Mark Potts’ Westport: Then And Now

Staples Class of 1974 graduate Mark Potts has spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. He co-founded WashingtonPost.com, Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, and is a consultant with clients like the Los Angeles TimesVariety and Silicon Valley startups.

He’s lived far from Westport for many years — right now he’s in Lawrence, Kansas — but his heart remains here. Whenever he’s “home” he checks out Main Street, Compo, the neighborhoods (and Westport Pizzeria, “the best in the world”).

Recently, he inserted old photos of Westport into current scenes from Google Street View (or in one case, a New Yorker cover).

The result is a striking look at how Westport has — and has not — changed over the decades. For example, in 1970 a massive crowd — many of the them Staples students — gathered on the Post Road outside the steps of the Y as part of a nationwide “Moratorium” protest against the Vietnam War:

Mark Potts - 1

Long before those anti-war days, the building at the corner of the Post Road and Taylor Place was a drugstore  –first Colgan’s, then Thompson’s — with a real soda fountain. Today it’s Tiffany:

Mark Potts - 2

The view below is from the opposite direction, in the early 20th century. The Westport Hotel occupied the corner of the Post Road (State Street) and Main Street. Disturbed at the drinking and pool-playing going on there, Edward T. Bedford built a YMCA on the site to give teenage boys a proper place to play:

Mark Potts - 3

Before Main Street morphed into a chain mall, it was filled with mom-and-pop shops like Country Gal, and the locally owned Klein’s department store:

Mark Potts - 4

Before Parker Harding Plaza was built in the mid-1950s, the back sides of Main Street stores backed right up to the Saugatuck River. Some discharged their waste right into the water:

Mark Potts - 5

Much earlier than that, tall ships sailed up the Saugatuck to trade at Riverside Avenue wharves:

Mark Potts - 6

The 3-story National Hall building (also seen above) has stood since the mid-1800s. It’s been a bank, meeting place, site of the 1st Staples High School, a furniture store, a boutique hotel and a restaurant, among other uses:

Mark Potts - 8

For decades, the Clam Box served as the place to meet for good food (and, for local politicians, to make deals). Before becoming Bertucci’s, it was Tanglewoods:

Mark Potts - 9

In 1973, the New Yorker featured the Compo Beach pavilion on its cover. It hasn’t changed much, other than the addition of a nearby playground in the mid-1980s:

Mark Potts - 7

So, has Westport changed a lot over the years? You bet.

And has it remained the same: Of course.

Drew Cohen Skates Through Life

Drew Cohen appreciated people who are unappreciated.

There are few folks less appreciated than ice hockey referees. For the past 6 years, he’s been one himself.

Remarkably, Drew is just a high school junior.

He plays alto sax in Staples’ jazz band, and gives music lessons to Bridgeport students. But it’s on the ice where his true passion lies. And that’s where he’s made his biggest mark so far.

From age 7 to 14 Drew played hockey in the Greater Bridgeport Junior Hockey League. But even as an 8-year-old he watched the officials. He saw how they skated, made calls and interacted with players and coaches.

“I wanted to get to know them, even if they didn’t want to know me,” Drew says.

USA Hockey logoAt 11, he earned his first certification from USA Hockey. The exam was online. He didn’t have to prove he could skate.

Now — several tests later — he’s a member of the Hockey Referees Association of Connecticut. Though USA Hockey recommends not officiating your own age or higher, he has whistled a collegiate women’s pre-season game.

“I always like things to be fair,” Drew says. “As a referee, you have to be fair. By being fair, you can make the game better.” He’s a strong advocate of mutual respect between players, coaches and officials, and tries to develop that without yelling.

Refereeing is a big responsibility. “You have to act like an adult, and be professional. A 16-year-old can be lazy in some parts of life. But you can’t do that on the ice. You have to make judgments, make calls, and sell them — whether you’re right or wrong.”

Drew Cohen

Drew Cohen

Among Drew’s challenges: explaining calls to coaches and players. Asserting himself when things get personal. Controlling a game when it threatens to get out of hand. Earning respect from colleagues who are 2 or 3 times his age.

It doesn’t always work. Drew shakes his head as he recalls a game in Shelton. A coach would not stop yelling at him.

“I froze,” Drew says. “My partner — across the rink — screamed at the coach. I didn’t have the courage to stand up to someone much older.” He pauses. “This season I will, though.”

