I thought I could come to rural Maine and live a self-sufficient life.” Davis, a Belfast historian and journalist, describes the back-to-the-land movement in his book, History of Belfast in the 20th Century, as “people looking to settle and start all over again in a place they could relate to in a world gone crazy.”
Maine’s population dwindled at an alarming rate during the mid-twentieth-century. In the seventies, however, the trend turned, and Waldo County’s population grew 17.9 percent, more than any other county in the state. “The problem,” Hurley says, “was that few of us actually knew how to farm! So we became suburbanites basically. The only jobs available were shoveling chicken feces, so we moved, started our own businesses in town, and began getting active politically.”
It was an odd time for a group of well-educated, artistic people “from away” to happen upon Belfast. Just a decade earlier, the state re-routed Route 1 around the city. Where too much traffic going through the downtown on High Street used to be the problem, the opposite became true. Businesses fled, and the downtown began falling apart. “The unintended consequence was it preserved the look and spirit of Belfast. We were able to grow as we wanted without the pressure of hordes of people blowing through,” Davis says. “And then we got there with our long hair and thought it was a fascinating community. It was a very open place. But we didn’t want to change it; we wanted to be part of it.”
But they did change it. When you drive along High Street into the heart of Belfast, the first thing you notice is the Belfast Co-op, which Davis assisted in the formation of in 1973. It takes up six thousand square feet in the former space of the A&P supermarket, and at nearly three thousand members, and $8 million in revenue, it is the oldest and largest food cooperative in Maine. Today, if you walk through the aisles stocked with local, organic products, you’ll weave around workers whose families have been here for generations, retired long-haired hippies, and a new generation of young people as fed up with modern society as the original back-to-the-landers. Even as the town’s economy declined through the eighties, the co-op expanded from a small buying club into the downtown’s main supermarket under the motto “All Are Welcome.”
From a dimly lit booth in a corner of Darby’s Restaurant, owner Jerry Savitz recalls the city’s seismic shift in the eighties from “Belfast: Chicken Capital of America” to one of USA Today’s “100 most culturally cool communities” in America. “My dad owned one of those chicken processing plants,” he says. “And I lived down by the water in the fifties but couldn’t swim in the bay. When the chicken or sardine plant made a mistake, they’d dump it in the water.” His father’s Penobscot Poultry Co. along with Maplewood Poultry Co., powered the Waldo County economy for thirty years. The steady income for hundreds of residents came at a significant cost, however. Chicken bones floated down the Passagassawakeag River, the town reeked of blood and offal, chickens wandered the streets, and white feathers littered residents’ yards. Newsweek magazine called the city “Schmaltzville,” referring not to its sentimentality, but the German word for chicken fat. Cruising guides would tell boaters to avoid Belfast because of the chicken grease covering the water’s surface. Belfast was a coastal Maine town embarrassed by its shorefront.
In 1980, Maplewood Poultry closed. A few years later Penobscot Poultry met the same fate. Hundreds of jobs were lost, unemployment reached 20 percent, and Waldo County became statistically the poorest county in New England. And yet, “it was at this point that intellectually, the town started to be something,” Savitz says. Even as the city was hemorrhaging jobs, art galleries such as Artfellows, Gallery 68, and Frick Gallery began to open, the co-op expanded, the Waldo Independent, Belfast’s alternative newspaper, launched, and soon after the high-end hippie-chic clothing store Coyote Moon moved in. “The biggest impact the back-to-the-landers had was they created the artistic and cultural endeavors that began to change the way we were perceived,” Davis says. “It opened up the community to a different type of people. It was a sociological phenomenon that these various peoples coexisted and learned from each other so well.”
Savitz doesn’t consider himself of either ilk: “I’m in the middle, part socialist part capitalist.” But he certainly welcomed the changes and even played an instrumental role in them when he started Darby’s in 1985 — a now twenty-seven-year-old Belfast institution. Today, he sits on the board of the co-op, and is glad to see the rise of a culture he endearingly refers to as “a little off.”
