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January 21, 2020

7/23/2015 12:01:00 PM
Marine Matters: Strolling on a Summer's Evening
The sinking sun turned the surrounding clouds a burnt orange. The same color spread across the still water around the public wharf and parking lot in Lubec. A single skiff puttered quietly toward the boat launch, where a man had backed a trailer down the steep incline to the low water. I sat on a boulder above the wharf and looked around. In the parking lot were half a dozen cars whose occupants lounged in or on top of the vehicle. Small knots of girls and women walked down the hill, through the lot and along the waterfront, talking and trailing little children and dogs behind them. Older couples walked the same route as well, albeit a bit more slowly. Everywhere I looked the citizens of Lubec were strolling along their waterfront, chatting with each other as they watched the heavy sun melt into the clouds.

This was the Down East version of la passeggiata, the Italian practice of promenading about the town square in the early evening. Italian families traditionally take to the street to interact with their neighbors and savor the quiet time just before the evening meal. For young people it is a way of simply seeing each other and being seen, preferably in stylish clothes. For everyone it is a way to build a sense of belonging, of being part of the same community.

Lubec is an isolated town. You notice the density change the moment you pass Ellsworth heading east. Route 1 clears of traffic. The number of Winnebagos takes a sharp drop; the number of trucks increases. About 150 miles east of Rockland the road is surrounded by dark fir forests, blueberry fields, and a generous number of small auto repair shops. At Whiting, you bear to the right, onto Route 189 for a long 11 miles until you reach the center of town, a peninsula sticking out into Passamaquoddy Bay.

And what do you find when you get there? An IGA, whose liquor shelves are securely barricaded behind the cash register. A tiny take-out shack selling smoked salmon on a stick. The overflowing parking lot at the Regional Medical Center. And a lot of "house for sale" signs. It was once said that the surest sign of summer in Maine was the sudden outcropping of "for sale" signs along its rural roads. I suspect that in Lubec those signs are up regardless of the season.

The town is large, about 78 square miles spread over innumerable necks, peninsulas and fingers, whose population is slightly more than 1,300. A lot of those people are having a hard time. The American Community Survey Five Year Estimates (part of the U.S. Census Bureau) reported that 29% of the town's residents were living below the poverty level in 2013. The primary occupations in the area are related to natural resources - scalloping, clamming, forestry, and blueberry harvesting - livelihoods not known for their high wage potential.

Yet, as a recent article in Working Waterfront newspaper noted, newcomers are coming to Lubec to settle. They bring money from away and a sense of energy that often evaporates in small towns as traditional businesses close and young people move elsewhere. On Water Street overlooking the Lubec Narrows, one can find not only a recently opened beer brewery, but also three very good restaurants. On a weekend night, Frank's Dockside Restaurant is packed with diners, many from adjacent New Brunswick or other parts of Maritime Canada, dining on the owner's German delicacies. At the nearby Water Street Tavern, owners Jim and Judy Heyer oversee a bustling bar and restaurant directly across the street from the lively Cohill's Inn and Irish Pub.

As a person who has lived in seaside towns most of my life, I am particularly attuned to the divisions that occur in those towns when the summertime rolls around. The natives accept the influx of noisy, demanding summer visitors because they need their out-of-state money. That servitude can easily taint relations between the two groups.

So I listened hard while I, too, took part in la passaggiata along the waterfront. Eavesdropping on the conversations around me, I realized that here was a friendly mix of people: those whose lives were linked to Lubec by history and family, and those who had chosen to make that connection in ways that honor the former. It was truly a pleasant way to share the sunset.

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