Music at Maritime

Pretty on paper

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

With its amphitheater, salmon hatchery, native plant trail, lush grassy area, burbling creek running through it, and more, Maritime Heritage Park is a place of many charms. Add to that a location across the street from Bellingham Bay and nestled up against downtown Bellingham, and it can be hard to remember this glittering jewel in a parks system that boasts many jewels was built on the site of a former landfill. Of late, Maritime Heritage has also been getting a city-funded makeover, aimed toward revitalizing the public space.

All of that sounds pretty good, and indeed it’s a fair depiction of the park—on paper, that is.

In optimistic—or euphemistic—terms, Maritime Heritage is “underused,” a descriptor that speaks to condition without considering cause. The truth is, owing to its location adjacent to downtown and to the Lighthouse Mission, the park has become a hangout spot for the city’s homeless and so suffers from issues that result from being a haven for a transient population. The Bellingham Police Department has made it clear Maritime Heritage is a sore spot from a law-enforcement perspective, and evidence of unsavory activity there is apparent to just about anyone who cares to look.

Few issues in city planning and management are as complicated—or divisive—as how to cope with the vulnerable populations among us. And public parks are often the nexus of the public access vs. public safety debate. Personally, I believe parks and other public spaces exist for anyone who might want to use them (provided that use is within the rules and regulations of that space), regardless of a person’s place in society. This is, after all, the foundation upon which setting aside such spaces is built.

But what happens when that principle of public access is carried so far the general public no longer feels safe in a place that’s supposed to be for everyone?

If I had the answer to that question, I could solve problems plaguing public places the world over. And the people tasked with tackling Maritime Heritage’s issues—the City of Bellingham, Bellingham Parks and Recreation, and Downtown Bellingham Partnership—acknowledge the solutions will have to be long-term and wide-ranging, and don’t carry with them the guarantee of success.

But they do know that, along with its very real problems, the park also suffers from a crisis of perception, and the only way to get the public to see the park for the gem it is on paper is to encourage them to engage with it in a way that is safe and entertaining in real life.

Here’s where we come to that aforementioned revitalization, which was undertaken not just as a means of improving the park aesthetically, but also with an eye toward public safety. Handling the entertainment portion of the public-engagement plan proved to be a task squarely in the wheelhouse of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, and thanks in part to a grant from Levitt Pavilions, it’s a job the minds at the hard-working, fun-loving nonprofit took on with their customary creativity.

The result is a series of concerts at Maritime Heritage Park, following close on the heels of Downtown Sounds—and following much of the formula for that concert series’ ever-growing success. This means for a couple of Saturday evenings and several Friday afternoons, Maritime Heritage will be a place where families can congregate and the entire community can use the park as it is intended. The hope is that by enticing the general public to engage with the park in this way, that they will continue to do so in the future, thus bringing some measure of balance to a place sorely in need of some.

Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t—but luring people with live music to embrace pieces of Bellingham they’d normally avoid is an area in which Downtown Bellingham Partnership has a proven track record, as anyone who recalls the alley origins of Downtown Sounds well knows. The citizenry of Bellingham may be able to resist coal trains, two-way streets and the pressure to uncouple their socks from their Tevas, but live, free, family-friendly music exerts its magical pull on us all.

Which brings us, finally, to the music itself. The series (which is actually two series, if we’re going to be picky about things) begins with two Saturday concerts that happen at 7pm on July 25 and Aug. 1. The first features the skills of Seattle’s the Senate, who are mostly retired (much to the chagrin of their many fans), but can enticed into action with the promise of a good show—and this aims to be one of those. The Fabulous Party Boys will remain true to their name (which is also their mission statement) when they play Aug. 1.

After that, the series switches from Saturdays to Friday concerts that begin at 11:30am, which means that meandering down there for a dance break during your lunch hour is a possibility worth considering. The much-beloved Swil Kanim kicks things off as only he can on Aug. 7, and he’ll be followed in short order by Rabbit Wilde (formerly known as Wild Rabbit) who will stomp that stage on Aug. 14, while West My Friend nabbed the Aug. 21 slot, Lobo del Mar is signed up for Aug. 28 and Pearl Django will close the whole experiment down with gypsy jazz on Sept. 4.

Music at Maritime is just part of a multipronged effort to get people make good use of this municipal gem. Already, a kickball tournament (with much trash-talking) has taken place, food trucks and circus entertainment can be found there on Fridays, a scavenger hunt is happening July 26 and more events are no doubt in the offing. All that, and it’s pretty on paper too.

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