He explains the key qualities of a good referee: consistency in calls, confidence and communication (verbal and non-verbal). Of course, a hockey official must also skate well. And he has to really, really know the rules.

Every year, Drew heads to Canada for a referee camp. A number of National Hockey League officials are there. He has gotten to know many of them. He emails them with questions, and after a recent preseason game in Bridgeport an NHL ref gave him a game puck.

The hockey referee fraternity is “like a family,” Drew says. “It goes from the NHL down to me. We all look out for each other. We know everyone puts up with a lot of stuff.”

Drew Cohen gets ready for action.

Drew Cohen gets ready for action.

When he calls a game well, Drew feels a sense of satisfaction. His confidence grows — and not just on the ice.

“Most of the times when you’re young, you’re not in a position of power. You can’t affect things,” he says. “Doing this makes the rest of life seem easy.”

Yet Drew knows that — even before a game begins — people have judged him by his age and size. “Sometimes I’ve been reffing longer than my 24-year-old partner. I just have to accept that I’ll be judged. If I get a complex about it, I’ll be refereeing for someone, and not for the game.”

The best compliment he gets is rare, but meaningful: “We didn’t even notice you out there.”

The money is good. Last season, Drew earned more than $2,000. This year he’s aiming for $3,000.

His goal is to be an NCAA Division I official within 10 years. At one point, that seemed far off. Now — working at the highest level possible for his age — he thinks he can do it.

So what advice does he have for anyone else thinking of becoming a hockey referee?

“Don’t try to prove yourself,” he says. “Just be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Pete Aitkin Buys A New Black Duck

If you know the Black Duck — and who doesn’t? — you know the popular riverfront barge/bar/restaurant/hangout shares a name with the Black Duck racing boat.

Owner Pete Aitkin just received his latest toy: a custom-built 30-foot twin 300-horse Merc speedboat.

Last night, the Duck docked at the Duck.

This morning, Pete pulled it out of the water at Compo. He’ll store it till next year.

The Black Duck, with Pete Aitken at the helm.

The Black Duck, with Pete Aitkin at the helm.

The Black Duck — food version — put Westport on the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” map.

The maritime Black Duck did the same for offshore boat racing.

Tutti’s, Tarantino’s, Tarry Lodge: Top that!

(Hat tip: Randy Chiristophersen)

Dave Elgart: “Southern Hospitality Exists In Westport”

Most Fridays starting at age 7, Dave Elgart took a taxi — by himself — to Grand Central. He’d buy a ticket, and board a train. His father — divorced from Dave’s mother — would meet him in Westport. They’d spend the weekend here; then Dave would return — alone — to New York.

The routine continued from 1955 to 1962. That year Dave’s dad moved away. Soon, Dave’s mother moved to West Virginia.

Dave joined the Navy, earned a master’s, became a partner his 1st year at Bear Stearns, and moved way up the financial services ladder.

But — more than 50 years later — the pull of Westport is strong. A couple of weekends ago, Dave found himself at an industry conference in Greenwich.

David and Barbara Elgart.

David and Barbara Elgart.

He lives in Atlanta now. Except for a trip to a Turtles concert at the Westport Country Playhouse, he had not returned. His wife Barbara had never even been to New England.

So they drove up the Merritt, to revisit the town of his youth.

One of the first places Dave wanted to see was a store his father had once co-owned. Called the House of Buys, it sat next to a gas station he remembered was owned by Joe DeMattia.

The House of Buys lasted only a few years. The spot is now occupied by Torno Hardware. DeMattia’s service station was in business much longer — until just a year or so ago. It’s now being renovated into a Wheels store, next to Target Training.

As a teenager, Dave bought his first suit at a new men’s shop called Ed Mitchell’s. That tiny spot — now a People’s bank near Planet Pizza — has grown into the the luxury Mitchells of Westport store. Dave found Jack, Ed’s son.

The original Ed Mitchell's, on the corner of the Post Road (State Street) and North Compo Road.

The original Ed Mitchell’s, on the corner of the Post Road (State Street) and North Compo Road.

They talked for a long time. “He was a font of history,” Dave says. “And the store is amazing. They fawn over you, even if you don’t buy anything.”

Dave’s visit here was filled with similar propitious encounters. “The people could not have been nicer,” he says. “Everywhere we turned, they were so wonderful and kind. Southern hospitality definitely exists in Westport.”

