Anatomy of a town; Naugatuck, CT

“Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world.  It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust.”  letter from a homeowner to the king of Persia, 539 B.C.

I was in my hometown of Naugatuck, Connecticut recently, visiting with family and friends.  Like any newly minted urban planner, I could not help but over-analyze the place to death; I made a photo-essay of what I saw.

Naugatuck, an Algonquin word for “lone tree by the river,” lies about 80 miles northeast of New York City in New Haven County.  Removed from the prep schools and tennis courts stereotypically associated with Connecticut, Naugatuck is one of several blue collar towns tucked inside a river valley trying to form a post-industrial identity…

Industry

Once a manufacturing town, “Naugy” churned out tires and other rubber products in its heyday.  Its claim to fame was the vulcanization of rubber, and, in 1936, the invention of a peculiar type of artificial leather.  This material was dubbed naugahyde, and was promoted by an exceptionally clever marketing campaign.

The nationwide industrial exodus following WWII, which continues to this day, did not spare the town.  Our last factory, a Peter Paul plant, produced Mounds and Almond Joy bars.  It closed in 2011, and the building was demolished soon after.

Former site of the Peter Paul factory on Route 63.

Former site of the Peter Paul factory on Route 63.

Less than half a mile up the road is Walmart.  When Walmart came to town in the 90’s, they constructed a huge, artificial hill to place it on.  Although it is less of an eye sore than if it were placed at street level, it is inaccessible to anyone traveling by transit, bike, or on foot.

The Walmart occupies one of the largest parcels in town and sits on top of an enormous man-made hill.

The Walmart occupies one of the largest parcels in town and sits on top of an enormous, man-made hill.

Walmart is as much an industrial phenomenon as a commercial one.  It is a retail store, but, as an employer, it fills the role that factories once did.  I don’t know many people in Naugatuck anymore, but when I run into familiar faces from high school, they are often working at Walmart.

Downtown

The Naugatuck Green is flanked by stunning civic buildings in the Renaissance Revival, High Victorian Gothic, and Neo-Classical Revival styles.  Replete with war monuments and gazebo, the green promises an Americana that the town yearns to provide.

Naugatuck Green

Naugatuck Green

Just off the green lies the main drag, Church Street.  Most storefronts now appear inhabited after a generation of disinvestment.

Church Street - the main drag in downtown.

Church Street – the main drag.

Church Street feels so close to the critical mass of density needed for a sense of downtown ‘hustle and bustle.’

Residential

Industry moved out, Walmart moved in, downtown struggled, and property taxes skyrocketed.  The tax rate in Naugatuck is now a staggering 45.57 mils.  The neighborhood where I grew up was built in the 1970’s.  We kids have all moved out, the home’s aren’t flashy anymore, and I noticed many ‘For Sale’ signs during this visit.

'For Sale' signs in Naugatuck, Connecticut.

‘For Sale’ signs in Naugatuck, Connecticut.

By contrast, the older parts of town are still effortlessly picturesque.  Tree-line streets wind around hills and past Victorian homes.  The neighborhood ages with grace.

An older neighborhood on Hilside Avenue.

An older neighborhood on Hillside Avenue.

In the 1980’s the town entered its Twilight Zone housing phase.  Row after row of identical, ranch houses sprang up when I was a boy.

IMG_9552

A row of ranch houses in Naugatuck.

When these houses were new, they had a tidy look to them.  Now, twenty five years later, half of them are covered in vinyl siding, and many simply look run down.

Today, Naugatuck is in love with the McMansion on the cul de sac.

IMG_9587

A lovingly crafted McMansion.

I do not know who lives in these things, where they work, or how they afford the tax bill.  I do not know if my disdain for these homes is due to their bland, manufactured character, or to the fact that I will probably never be able to afford one on my government salary.  Probably both.

Link to NYC

Naugatuck lies on the Metro North rail line which travels into Grand Central Station.  The trip takes about two hours and costs 15 bucks each way.  I believe this link to New York is the town’s greatest asset.

The Naugatuck Train Station.

Naugatuck train station, built in the Spanish-colonial style. Metro-North whisks Naugatuckians to The Big Apple in two hours.