Even as the town underwent important major structural improvements and promising businesses moved in, the abandoned factories loomed large over the town. A crumbling grain mill rose five stories at the bottom of Main Street, blocking any harbor view from downtown. Not everyone could see past the deteriorating waterfront and towards the newfound artistic energy and enthusiasm. One of the few who could was Charles Cawley, then-CEO of credit card giant MBNA, who had spent summers visiting his grandfather in the area. In what came as a surprise, this $4 billion dollar company with thirty-five million customers announced a major expansion in Belfast in 1995. “When MBNA came, it changed the course of everything,” Mike Hurley says. “How do you quantify suddenly a company putting five thousand people to work with full benefits, while spraying the area like a B-52 bomber with brand new baseball fields, libraries, and day care centers?”
The company gave $3 million for a hospital, YMCA, and library. Using MBNA funds, Cawley built the Hutchinson Center, leased it to the University of Maine for one dollar a year, and guaranteed to pay for any operating losses. Most importantly, the firm paid for the removal of the former poultry plants and established the Belfast Common as an idyllic waterfront park, opening views of Penobscot Bay. “It was as much taking things away as making something new,” Davis says. “That’s when things really started to pick up.” MBNA was never a perfect fit. As Hurley says, “People suddenly parachuted in with Audi cars and ties,” into a town dominated by edgy galleries, a food co-op, and waterfront factories. But nearly everyone welcomed the corporation, even if there were a few concerns.
When MBNA first moved in, people worried the town would become too upscale like nearby Camden. “We saw other places become just too sanitized,” Hurley says. But the company didn’t stay long enough to change the town more than superficially — Bank of America purchased MBNA in 2005 and largely moved out of Maine. The job loss devastated the town initially, but MBNA laid the groundwork for other companies, such as Athenahealth and Bank of America, to fill the white-collar void.
“Cawley did a lot for Belfast. But he didn’t change us culturally,” Savitz says proudly. Belfast entered the twenty-first century as a coastal Maine city along Route 1 with a well-preserved mid-1800s red brick Main Street that sloped towards a waterfront brimming with green parks and boat traffic. When Kathy Pickering, the town’s harbormaster first saw Belfast in the early eighties, she said, “Who would ever in their right mind move to Belfast?” Suddenly, even with MBNA gone, the question became, “Who wouldn’t?”
David Carlson, forty-three years old, stands behind the upstairs bar at his restaurant Three Tides and fills up two glasses with Men @ Work beer crafted by his neighboring microbrewery, Marshall Wharf. Carlson came to Belfast in 2000 and purchased two buildings on the waterfront with his wife, Sarah. There, he raises a family, runs a restaurant, and brews beer. He takes his glass and brings it out onto the restaurant’s waterfront deck. Above him hang a few red lampshades and below resides a beer garden complete with fireplace, bocce court, oyster shell midden, and a bar made of cast concrete. “People didn’t know what to make of us at first,” Carlson says, recalling when he first opened Three Tides in 2003 as a non-smoking martini bar. “But soon after we opened, fishermen came off the boat to drink next to someone in a suit from MBNA and a gay couple.”
Over the past decade, the restaurant, but especially the brewery he started next door in 2007, has taken off. In fact, it’s amazing there is even any beer left on this day. Two nights earlier, 750 people, from Rockland art gallery owners to transient yacht crewmembers, descended upon his establishment to celebrate the brewery’s fifth year anniversary. Despite the near freezing temperatures (the night before had the season’s first frost), the midcoast’s best party occurred on Belfast’s waterfront, on the site of the former granary.
When asked why he thought a non-smoking martini bar on the waterfront could thrive in Belfast, Carlson gave a simple answer: “Because it didn’t exist,” he says. “There are enough smart collective individuals from every walk of life that if something is not here, people will come up with it, create it, and it will be accepted. That’s the attitude I love.”