Some places remain the same. The railroad station — where he spent so much time — looks no different (though the pot-bellied stove is gone).

Other places have changed. The state police barracks near the Sherwood Island Connector is now a Walgreens. There was no sign of a doctor he remembered, named Eldridge.

But the new Westport is as welcoming as Dave remembered the old. They ate dinner at Arezzo, where the owner “couldn’t have been nicer.”

Even Westport’s infamous drivers are “no crazier than in Atlanta,” Dave says.

“The roads aren’t great” here, he notes. But they’re “charming.” In fact, he calls the entire town “bucolic.”

Despite new construction, Westport looked "bucolic" to Dave Elgart.

Despite new construction, Westport looked “bucolic” to Dave Elgart.

Westport was “gorgeous,” Dave adds. “It’s even more beautiful than I remember it. It’s so much fun.”

Dave’s visit was so great, he and his wife will return this spring — with friends. They’ll tour the area, and take the train to New York to see a show.

It will be a reverse route than the one Dave was so used to taking, more than half a century ago. Of course, Metro-North has replaced the New York, New Haven & Hartford.

But sometimes, it seems, you can go home again.

Hit-And-Run Driver Strikes Downtown

Christ & Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church, in the heart of downtown. They open their doors to all, in many important ways.

Which makes what happened yesterday morning even more deplorable than if it happened someplace else.

Someone tried to drive up the stairs from the parking lot to the Memorial Garden. He (or she) significantly damaged the wrought iron railings on either side of the stairway.

Church officials think the car may have gotten hung up on the step or railing. There are 2 spin marks on the ground.

Christ & Holy Trinity damage

They know it’s a Nissan since a piece of the front grill broke off. A bit of the plastic license plate frame says “Wilton.”

Keep your eye out for a Nissan — perhaps silver — with a damaged front end.

In the meantime, Christ & Holy Trinity will continue to serve all Westporters. But please: park in the lot.

Staples High School: Old And New

Staples High School is an ultra-modern school. Built less than 10 years ago, it works very well in the 21st century.

But Staples is also 128 years old. It started out on Riverside Avenue in 1884. Over 70 years later — in 1958 — it moved to North Avenue. Those 9 separate units were eventually merged into 1, in 1981.

Our high school has stood the test of time well. The original lintel now serves as the main sign at the entrance. Trees planted nearly 60 years ago flourish. And — set back from the road — the new building will stand for decades to come.

Staples High School lintel

Staples HS - autumn

Bagel Maven Bounces Back

Living in Cos Cob, Phil Nourie and his wife loved walking to their neighborhood bagel shop on weekends. So they were delighted when — moving to Westport — they discovered Bagel Maven on a weekend stroll.

After their son was born in 2009, owner Alex Perdomo delivered bagels and coffee to their home.

That’s the kind of guy Alex is. And it’s the kind of place Bagel Maven was.

But in mid-September, Alex told Phil that he might have to close. He’d missed a rent payment last winter. He took 4 months to pay back, and his landlord was unwilling to take another risk.

Phil — whose day job is in PR and marketing, with plenty of experience in crisis management — offered to help.

He advised Alex not to disparage the landlord — not that Alex would have. He knew he’d made a mistake, and that commercial real estate is a business too.

Alex Permodo on September 30. Despite closing that day, he managed a smile.

Alex Perdomo on September 30. Despite closing that day, he managed a smile.

Phil suggested Alex give away bagels on his last day. “You don’t know what can happen,” Phil said. “You never want to burn bridges.”

“06880” broke the story on Bagel Maven’s closing. WestportNow and News12 followed up.

Phil created a Facebook page and Twitter account. Strangers emailed, asking how they could help.

The Sunday after he closed, Alex met with Phil and another patron. They talked about the possibility of wholesaling, or finding new space in Westport.

Bagel Maven logoAlex was receptive. But research showed those options were not viable.

Phil suggested Alex talk to his landlord.

The conversation went well. Alex was forthright about his past error, and his current situation. The landlord — who had seen the press stories and social media activity — realized Bagel Maven was not just another shop.

Alex got a new lease. The landlord agreed to pay for painting.

Two patrons offered to pay for renovations. Alex and some friends have already taken apart the floor. The oven will be upgraded, and the interior opened up so customers can see the bagels being made. They’ll smell them, too.

Alex and some friends have already started renovating the interior.

Alex and some friends have begun renovating the interior.

