The art of being small gives Belfast a new frame

A town working at diversifying

A couple prepare to cast for flounder from the Belfast footbridge built on the remains of the old Route 1 bridge. (David Lyon for The Boston Globe) A couple prepare to cast for flounder from the Belfast footbridge built on the remains of the old Route 1 bridge.
By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / April 5, 2009
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BELFAST - Some things, fortunately, never change. You can still get a dynamite cinnamon bun at Weaver's Bakery, where my best friend and I sometimes helped his father make doughnuts in the predawn chill before we went out on our paper routes. The sun still rises over the harbor, lighting up the dew on the town's lush lawns. And the rocking ocean still sets the hardware clanging on the boats at anchor.

Of course, when I was growing up here in the '60s, no one called Belfast one of America's "10 Coolest Small Towns" (as Budget Travel magazine did last year). Like many small Maine towns of that era, Belfast was a place where some kids were so eager to leave that they enlisted in the armed services at the height of the Vietnam War.

Now Belfast is a magnet, especially for people with a bit of imagination.

"What makes the coolness factor," says fashion designer and installation artist Meredith Alex, a.k.a. madgirl, "is the diversity of artists who went away and came back, or retired here." She grew up in Freedom, one of the villages of Waldo County for which Belfast is the shire and market town, and escaped to the California Institute of the Arts. Years later, she's back, raising a family and creating new work.

Until recently, Alex served as program director for Waterfall Arts, an all-around arts center on High Street with a summer location at Kingdom Falls in rural Montville. With classes for children and adults, a vigorous and high-quality exhibition program, and artists' studio space in a former elementary school, Waterfall Arts anchors the city's new identity as a creative community.

Nowhere is that altered mindset more evident than on the broad Main Street that sweeps from the Post Office down to the harbor. It was rebuilt in handsome red-brick style after the fires of 1865 and 1873. You can still buy everything from ballet slippers to steel-toed work boots at Colburn Shoe Store, founded in 1832. Owner Brian Horne claims it is the oldest shoe store in the United States. No one has disputed him yet. But a half dozen or so art galleries also fill the storefronts. Photographer Neal Parent is a little amazed.

"When I opened my gallery in 2001," Parent says, "there were only two other galleries on the street. I don't want it to become like Camden." His concern is very Belfastian. "Like Camden" has always been a synonym for fancy-pants gentrification.

It would be hard to imagine Aarhus Gallery, which opened in June 2007 in a former gravestone carver's shop on lower Main Street, as a Camden-style gallery. Raised near Portland in Falmouth, Richard Mann, one of six artists who founded the gallery, left Maine but returned when he found a critical mass of artists in Belfast. "It's surprising," he says, "to find out how many people have been working in their homes and have something to show us."

The artists who exhibit at Aarhus are an individualistic bunch, but they embody an evolving regional style that owes as much to Yankee know-how as to any MFA program. I found myself admiring a Wes Reddick kinetic sculpture set in motion by an old hand drill. I was reminded of a scallop dragger I sometimes worked that consisted of a demasted sailing ship powered by a marine conversion of the straight-eight engine from the skipper's rusted-out Pontiac. There has always been a Belfast ethos of salvaging parts that still function, and putting them to work. Reuse, recycle, reimagine - it's a mantra that keeps bringing Belfast back to life.

The waterfront has been rehabilitated too. From shortly after World War II until the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the harbor was a dumping ground for waste from chicken, fish, and potato processing plants. In 1962, the state built a Route 1 bypass around Belfast to avoid the only traffic light between Rockland and Winterport. The bypass bridge over the Passagassawaukeag River carried traffic a relatively odor-free 87 feet above high tide. The old bridge, which sometimes was inundated by spring tides, rotted for four decades until the town raised $4 million to construct a scenic footbridge on the old reinforced granite piers.

The footbridge, which opened in 2006, was a step in reclaiming the sparkling harbor now filled with more pleasure craft than rough-and-ready fishing boats. (The reclamation began with the installation of decorative iron benches and faux gaslights at the public landing, convincing my father to move out of town because Belfast was "turning into Camden.") When credit-card giant MBNA established a big call center in town (now all but gone), the company helped finance the creation of a waterfront park and the handsome Steamboat Landing on the site where Boston packet boats used to call.

The waterfront park gets a workout for civic events, often including a summer musical performance by the Belfast Maskers community theater that pro duces its other plays inside the former train depot, also at the waterfront. The theater is already into its 22d season, and will open a production of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" on April 30. The big show of the season is the musical "Oliver," to be performed outdoors at Steamboat Landing in July. "The stage will be between the audience and the harbor," says artistic director Aynne Ames. "Penobscot Bay will stand in for the Thames."

Ames has the usual convoluted story of how she came to Belfast, but let it suffice that "Years ago I drove through and liked it," she says. "It's still a working town, not just a retirement community." In the five years she's been at the helm of the Maskers, she estimates, about 10 percent of the population has become involved in one way or another. Referring to a near-waterfront tavern where my grandfather used to take me for root beer while he enjoyed a draft, Ames explains, "I go to Rollie's to recruit fun people. I tell them, 'It's just singing and dancing. How hard can it be?' "

In fact, she thinks the mix of natives and newcomers is "just about perfect now. I hope it doesn't get any more gentrified."

Like Camden, she means.

David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay

The Alden House Inn

63 Church St.

207-338-2151, 877-337-8151

An 1840 home-turned-B&B at the edge of downtown. $89-$179.

Belfast Bay Inn & Luxury Suites

72 Main St.


New in 2008, this boutique hotel has transformed a pair of downtown 19th-century brick row houses into eight luxury suites. $198-$395.

Where to eat

Weaver's Bakery

101 Main St.


Merchants, city workers, and local pols chow down here on eggs, pancakes, and coffee. Breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Saturday. $2-$6.50.

Chase's Daily

96 Main St.


Lots of vegetarian fare at this bakery-produce stand-art gallery. Lunch Tuesday-Saturday, dinner Friday. $8-$17.

Three Tides Waterfront Bar & Brewery

40 Marshall Wharf


On-site brewery produces powerful ales, while the restaurant focuses on seafood, especially lobster landed right at the wharf. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday. $8.50-$20.

What to do

Waterfall Arts

256 High St.


Gallery open Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 7 on Tuesday and most Wednesday evenings). Gallery free.

Parent Gallery

92 Main St.


Gallery open Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through April, Tuesday-Saturday 10-4 in May, daily 10-5 Memorial Day-Columbus Day (till 9 on Fridays).

Aarhus Gallery

50 Main St.


Thursday-Sunday noon-6 through May, daily 10-6 June-December.

Belfast Maskers Community Theater

43 Front St.


April-December. Tickets $5-$20.

Colonial Theatre

163 High St.


Classic movie theater with Art Deco exterior. Tickets $4.50-$7.50.