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Welcome to the Hootenanny Café

In-class ten-minute design charette

The assignment: design a healing space

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You have to drive about twenty minutes outside of Portland, Maine, to get to the Hootenanny Café, and you're going to have to take a few dirt roads. But it's ok: the locals will help you through the forest. Then up the hill, turn into the clearing in the oaks, and you're there. Roll up your sleeves for the best coffee, food, reconnoitering, impromptu jams, dance breaks, and communal harvesting ever.

Locals built the Hootenanny as a gathering nexus for the farmers, recluses, artists, and dreamers who wanted a sense of their own community separate from Portland, which they view as the Big City and anathema to their tastes. They salvaged and repurposed every worn plank and every chipped mismatched antique window that makes up this little shack. Inside, somebody's grandmother's cast-off Persian carpet lies faded on the floor, with the resident black Lab sleeping on its corner. Bookcases full of the community's already-read books line the walls, waiting to be taken home by their next reader. Twinkly lights line one wooden wall. Some migrant hippie-chick from California contributed a huge brass lantern from Iran that now hangs somewhat incongruously in the middle of the space. A beat-up player piano found in a barn sits under a window, some scattered pages of Schubert on it, and many of its ivory keys still work. There's a pot-bellied stove in the corner, just the thing for cold winter nights.

Hootenanny takes the idea of “café table” rather liberally. One is an old Singer sewing machine stand, one is a board on two saw horses, one is a perfect marble-topped wrought-iron thing all the way from Paris. They are all always full, except there's always just enough room for you and your friends to squeeze in. Or there's the peacock-blue velour couch with the stuffing coming out, in the corner. You can expect to find earnest college kids wrapped up in their chess game, a group of gardeners discussing the season's crops, a couple in their sixties going on a first date, an out-of-towner eager to sample the local flavour, and, invariably, a tormented poet brooding over an extremely erudite novel. And that's just at the tables.

For the remaining half of the inside of the shack is an empty wooden floor. Because every day is a dancing day at the Hootenanny. A toddler taking their first steps, a young couple in love and dancing bachata, an uneven number of contact-improv crunchy-granolas, a company of Haitian snake dancers passing through on their way to Toronto—the space welcomes them all. Tuesdays the matrons of the local permaculture club have their clog-dancing practices.

Someone is always making music here. You will almost certainly be pulled into a 'round-the-piano sing-along—and don't worry, this is a place where everyone knows that song you love and whomever's at the piano can easily fake a few chords and make it work. Some guy fooling around on a harmonica. There's regular get-togethers of whole bands of writers and farmers playing the old folk songs on their homemade instruments, pickle tubs, washboards, spoons, jugs, combs, broom handles with single guitar strings, you name it. One woman brings her koto. This one time, the community got together at midnight and sang Bach's B-Minor Mass with twinkle lights and candles and moonlight. They say the acoustics are warm and rich at the Hootenanny, probably because of all that old wood, but perhaps because of all the good times that have happened here.

One whole side of the Hootenanny is tall mismatched French doors. When the weather's fine they're all open, and the bare dance floor merges with the wooden porch. Where you will invariably find someone trying to remember the chords to That Song on their guitar, while someone with a crush on them lingers admiringly in the corner. Step down the two steps that run the width of the porch, and you're in the yard, sheltered by pink climbing roses and blackberry brambles. Right in front of you is the community garden and orchard that grows the produce for the Café. Everybody helps in the garden, and then everybody eats. Over there a woman in a straw rice-farmer hat bends over picking kale. The selection of fruits and vegetables is not enormous, but rather has been culled over time, after enough seasons of locals figuring out what works within that particular space. There's cabbages and primroses and daisies and a grape arbor—that's not doing particularly well, but a group of determined teenagers is working on it as a school project, so we'll see how it goes. Over there a mother with a watering can follows a toddler chasing a cabbage butterfly. In the foreground a couple smooches, his Golden Retriever sitting patiently at their side and watching the cabbage butterfly.

A boy plays with a Yogolo in the grassy clearing, bare feet on white clover blossoms. His friend sits near him playing with one of those giant bubble-makers. A mother cat and her kitten slink past, headed for the cool shade of the shrubbery. A sparrow perches on top of the hose looped over its stand, its nozzle dripping into a metal dish sitting in a puddle on top of some pebbles. Between the hose stand and the café, the chickens are having their free-range time out of their coop. Everyone says the café makes the best omelettes and frittatas they've ever had, and well-treated chickens is why. Beyond the chicken coop, budding apiarists take care of the café's hives with almost pathological calm. This season's blackberry-clover honey will taste awfully good on the Hootenanny's famous apricot scones. If you listen you can hear the goats, foraging in the next clearing over. Their milk makes cheese that is sweet and aromatic and goes fabulously well on the café's famous fougasse.

You're probably getting hungry just thinking about it; all the locals do. And in addition to their normal daytime offerings, once a month everyone gathers for a huge Moonlit Harvest Feast. They push the tables together and fill the space with flowers from the garden and tea candles in jam jars, and everybody brings their musical instruments. And the table burgeons with vast wooden bowls of everything good to eat, all from the garden, or locally foraged, or caught. There are purslane salads with apples and goat cheese, roasted root vegetables, blackberry galettes with a single decorative sprig of rosemary, and on Christmas, the local witch's extra-special magic-spiked wassail. Everything is local. Even the flour for the pastries is local, thanks to one particularly determined ex-investment-banker who left Wall Street behind, bought the old Jackson farmstead on the corner, and turned it into a viable wheat farm and flour mill. He says it's a huge pile of work but he does it for love.

That's what everyone is doing here. That's what you take away with you, when you leave the Hootenanny Café, round and full and sated with music and the good company of solid people. You take away the only thing anyone ever grew in a garden or built with their own two hands or shared over a late-night chess game or coaxed out of an instrument or described with their feet on a dance floor.

You take away love.