New Sign Gets In The Spirit Of Things

On Friday, driving from the Y on the sparkling new Merritt Parkway Exit 41 ramp, I saw a guy with a truck putting up a sign.

Check it out — it’s the sparkling new white one, at the bottom of all the others.

Merritt Parkway sign

Call me crazy, but I’m guessing this is not an official — or legal — Department of Transportation project.

Westport: Low Fences, Communal Spirit, Personal Pizzas

On Thursday night 9 teenagers left Westport, for a plane back to Singapore. They were different people than when they’d arrived, just 2 weeks earlier.

The group — part of the 2nd annual group to visit from the elite Hwa Chong Institute — lived with Staples students, attended classes, and visited New York City and Yale.

But — as is so often the case with programs like this — the little things meant the most.

The guests shared their impressions on a Facebook page called “Staples High Immersion 2014.” Among their observations:

In Singapore, students are “generally meek in front of their teachers.” Here, school relationships are very relaxed.  As a result, discussions are lively, resulting in “effective learning.” And without uniforms, Westport students “are free to express their personal identity.”

Staples’ electives were eye-opening. Radio, television, film-making, music, pottery, digital darkroom, drawing, painting, sculpturing, jewelry making, woodworking — plus the opportunity to choose another language, like French, Spanish or Mandarin — was intriguing.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

But that was nothing compared to extracurricular activities. The Singapore teenagers were impressed that Inklings, the school newspaper, gives students the opportunity to write on topics that interest them, from fashion to anti-Semitism.

The visitors were wowed by Staples Players’ “Hello, Dolly!” — let’s hope they don’t think that every high school puts on shows like that — were amazed too at the importance that Wrecker sports hold for many students.

“Such is a mark of an obviously holistic education,” one youngster wrote. “Academics, while important, do not rob students of their time to engage in something they want to do and develop.

“Crudely speaking,” he added, “Staples makes Singaporean schools look like factories.”

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

The strong, close bonds of families in Westport neighborhoods impressed the Singapore teens. One said that “communal spirit” was lacking in his country.

And, he added, Westport homes do not have “high fences or walls to form a barricade around their properties,” as he was used to. (Another was surprised that Americans don’t mind living near cemeteries. That would never happen back home.)

Life here, one boy said, is less hectic than in Singapore. His father works overseas; his mother gets home from work after he is asleep, and he has not had a home-cooked meal since he was 11. Both host parents here cook.

He called it “heartwarming” to see that Westport families spend “sufficient time to interact and understand each and every family member.” Singapore youngsters “crave” that, he said.

One of his classmates remarked on the ease with which “numerous visitors” dropped in at his host family’s house.

It doesn't get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

It doesn’t get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

A host family took their guest to a local restaurant. A pizza that would be a meal for 2 or 3 people back home was his alone. At a supermarket, the only Coke he could find was 4.5 liters. On field trips, he and his classmates could not finish all the food they were served.

One Facebook post called Westport “stunning.” The “serene and quiet” autumn setting was a sharp contrast to “noisy and high energy” Singapore.

New York, meanwhile, seemed “straight out of a movie.” It had a “slight fairy-tale feel to it” — despite the “innumerable homeless people.”

“I am indeed glad I was honoured with the opportunity to come here,” a student wrote. “I feel accomplished and less ignorant” for having experienced Western culture.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family's house.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family’s house.

And, of course, nearly everyone asked the Singaporeans — “frantically,” one said — if they are allowed to chew gum.

“That is one thing we don’t really regard as something big, but apparently in other countries it appears really strange,” he noted.

Which is why all of us should travel. And when we do, we should wander out of our comfort zones. There are many lessons to be learned. As our Singapore guests have shown us, not all take place in school.

Calling All Candlelight Connoisseurs

Next year, Staples’ Candlelight Concert celebrates its 75th anniversary. Hallelujah!

To mark the occasion, the music department — in conjunction with Class of 1961 grad John Brandt — plans a spectacular video.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old.

Candlelight originator John Ohanian was known for his meticulous attention to detail. The organizers of next year’s celebration have learned his lessons well.

Thirteen months ahead of time, they’re already searching for archival material. They need programs from before 1961 (the 1st one — 1940 — would be golden).