This attitude pervades the downtown businesses that have opened since 2000. In 2005, at the age of twenty-five, Tina DelSanto purchased the Lookout Pub on the waterfront and renamed it to Front Street Pub. “I noticed there wasn’t an Italian or Mexican restaurant. There was a void,” she says. So she also began La Vida in 2011 and Delvino’s in 2010. “People here just say, ‘We could do something cool with that building’ and they buy it,” she says.
Belfast’s two most lauded restaurants — Lost Kitchen and Chase’s Daily — used that very approach. Erin French, at the age of thirty, purchased the stunning Gothic building at the top of Upper Main Street with her husband. Realizing Belfast lacked a high-end restaurant, French turned the bottom floor into Lost Kitchen — a modern and minimalist eatery that uses locally sourced ingredients — and the top floor into her family’s home. Penny Chase, her husband, Addison, and their two daughters, Megan and Phoebe, did the same with the Odd Fellows Hall. They now rent out the top floors and have their thriving family-owned restaurant, Chase’s Daily, downstairs.
Front Street Shipyard’s story is the same, if on a much larger scale. Taylor Allen of Rockport Marine, Steve White of Brooklin Boat Yard, Ken Priest of Augusta’s Kenway Corp, and J.B. Turner noticed an opening in Maine’s market for a shipyard capable of lifting, repairing, and constructing large yachts. They worked with the city to purchase the rotting Stinson Seafood sardine cannery on Belfast’s waterfront. Within a year of striking a deal in January 2011, four state-of-the-art boat maintenance and repair hangars replaced the last vestige of Belfast’s animal processing past.
Turner stands in an airplane hangar between a pair of one hundred-foot yachts as dozens of the ninety total employees work vigorously on the vessels below. “We can service any boat up to 165 tons and 145 feet. That’s more than any other shipyard north of Cape Cod,” he proclaims. Turner believes his company has the potential to be the go-to place in the Northeast for the service and repair of private boats. On any given day, the company’s boatyard has one of the grandest collection of yachts in Maine.
“We were so welcomed by the community here,” Turner says. “Even people whose water views were going to be blocked by one of our buildings pleaded for us to come to Belfast.” The city hasn’t been a shipbuilding center since the early twentieth century, but with the opening of Front Street, and the success and expansion of premium wooden sailboat makers French & Webb, it can now reclaim that status, its working waterfront, and focus on what comes next.
People ask me, ‘What’s the number one thing to do in Belfast?’ And I don’t know what to say. There isn’t one,” Hurley remarks. It’s a surprising comment from the town’s biggest cheerleader. But tourists often seem to be strolling aimlessly downtown, as if searching for a path that will reveal a bird’s-eye view of the city. It doesn’t have a lighthouse or art museum like Rockland, or a state park like Camden. Some believe, however, the planned harbor walk may be the missing piece. “This could be huge,” Hurley says. “This could be it.”
When the walk opens in summer 2013, one will be able to stroll along a lighted walkway that hugs the waterfront and provides a glimpse into the grinding tectonic plates that make up Belfast. The pathway will begin in East Belfast, go across the former Route 1 bridge, and over the Passaagassawaukeag River, providing views up Primrose Hill and out towards the bay. The walk will cut left where it will pass in front of Front Street Shipyard as workers lift 150 ton yachts into the air, by the offices of French & Webb, the motorcycles parked at DelSanto’s pub, and the vats at Carlson’s beer garden. The sounds of happy hour and shipbuilders will fade as the walk turns near Pickering’s harbormaster gazebo where the historic red brick Main Street meets the water, and then to the parks where MBNA gave Belfast the gift of benches, grass, and a view of Penobscot Bay.
Will the harbor walk rival the majestic beauty of Camden Hills or be as monumental as Rockland’s Breakwater? No, but the pathway has the potential to demonstrate the unique history, grit, creativity, beauty, and future of Belfast all within one short harbor stroll. Who’s not going to experience that and think, “What a cool little city?”
Besides, if there’s one thing Belfast desires, it’s to not be like Camden or any other town for that matter. As Tina DelSanto puts it, “We are ourselves. We’re Belfast, and we’re different.”