“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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just off the green lies the main drag, Church Street. Most storefronts now appear inhabited after a generation of disinvestment.
Church Street feels so close to the critical mass of density needed for a sense of downtown ‘hustle and bustle.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(psst… a few bike lanes couldn’t hurt, either)