They’d like still photos, and of course recordings — either vinyl, old Beta videos, even reel-to-reel tapes.

Please send in jpeg or .wav format — or simply in its original form. All material will be copied and returned. Send to: Adele Valovich c/o Staples High School, 70 North Avenue, Westport, CT 06880. You can email her at  avalovich@westport.k12.ct.us, or call 203-341-5128. The deadline is December 12.

Now let hosannas ring…

Choir member Michael Sixsmith was part of the always-evocative "Sing We Noel" processional. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

A recent Candlelight processional. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)

Bring Back Needle Park!

After the recent removal of cherry trees and ivy, Westport’s attention has been focused on the former YMCA’s former Bedford building.

Across the street, meanwhile, a sterile little plaza just sits there.

It was not always thus. Back in the day — when the Library occupied the space now filled with Freshii and Starbucks — the corner of the Post Road and Main Street was an actual park. Westporters enjoyed benches, flowers, and a fountain donated by the Sheffer family.

In the 1960s it became known as Needle Park. That’s where Westport’s alleged heroin users — both of them — allegedly shot up. In reality, it was just a great hangout for high school kids smoking a little weed.

I defy you to find anyone shooting up in this photo.

I defy you to find anyone shooting up in this photo.

Now — after several renovations (not “improvements”) — the place is a monument to concrete. It’s even less inviting than the “plazas” New York developers built in exchange for adding 30 more stories to their glass monuments.

Those developers did everything they could to make their public spaces unusable.

The latest incarnation of the old Needle Park does the same.

Library park

As alert “06880″ reader Remy Chevalier points out, one of the benches is not level with the ground. That, he says, is “a nasty little trick developers use when they don’t actually want anybody sitting on them and loitering.”

A crooked -- and hardly welcoming -- bench. That's a level on top, showing that it's not level.

A crooked — and hardly welcoming — bench. That’s a level on top, showing that it’s not level.

Remy publishes a great blog, called Greenburbs. It shows what towns like Westport can look like if people in power really care about how human beings interact with their environment.

And make no mistake: Whoever is responsible for that grim “park” across the street from the old Y/new Bedford Square clearly abused his power.

One Last Look Back

The Kemper-Gunn House has moved. The old YMCA Bedford building begins renovations soon, becoming an anchor of the new Bedford Square.

But Westporters can’t stop looking back.

Alert “06880″ reader Jonathan Rohner sent this fascinating postcard showing the Y and the Westport Bank and Trust building (today it’s Patagonia):

YMCA and bank in 1920s or so

I love the cars — all looking the same — parked or driving haphazardly on the trolley-tracked Post Road.

I love the elm trees framing the Bedford building, and how peaceful downtown looked.

Equally alert “06880″ reader Scott Smith contributed this photo, from a decade or so later:

YMCA witih old cars

I love the hand-colored blue sky. The bike leaning casually against the tree on the left.

And check out the front-in parking job of those cars in front of the Y. That would never fly today.

I was especially intrigued by another image Scott sent. This one shows the Westport Hotel. The area was called Hotel Square. Westport Bank and Trust had not yet been built:

Westport Hotel - site of old Y

The hotel had a pool room. Youngsters were not permitted inside. Edward T. Bedford vowed to give them a place. In 1923, he built the YMCA.

The rest is history.

And now, a new chapter has begun.

 

Courtney Kemp Agboh Adds More “Power”

Last summer, “06880″ profiled Courtney Kemp Agboh. The 1994 Staples High School graduate — who went on to Brown University, and earned a master’s in English literature at Columbia — is the creator and show runner of “Power,” a Starz series that premiered a month earlier. It was the 1st series she ever pitched.

Last night, Agboh was honored at a star-studded Hollywood event. She was 1 of Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100.” She — and fellow high-achievers like Oprah Winfrey, Pharrell Williams and Jason Collins — joined Quincy Jones, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Courtney Kemp Agboh

Courtney Kemp Agboh

As last summer’s story noted, she was “called the N-word a lot” growing up in Westport. (Her father, Herb Kemp, was a noted advertising executive.) She read college textbooks at age 8, Shakespeare at 10. She made up stories about the pieces on her chess set.

