Monday, October 7, 2013

Fog Horns and Hope Bubbles

On October 1st, I officially moved from New London to Hartford. But just before I left, I had the opportunity to look at how the Whaling City's long anticipated, occasionally disappointing, sometimes thrilling revitalization was coming along (or not) for the German-language Magazin Aufbau. The title of my piece is Nebelhörner und Hoffnungsblasen, which Google Translate says is "Fog Horns and Hope Bubbles." I think the word may in fact have a negative connotation, like a hope for something that will never be, but in Google Translate's English it sounds happy, bouyant, like something New London (and probably Hartford, too) needs. So I'll take the Hope Bubbles.

If you read German, the article can be found on the Aufbau website. The original in English is below.

The story of New London, Connecticut, has always been one of destruction. If you live here long enough, you will start telling tales of destruction too.

You will speak of Benedict Arnold, the talented but arrogant American officer who switched sides during the Revolutionary War and in 1781 burned swaths of New London to the ground. You will point out where streets and buildings used to be before the “urban renewal” of the 1960s and ‘70s obliterated them. When a storm comes, and the Thames River roars up over the piers, you will reminisce as if you’d been there about the great hurricane of 1938, when the city was cut off, strewn with elm trees and splintered ships, simultaneously drowning and aflame.

And yet, New London has always come back. Built around a deep, open harbor, one of the best in New England, it has usually drawn its resilience from the sea. The city turned from shipbuilding in the 17th century to privateering in the 18th century to whaling in the 19th century. It has been an exclusive seaside resort and a home for the Navy and Coast Guard. 

Today New London could be a model of the declining American urban center, a tiny Detroit. It could also be an example of a city reborn from ashes, as it has been - literally and figuratively - many times before. Yet currently it is neither. Since I first moved here in 2007, lured by a gently curving coastline and a rich history crammed into six square miles of city, New London has seemed to hang precariously between success and failure. 

“It is really sad how long it takes,” says Sandra Kersten Chalk, Executive Director of preservation organization New London Landmarks. Chalk used to work for the Garde Arts Center, a restored 1920s theatre and early participant in the slow, arts-fueled revitalization that began in New London over 20 years ago. 

It was supposed to happen earlier. When historic Starr Street was restored in 1980, creating a block-long vision of tourist-brochure perfection complete with brick sidewalks, lamp-posts and pastel-painted homes, it was thought that further sprucing up would follow. It didn’t.

When Chalk came to New London in 1990, she says, “It was terrible. The city was still suffering from the ravages of urban renewal. So there were great empty lots, great empty spaces.” State Street, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, had been turned into a pedestrian mall which no one used. All the street’s businesses had closed, or moved - like many residents - to the suburbs. Low-income housing had been built behind the demolished blocks, trapping people, many of whom did not have cars, in neighborhoods where they couldn’t even buy groceries. A working-class downtown that had thrived since 1900 had died off.

The decline extended beyond downtown. The Hodges Square neighborhood, which includes Connecticut College and the US Coast Guard Academy, was split from the rest of New London in stages. In 1943, the first bridge across the Thames was built, replacing the ferries that had traveled between New London and Groton for centuries. In the 1970s, a twin bridge was added to keep up with increasing traffic, leaving massive concrete footprints on what remained of the community.
“It’s not that far” from downtown, Chalk says of Hodges Square, “it just seems far because it’s so ugly.” Current proposals for Hodges Square include walking and biking paths to re-connect the area to downtown, as well as improvements to the once-fashionable Riverside Park, which later became so neglected that its riverfront access point was deemed unsafe and closed.

If the “creative placemaking” Chalk describes can remedy this decline, it will also take money, and, perhaps more importantly, marketing. New London is ideally situated between New York and Boston; easily reached by road, rail, or water; and has land available for development. But, Chalk laments, “We don’t sell the city very well.” Outsiders have negative views of New London, she says, or no views at all. “Hopefully that’s beginning to change.”

Annah Perch shares that hope. She is the new Executive Director of New London Main Street, the local branch of a national program dedicated to reviving downtowns plagued by the lingering effects of decades-old policies. (Ironically New London has no physical Main Street; it too was a victim of urban renewal, torn down and replaced with a pedestrian-unfriendly one-way street called Eugene O’Neill Drive, after the playwright, who grew up in the city and set his Long Day’s Journey Into Night here.) 

I am expecting Perch to speak of the challenges New London faces, but she is all optimism. The quality of life here is high, she tells me, with arts, culture, and entertainment that “rivals that of New York City in some cases.” 

Her only frustration is that “New London is perhaps too well kept of a secret.” In addition to the historic lack of marketing, Perch says that in promoting New London, she is up against an “old-fashioned perception that urban centers are more dangerous, more gritty, than any other place.” She notes that the suburban town of East Lyme, where she lives, is not without crime. Yet “Nobody’s planning on leaving East Lyme because it’s becoming dangerous.” 

This is echoed by Dirk Langeveld, former editor of New London Patch, part of a network of hyper-local news and community websites now owned by AOL. Langeveld points out that the city’s bad reputation is perpetuated on the Internet, where commenters who “will put New London down at every turn” can skew Google results with their pessimism.

When he moved here in 2010 to take the editor job, Langeveld found the city full of dining and entertainment options. But he noticed that many business owners he spoke to had only opened a few years before that. He wondered, “What were we like before 2005?” 

2005, as it turns out, was a dark moment in New London’s history. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that the city’s power of eminent domain allowed it to seize and tear down private houses in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood and use the land not for a road or military installation, but for economic development.

The story of Fort Trumbull is complex, involving a corrupt Republican governor angling for traditionally Democratic urban votes, a quasi-public development agency looking to re-brand as “hip” a city content with its blue-collar roots, and a pharmaceutical company happy to make or break promises if it thought profits would follow. The result is simple; the assured economic development never materialized. The plot of land made famous by Kelo is now a field of overgrown vegetation across the street from a serene State Park. 

A few months ago, a plan to build condominiums on a former Navy property near the site - in itself a controversial idea - was stalled just ahead of the scheduled closing when the developer failed to provide adequate financing plans to the city. 

Such disappointments have made New Londoners cautious, Langeveld says. Yet he too sees optimism in the city. And, he reasons, even New London’s setbacks have always provided opportunities to boast. “We fought Benedict Arnold!” he says smiling. There is pride in having rebuilt, again and again.

Langeveld has seen “some net progress” during his time in new London. He cites the Monte Cristo Bookshop, which opened last year with funding from Kickstarter donations, indicating the public is willing to support New London businesses. There are also plans for a Coast Guard Museum, which, if successful, could be a boon to the city. Recent gay pride events have drawn large crowds, and positive articles have popped up in the travel sections of newspapers. 

If accelerated change comes to New London, I will have to watch it from afar. I’m moving to Hartford, Connecticut’s capital city. Yet though I’m looking forward to it, I can already feel New London, with its train whistles and foghorns and potential, calling me back even before I go.

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