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.