Andrew Zarro & Viva
Keeping the culture alive
Every Month PelotonLabs founder Liz Trice interviews a community member for The West End News. This month Liz caught up with Viva, the band leader and singer for Viva and the Reinforcements, and Andrew Zarro, the owner of Little Woodfords Coffee Shop and candidate for Portland City Council.
Andrew: How are things going?
Viva: It took me about until two weeks ago to get adjusted to 2020. You?
Andrew: We moved! Before the pandemic, we were in negotiations with my landlord, then we closed in March for two full months, reopened May 16th, then we learned that they were jacking the rent up and we were going to be priced out of the neighborhood that I worked my butt off to improve. . . So, we rented the little building at Congress and Franklin that used to be Plum.
It was so hard to leave this community we worked to support! We built out the new space in three weeks, and we opened in July. It’s been a good summer and we’re preparing for fall and winter. It’s sad to not be in our old space, but we will open in our community again.
Viva: You touched on something I’ve been thinking of with the fires on the west coast. Our air quality is still really good, our water is really good, we have passionate people that are doing good things. …There is going to be more gentrification and migration.
Andrew: Houses in the $400-500k range are going under contract really fast to cash buyers. People want to move here, and people who live here can’t compete. The air quality is good, it’s safe, our numbers are great, but we’re not going to be able to live in this city if we don’t do something about this soon.
Viva: Who will be here to keep the culture alive? Portland House of Music just put up a GoFundMe: we can’t afford to lose that venue. The reason we have so many diverse and talented musicians is because there is room for upward mobility, and Portland House of Music is the only venue of that size that working musicians can hope to play more than once a year. And if those venues – think One Longfellow Square and State Theatre and Geno’s – close, then all those restaurants along Congress Street wouldn’t be there.
When the music stops, then the commercial success will stop. The whole charm of Portland is that we have these hundreds of small businesses. What can we do save that?
Andrew: You can talk about it. People love to talk about Portland is top 10 this and that, but when push comes to shove … it’s hard enough to be a small business as is, but now we’re seeing a mass extinction. A lot of bakers we buy from don’t even have a storefront – they work at Fork Food Labs.
I’m a worker owner. . . I’m working hard all the time, and that’s the identity of a lot of the microbusinesses in the city, and we don’t have that representation on our city council. There’s a huge range of size of businesses, there’s a lot of diversity in our economy. When Port City said they were closing, we really felt that. And some people said, “Something else will go in there – it’s just a business.” But these are our neighbors, these are our friends.
Viva: And there’s the third space thing. A third place, like your cafe, is where people can interact with others who aren’t in their family. I feel that way about Port City – I’ve had so many good experiences there! Port City was the size that 1% of Maine musicians might hope to play once a year, and it hosted acts that the State Theatre is too big to support. Why are we working so hard if we’re not going to have spaces where we can come together and experience each other?
Liz: I’ve been wondering about how we can support people and still have space available when the danger of the pandemic passes. Every person that has a roof over their head and food and some healthcare is okay, and it doesn’t make sense that we would need to keep public spaces open to make sure that people have those basics. But it doesn’t make sense to have the government endlessly subsidize business rents, either. We need to support the basics for people, and also to make sure that those spaces will be there for people to gather when the pandemic is over.
Viva: No one can occupy spaces if the Government doesn’t allow us to. When we pay property taxes to a government, that government then protects it for us. Typically, we’re paying for protection from attack, but now we need protection from a public health disaster. The [Portland Public] Library is not going away, but all our music venues might.
Andrew: The Northern Europe countries gave money to businesses to pass through to keep paying employees that weren’t going to work. Vermont took funding from the CARES act and issued $30 gift cards to everyone in Vermont, and they could only be spent at local businesses. It impacted businesses, and it was measurable, and you know the money stays locally. We could do that. Any dollar you send to Amazon is gone forever. I’m going to ask people to take the Portland Pledge this holiday season to buy everything locally. Don’t even buy deodorant online. So many places have closed: Drifter’s Wife, Piccolo, Port City Music Hall…
Viva: Really? Ag, that’s farm to table…
Andrews: . . .Cordell’s barber shop in Woodfords Corner. . . Outdoor seating ends November 1st, what are we going to do November 2nd? Maybe we should allow extension for outdoor seating.
Viva: Why not provide financing for heating lamps.
Andrew: All these problems were already here, and Covid exacerbated them. I really want to bring kindness and compassion to civic conversation. It’s okay to disagree, but we’re going to see each other at Hannaford, and we have a lot of work to do and we need to lift each other up. Especially for people in my generation, we can get angry, we can protest, but we have to run [for office]. We need queer voices, people of color, women… we need to be running and showing up at every opportunity, and if we lose, we lose, but we need to get out there.
PelotonLabs is a coworking space in the West End of Portland, Maine with a mission to connect and encourage people working on their own to manifest their visions without fear.