It was a long way from the nearly-all-white Westport of the 1980s and ’90s to Sunset Gower Studios in Los Angeles, where she works today.

And where her executive producer is Curtis Jackson — better known as the rapper 50 Cent.

In Hollywood, it doesn’t get more powerful than that.

Hey, Everyone Has To Learn To Drive Sometime

Seen on the Post Road, near Stop & Shop:

student driver

(Hat tip to Howard Silver.)

No Safe Harbor On Saugatuck Shores

Saugatuck Shores was on the agenda at a recent board of selectmen meeting. They considered 2 petitions: one for speed bumps on Harbor Road, the other against.

Alert “06880″ reader Gene Borio doesn’t have a horse in that race. He lives on Canal Road, a 600-yard straightaway. That’s where he’d like to see speed bumps. Or at least a speed-activated sign (which residents have requested, to no avail).

But Gene has another issue with Harbor Road: the new sea wall. In his opinion, it’s waaaay too close to the road. Strolling, jogging, biking, dog-walking — all are now life-in-your-hands situations.

In just half an hour the other day, he saw:

Harbor Road 1

Harbor Road 3

Harbor Road 2

While Gene was taking these photos, a contractor asked what he was shooting.

“The beautiful view, of course,” Gene said.

“And the sea wall. I think it’s too close to the road.”

“Yeah!” the contractor replied. “Why couldn’t they have moved it back 3 feet?!”

Gene thinks that would be tough. But, he says, 1 1/2 to 2 feet could be doable.

As for the traffic photos: “There’s a lot worse than this going on every day,” he says.

Like this shot:

Harbor Road 4

There are no cars nearby — but there could be.

And that’s without speed bumps.

 

At Least It’s Not A Bank, Nail Salon Or Frozen Yogurt Place

After weeks of work on the old Boccanfuso auto body shop on the Post Road opposite Starbucks, the new tenant was unveiled yesterday.

Boccanfuso

Should Crate & Barrel, or Restoration Hardware, be worried?

Human Services’ Holiday Help

If you’re like me, you’re excited by the holiday season — and annoyed at the rampant commercialism that accompanies it.

But if you’re like dozens of Westport households here, you wonder how you can afford any gifts at all.

Holiday giftsOverlooked in all the ho-ho-ho-ing are local families for whom the holidays may not seem merry or bright. Job loss, medical expenses, foreclosure, divorce — those circumstances and others may add extra stress to this time of year.

Fortunately, riding shotgun with Santa is Westport’s Department of Human Services.

It’s a great, confidential way for Westporters to provide gifts for kids — and ease the financial burden on entire families. Last year, 432 residents — including those served by Homes With Hope, the Westport Housing Authority, Project Return and the schools’ Open Choice program — received holiday assistance.

One recipient — whose life changed drastically 4 years ago — cried after picking up gift cards.

A mom of limited means thanked DHS for easing the stress she felt on Christmas morning.

A longtime Westporter — who can afford to live here only because her apartment is owned by her family — says that without the program, her son would have only one present under the tree.

Another says simply, “the Holiday Gift Giving Program has made all the difference.”

Contributions come from individuals, as well as garden and book clubs, scout troops, schools, churches and businesses. Donors and receivers are assured of confidentiality.

For years, Audrey Hertzel has organized a huge effort at Sterling Investment Partners. She collects stuffed animals and books for the Holiday  Giving Program.

For years, Audrey Hertzel has organized a huge effort at Sterling Investment Partners. She collects stuffed animals and books for the Holiday Giving Program.

“Some of the most appreciated gifts are grocery and gas cards of any amount,” says Human Services director Barbara Butler. Also well received: gift cards to local stores.

Cash donations are always welcome. They allow Human Services staffers to buy last-minute gift cards for clients.

Cards and checks (made payable to “DHS Family Programs,” with “Holiday” on the memo line) can be mailed to Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport, CT 06880 at any time (the sooner the better, of course). They can also be dropped off in Town Hall Room 200 during business hours.

If you’d like to shop for a family’s actual gift request — in full or part — or for questions, contact Patty Haberstroh (hsyouth@westportct.gov; 203-341-1069).

Families needing extra support during the holidays should call 203-341-1050.