The target date for reopening is November 8.

Phil calls this one of the most gratifying projects he’s worked on.

“It’s a great story about how people can come together, and do more than anyone thought possible,” he says.

“And it’s been done without any sense of outrage. This is a story of reality — of mistakes, and what can come out of them.”

Phil adds, “I got way into this — far more than I thought. But I couldn’t just walk away.”

Soon — thanks to Phil Nourie, and a community-wide effort — all of us can walk back into Bagel Maven.

We’re #111!

Forbes has released its annual list of America’s most expensive zip codes.

94027 — Atherton, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley — is the priciest place in the nation. The median cost of 24 homes listed for sale last summer was a cool $9.03 million.

New York is the state with the most expensive zip codes: 6 of the top 10. 11962 — Sagaponack, in Southampton — is #2, followed by 3 in Manhattan.

This house was listed at $1,849,000 -- just about the median price in Westport, but more than $7 million below the median in Atherton, California.

This house was listed at $1,849,000. That’s very near the median price in Westport, but more than $7 million below Atherton, California.

Connecticut does not even crack the top 50. Three Greenwich zip codes appear at #52, 56 and 69. 06880 is our state’s 7th most expensive zip code, and we’re only #111 in the nation. Our median home price is $1,897,892.

Weston’s 06883 is #330 ($1,111,516).

I can only imagine what the teardowns and new construction look like in 94027.

And how poorly the drivers of all those expensive cars park.

(Click on Forbes.com for the full 500 list.)

Happy Friday!

And what better way to welcome the weekend than with Stacy Waldman Bass’ photo of this morning’s sunrise over the Sherwood Mill Pond?

Sunrise over Mill Pond - Stacy Waldman Bass

Enjoy the day!

Tyler Paul: Art For All

It was the mid-1990s. Tyler Paul is not sure of the year, or his grade. But 2 decades later, he vividly recalls a day at Long Lots Elementary School.

A group of actors and puppeteers arrived for a “very special school assembly.” The troupe used original skits and puppets to talk about bullying.

Tyler remembers other special assemblies over the years, too: an original presentation of Maya Angelou’s works. A presentation on Chinese traditions. And many more.

Tyler Paul

Tyler Paul

Those events were only part of Westport’s long history of fostering and encouraging an arts environment. Between the Westport Country Playhouse, the PTA’s Cultural Arts Committee and the superb drama departments at Staples and the 2 middle schools, arts have been integrated into the curriculum at nearly every level.

Today, Tyler is executive director of the Northeast Children’s Theatre Company. Earlier this year he was contacted by a member of the Cultural Arts Committee. They wanted to bring his professional theatrical programming for young audiences into the elementary schools.

Coincidentally, NCTC had just commissioned and premiered a new musical. They were looking for a partner to pilot it in schools. With Julia Gannon and Diana Sussman, they brought “Jack and the Giant” to all 5 Westport elementary schools in March.

The musical teaches youngsters about perseverance, heroism, courage a self-identity. It fits in well with the curriculum core standards. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Looking back on his own in-school and after-school theater arts enrichment here, Tyler calls it a “full circle moment.” No other town that he knows of boasts the in-school enrichment program that Westport does. That early exposure to the arts, he believes, is a large reason he now works full-time in that field.

Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.

Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.

Of course, every organization needs funds. On Saturday, October 25 (8 p.m., StageOne Theater in Fairfield), NCTC sponsors its 2nd annual “Broadway in Connecticut” gala. The evening of music is hosted by the Tony Award-nominated songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Yes, Justin is Tyler’s brother. He too has benefited greatly from Westport’s arts environment.

The concert includes performances by Broadway stars from “Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Bridges of Madison County” and “Next to Normal,” too. A live auction includes house seats to “If/Then,” followed by a backstage tour.

Proceeds from the gala benefit artistic programming for school audiences — and educational initiatives for underserved children in disadvantaged communities.

So that youngsters everywhere in the region — not just in Westport — can have the same awe-inspiring experience Tyler Paul had, back when he sat in his own very special school assembly.

(For tickets — which are limited — and more information, visit www.nctcompany.org/gala.)

A young girl in Bridgeport is inspired by NCTE's outreach program. Tyler Paul was inspired by the arts too, 20 years ago.

A young girl in Bridgeport is inspired by NCTC’s outreach program. Tyler Paul was inspired by the arts too, 20 years ago.