The sidewalks on the First Friday Art Walk weren’t quite as jammed as normal.
But that was because the city, for the first time, closed off a long stretch of Congress Street on Friday evening to turn the thoroughfare into a long pedestrian mall, so many of those strolling from gallery to gallery could do so in the middle of the street instead of weaving along a crowded sidewalk.
A boisterous crowd ignored the chilly night air and a persistent drizzle to walk the street, which was closed to cars from Brown Street to Longfellow Square. Cars were allowed over the hump of the peninsula on High Street, and crossing guards helped make sure the throngs of people navigated the cross street traffic safely.
It was a night of several firsts for the art walk, which is now in its 13th year.
In addition to closing off part of Congress Street, it marked the first large public event in the city in which the use of marijuana was legal under a new ordinance, which took effect Friday.
Although Portland voters overwhelmingly decided last month that small amounts of marijuana for personal use are legal, the drug remains illegal under state and federal law, which meant that users were still subject to arrest.
But even though the smell of pot was fairly strong along parts of Congress Street, Portland police said late Friday night there were no arrests.
Before the event, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said he gave his officers “broad discretion” in enforcing – or not – marijuana laws and encouraged them to exercise “great constraint.”
In another first, Portland ended up with a few more clowns than normal Friday night.
Plus, more jugglers, acrobats and unicyclists, who were all part of the city’s first “Circus in the Streets” at the intersection of Park and Congress streets.
The event drew about 300 people and kicked off Peter Nielsen’s dream of transforming Portland into the big top of the circus world.
“Portland is going to be the United States hub of circuses,” said Nielsen, president of the Circus Conservatory of America, which hopes to open a circus college at Thompson’s Point in 2015.
Before the show started about 6 p.m., the circus artists milled around, trying to stay warm.
Martha Fournier, 36, hopped up and down as she prepared to put her college education to work. A graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Fournier is a happy-on-the-outside – and probably inside, too – clown who said she hopes to be a coach at Nielsen’s college when it opens.
Nielsen said all of the acts were planned with the chilly December night air and asphalt surface in mind. The only drawback was that on the flat street, many of the performers couldn’t be seen by those more than two or three rows of people away, and many parts of the crowd were 10-deep.
That was no major concern to spectators like Jeannette Hardy, who arrived as the performance started and had only a limited view.
“More than the show, it’s fun having a bunch of people around,” the Portland resident said.
The opinion was shared by Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo, who owns Oak Street Studio, which is adjacent to where the circus was held Friday.
“I’m very excited,” she said, because it drew a crowd to her end of Congress Street. “There’s never this amount of people all at once.”
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: