I read with some keen interest the news this week that the City of Bangor would finally take possession of the six-story building located at 73 Central St. in downtown Bangor, long owned by an out of state landlord, who let it fall into disrepair. The space, which has been almost completely unoccupied for more than 20 years, is one of the last remaining large, empty buildings in downtown. The City’s action is a crucial forward step in the ongoing revitalization of downtown, and it will hopefully lead to some exciting new business and residential development.
I say “almost completely unoccupied,” however, because 73 Central St. has had a handful of short-term occupants since its last full-time residents moved out in the 1980s. The Bangor Historical Society had a pop-up exhibit on the bottom floor in 2011, for the 100th anniversary of the Great Bangor Fire. Various political campaigns have had their temporary headquarters there. And, for about six or seven months in 2007, Ofelia’a Arte Fino Gallery had a short, brilliant, chaotic life on one floor — eventually two floors — of the historic building. I remember. I was there.
Ofelia’s was the baby of Sergio and Blake Ramos, a couple that moved to Maine from Arizona in the early 2000s. After operating a food pantry and thrift shop in Glenburn for several years, they decided in 2007 to open a second shop in downtown Bangor — a downtown that at that time was far from the dining, shopping and entertainment hub that it is today. 73 Central was available. The rent was cheap. And Sergio, an artist himself, wanted to offer a small art gallery in the space, as well as a thrift shop.
In the early spring of 2007, Ofelia’s opened. Within a month or two, it transformed into something far bigger than what the couple had originally pictured. An art opening in April attracted way, way more people than anticipated. Bands from all over the state began asking to play shows. Local artists would show up, paintings and sculptures in tow, asking to show their work. People wanted to host poetry slams. They wanted to have dance performances and to start ‘zines and build art installations. After years of almost nothing, there was finally something cool and creative and free in Bangor. People from all over the area wanted to be a part of it, whether as a spectator or participant.
Ofelia’s became my near-daily hangout. I was 24 at the time, about to turn 25, and was hungry for anything creative, for new friends, and community, and as much live music as I could possibly hear. Finally, I had a place for that — right where I lived. Bangor, for the first time in my young life, felt like a place I wanted to stay. Something exciting, something vital and new, was happening. I and the people that also made Ofelia’s their home away from home spent long evenings, talking, jamming, writing, trying on outfits from the thrift shop, making weird art projects out of found junk. One day we painted a whole wall blue and covered it in neon footprints. We’d climb up to the roof and watch the sun go down. We hung lights from the exterior upper floors, illuminating the building in shades of gold and yellow. I spent the night there a few times.
It was a motley crew that assembled at Ofelia’s, and some of the people I met there remain my friends. There was Brittany, the Minnesota transplant, tuba player and scientist. Sasha, teacher by day, rocker by night. Orion, who wanted to make wherever he was a better place. Alisha, the tattooed, troubled punk. Jakob, a teenager with big rock n’ roll ambitions. Joe, the psychedelic warrior. Ao, the beautiful belly dancer. Valerie and Mike, poets who traveled all the way from Calais to host poetry slams. Zachary, an intense, hilarious, cute guy who I was very rude to at one of those poetry slams. He’s now my husband.
Art openings and rock shows grew bigger, and louder, attracting sometimes hundreds of people, of all ages and backgrounds — from 18-year-old kids one step away from homelessness and crusty punks brought in on the wind, to upstanding Chamber of Commerce members and lawyers and wealth-havers. Things got so popular that all the clothing and accessories from the thrift store were moved to the second floor, so the first floor could specialize in live music and art shows. Bear in mind, this is all over the course of the summer of 2007. It all happened really quickly.
Too quickly. By the fall, it was clear that Ofelia’s had outgrown its original mercantile license from the City — and that the building needed hugely expensive renovations to bring it up to code to house an entertainment and arts venue. Some shows had gotten out of control. There was no liquor license, but there was plenty of drinking. Despite all the good things that came out of it, it just wasn’t possible (or safe) to carry on. It’s not like anyone had any money, anyway. By October, Ofelia’s and all the anarchic, colorful, diverse art it inspired for all intents and purposes was over.
And yet, every time I walk past 73 Central St., I see it. I look inside those picture windows and see all the stuff that happened there, if only for one summer almost ten years ago. And I see what came out of Ofelia’s, in all the bands, artists, businesses, relationships and other connections that are a direct result of what happened there. For me, Ofelia’s was the start of so much of what today is so cool and special and unique about downtown Bangor; it was friendly, egalitarian, creative, affirming and, most importantly, open to anything. It made me believe in this community. Though that faith has been tested a few times, it remains strong — if something like that can happen here, then anything can happen here. And whatever ends up occupying 73 Central St., when all is said and done, that building will always represent to me the best of what Bangor has to offer. Even if it’s just a memory now.