Several years ago, in an attempt to capitalize on growing national interest in transit-oriented development, a firm was hired to plan a green, walkable, mixed use downtown development.  The magnificent plan they produced was called Renaissance Place, but the Great Rescession took hold and funding became scarce  Not, however, before the space was allocated downtown to make room for the new development.  The space is still vacant 3 years after Renaissance Place was scrapped.

The lots cleared in downtown to make room for Renaissance Place. The boxy grey structure in the distance is the town hall.

Proposed location of Renaissance Place.

But there’s so much land even closer to the train station that is used in some pretty weird ways.

A giant postal facility adjacent to the town’s passenger rail link into the nation’s largest and wealthiest city is a peculiar land use choice.  As a single, 36-year old gay man, I’m probably not the town’s target demographic, but if I ever had to move back, I’d probably wish to live downtown and close to the train station.

naugy

But Naugatuck hasn’t given up on the creative class.  There is an initiative to turn an old factory downtown into artist studios.  Residents are concerned about filling this cavernous space when numerous vacancies already exist elsewhere.  An understandable critique, but, an artist studio in downtown will probably be very appealing to a demographic that is repulsed by the idea of McMansions on cul de sacs.

General Datacomm, which may be turned into

General Datacomm, which may be turned into “artist housing,” overlooking the mighty Naugassippi.

Moving forward

I always enjoy visiting Naugatuck, but mostly because of the nostalgia associated with going home, and because its not as hot as New Orleans in the summertime.  What’s funny about the suburbs in Connecticut is that, except for the tip of the state nearest NYC, they are not really suburbs of anything.  Each town is just an amorphous blob of suburban style development floating in a sea of trees and mountains.  If you didn’t grow up there, you would not know where one town ends and the next one begins.

Al's Hot Dog stand. The best place to eat in town.

Al’s Hot Dog stand, the best place to eat in town.  Try the Bulldozer.

Nationwide, there is renewed interest in places which are walkable, well-connected and “authentic.”  As if awakening from a bad dream, American’s suddenly realize that these things have value.

As the next mayoral race gets underway, candidates espouse how he or she intends to attract business to Naugatuck.  I don’t pretend to have the solution to the impossible balancing act that must be the town’s budget, but my concern is the tone of desperation which seems to underscore these comments – they imply a willingness to sell the town’s soul for taxes.  I would like to hear what steps they plan to take to improve quality of life – to attracting people.

The library - we didn't always building things as quickly and cheaply as possible. Why do we now?

The library (my first job) – We didn’t always construct buildings as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Another big box store, another football field-sized parking lot, another drive-thru bank – we won’t look back on these things in a generation or two and say that’s what made Naugatuck a place worth calling home.

-Adam
NHS ’97

(psst… a few bike lanes couldn’t hurt, either)

6 comments

  1. My brothers and I grew up in Naugatuck and enjoyed our lives, “back in the day.” Your blog post brought back some really good memories, especially with Al’s. The pictures were a nice stroll down memory lane and the commentary was, well, spot on. Our town has changed, to some drastically, to others it’s progress or time marching forward. Either way I enjoyed your post.

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  2. Adam, thanks for such an informed, well written piece. I’ve lived in Naugy for 68 of my 72 years. I certainly understand why younger, talented folks don’t remain in town. I have 3 grown (41-48 yr old) children of my own, and none lives in town. I think each has reasonably good memories of growing up here, but there were good reasons for them to move out. Sadly, no real economic reason exists to remain. The current economic model here is ridiculous and unsustainable for retired seniors like myself. Hopefully new ideas will emerge and encourage business investment here. Frankly I don’t have much hope at this point in time.
    BTW, Thanks for the bicycle cle-lane promo. I ride 300+ days per year and never feel safe until I am west of Rubber Avenue.
    Thanks again for sharing your professional and personal observations.

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    1. George, thanks for the kind words. Like your children, I recall growing up in Naugatuck fondly, but could not stay. I understand the town is particularly challenging for seniors, my parents included. Glad to hear you are an active cyclist. It is imperative that we, as a nation, stop building places which can only be accessed with a motor vehicle.

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  3. Adam, this is the most well-written, insightful commentary on my home town that I have ever read, written from the perspective of someone who has moved beyond this suffering town yet still holds affection for it, just as I do. Kudos.

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