PORTLAND — Occupy Maine has set its sights on a new park, but this time members don’t plan to inhabit it.
The loosely woven group has been meeting in Congress Square Plaza for about a month. Its public visibility had been mostly limited to rallies against burgeoning student debt, President Barack Obama’s fundraising visit to Portland, and other issues since the movement’s eviction from Lincoln Park in early February.
The fate of the under-utilized park at the intersection of Congress and High streets is up in the air after an announcement that the Eastland Park Hotel, which abuts the plaza, has approached the city with plans to purchase it and build a ballroom.
Members of the Occupy group spent much of May 23 cleaning the park and performing what one called “guerrilla gardening:” planting pansies, lilies, and daisies in planters that sit on the sidewalk between the road and the recessed, amphitheater-style park.
“This is a park that’s seen a lot of neglect. We think it needs a little re-invigoration,” said Laurie Dobson, a Kennebunkport resident who is active with the Portland-focused group.
The manual labor finished, a group of about 14 Occupy members sat down on the plaza’s stage to discuss new and ongoing community projects. Others stopped briefly to listen and sometimes chime in.
The conversation quickly returned to the park itself, with all present seemingly in agreement that the potential privatization of a public space in the heart of the city should be actively opposed.
“It would not be a great thing for Portland to have the hotel fill this whole space,” said Grace Braley, who asked the group for permission to speak for five minutes to air her ideas on protecting the park.
“This is totally what the Occupy group is all about, right here in the center of the city,” said a man named Doug, who sat in on the general assembly meeting just long enough to speak briefly before leaving.
Braley and others discussed the possibility collaborating with more mainstream and established community groups, like the Parkside Neighborhood Association and some of the city’s homeless advocacy organizations.
“Keeping a ballroom from going up here, that’s doable,” Braley said.
“I want to (fight) it even if it’s not doable, because it engages people,” said Brian Leonard, with an eye toward making in-roads with the city beyond the still-small group of Occupy activists. “When we do stuff like this, I believe it builds community.”
The hotel’s proposal is an issue of “big money versus public interest” that city residents are taking real interest in, Parkside Neighborhood Association President Emma Holder said in a phone conversation last Friday.
Some argue that the park is an eyesore, mostly used for less-than discreet public drinking and as a daytime hangout for homeless people. The hotel’s proposal is an economic opportunity not to be missed, they say.
Holder said the Parkside Neighborhood Association’s board has not taken a stance on the issue, and that her interaction with the Occupy group has been limited to receiving emails from their members about the park, which she forwarded to the association’s board.
Occupy Maine’s interest in collaborating with others was welcome, Holder said, although she still feared that Congress Square Plaza would become a “flavor-of-the-week” issue for the group.
The park’s revival could take considerable time and thought.
Despite a personal affinity for the plaza – Holder said she participated in a tango-dancing flash mob in the park in the past, and appreciates it as a place to watch the world go by with a cup of coffee – the solution may not be as black and white as the current public-or-private debate, she said.
“There is so much potential there,” Holder said. “And it may be that the Eastland has the funds to sort of make that happen.”
Grace Braley, speaking at center, got a “temperature check” from members of the Occupy Maine general assembly meeting in Congress Square Plaza on May 23 while discussing her ideas to protect the park from being privatized. The neighboring Eastland Park Hotel has proposed buying the park from the city, with plans to use the space for a new ballroom.