This past Saturday, I celebrated a friend’s birthday with Saturday night karaoke at Cuzzy’s and was grateful, as many are, it is still here providing tourists and locals a place where everyone is welcome — a place to sing and dance and shout and raise your voice. Every community needs that, but we sometimes don’t realize the importance of places like this until they are gone.

Cuzzy’s used to be one of many places in Camden you’d expect to find open past 10 p.m. on most nights, but today, it usually stands alone at that hour.

Back in 2009, when the Quarterdeck closed and reopened as Cuzzy’s, I was a bartender across the street at Peter Otts in the building now occupied by the 16 Bayview Hotel. The Quarterdeck and Cuzzy’s have always been known for being a bit on the rowdier side, but it’s always been pretty mild when considered alongside what would pass for a rowdy bar in metropolitan areas.

Even Peter Ott’s was more of a late night place back then, and Gilbert’s Pub was in the basement or ground level floor below me. People would bounce back and forth between multiple places and Peter Ott’s was the place where you could catch your breath and have a conversation after dancing and listening to bands downstairs or across the street.

I enjoyed keeping the bar open until last call at 1 a.m. as often as I could, even when it was slow. I got to know a lot of people in the community that way and the crowd ranged from overflowing to just a trickle, depending on the night.

Even then, there was a lot of talk about the decline of night life in Camden, and so keeping the bar open for drinks and sometimes dessert felt like a small contribution I could make. People need places to go and be around other people.

I’d leave the door open until I had finished cleaning up. Some people who came in regularly didn’t even drink alcohol but were just looking to clear their head before going home after work at one of the other restaurants.

On the other side of Town was the Smokestack — in the space now occupied by The Jack — and even Cappy’s — the current home of The Sea Dog — was often open late.

The Sea Dog today barely resembles the restaurant and bar of the same name that was nestled under the Knox Mill back in the ’90s, a place known for frequently bubbling over with boisterous and even brawling clientele.

Today, Cuzzy’s could almost be considered a sort of endangered species in Camden that has managed to adapt to a different kind of climate change — the cultural kind.

Whether you call it progress, gentrification, or a slippery slope to Bar Harbor, there’s a lot of money to be made on real estate in Camden. What used to be a noisy part of town to be avoided by all but the most cash strapped apartment seekers is now a chance to have your cake and eat it too.

A view of the water within walking distance of French and Brawn and the Amphitheater. Why would you live in anywhere else? Historically, though, the harbor was a noisy place and the wealthy residents moved away from it in order to have peace and quiet.

One of the only places Edna’s St. Vincent Millay’s mother could afford as a single mother was a shabby apartment at 40 Chestnut Street, within shouting distance of Cuzzy’s.

Now, there are residential condos where the YMCA once stood, Gilbert’s is gone, and Bayview Street seems to close down earlier and earlier. Those gritty second floor apartments that used to provide working class people a place to live at a reasonable cost are now firmly established as vacation rentals or year-round high-end apartments.

I have lived in several and, like many, learned to fashion all sorts of ways of drowning out the noise of Bayview Street. I covered the windows with blankets, ran fans, and played white noise. I could see the most incredible sunrises over the harbor by just stepping outside, but those benefits came with the drawbacks of snow plows beeping in the winter and the summertime chatter and ruckus of Bayview Street.

I’m told I’m not old enough to have seen the truly boisterous days of Camden’s downtown nightlife, and that is probably true. I’m old enough to have seen a big change though. In 2016, the town passed a noise ordinance that treats every district the same way and imposes a 65 decibel limit after 11 p.m., even in our Downtown and Harbor Business Districts. Really?

Even many of our parks “close” at 10 or 11 p.m. I rent rooms to college students who work at restaurants during the summer and have heard numerous stories of them being asked to leave while sitting at Laite Beach talking after their shifts. They wonder why Camden wants everyone in their homes so early, but I’m not sure we did this on purpose.

There have to be places in any town where it’s ok to stay up late and it’s ok to be a little loud. The densely zoned downtown is the obvious place for that. It’s the town’s most central gathering place for all kinds of people — the ones getting off work at 5 p.m. and also the shift workers who aren’t done until eight, nine, 10 or 11.

A vibrant downtown is also sometimes a loud downtown. It’s a place to vent and to celebrate and sing and dance and get something to eat. It’s also a place for people who don’t want to go home yet, for those who have any number of reasons for not being ready for bed or not wanting to be alone in their home, or perhaps don’t want to be in the company of the people they live with.

Earlier this summer, looking for a place to eat lunch, it was alarming to see the number of businesses unable to open due to a shortage of workers. Cuzzy’s was one of the few places and everyone in there, including the owner, was working up a sweat trying to keep up. With the price of real estate skyrocketing, it’s harder and harder for anyone who would fill those positions to find a place to live.

But this past Saturday night, at Cuzzy’s for Karoake with some high school friends, everything seemed OK. I watched as tourists, residents, and people from every income bracket took turns belting out their favorite songs on the microphone, laughing, cheering, and connecting with old friends.

During the pandemic, we got a taste of Camden without Cuzzy’s and it didn’t feel good. Places to go late at night are easy to take for granted, but when they are gone, they are gone forever, and by then it’s too late.

Owning restaurants and bars in Camden may seem like easy money but it’s incredibly hard work. The people who stay with it for a long time are usually doing it for a lot more than just the money, and that is certainly true about Cuzzy’s.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board Vice-Chair. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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