Category Archives: People

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

And has it remained the same: Of course.

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.

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.

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.

Arjun Dhindsa: Black Belt Busts Boards

Not long ago, while teaching materials study in his applied engineering class at Staples High School, instructor Humphrey Wong tried to break a board.

Arjun Dhindsa told Dr. Wong the board was curved the wrong way.

If students had been allowed to take a whack, Arjun would have stepped right up. He’d have given an impressive demonstration.

This summer, the Staples junior won a gold medal at the national tae kwan do black belt championship in San Jose. He shattered 30 boards in 2 minutes, earning the most points for style, accuracy and difficulty of breaks.

Arjun Dhindsa

Arjun Dhindsa

Arjun’s road to the board-breaking title began in 3rd grade, at Kings Highway Elementary School. A friend was taking classes at World Champion Tae Kwan Do, near the train station. Arjun thought that was pretty cool.

In the years since, he became a 2nd degree black belt (and is working on his 3rd).

Tae kwan do has changed his life, Arjun says. He’s learned to “respect everything,” which in turn has made him a better person.

“The core values are courtesy, respect, integrity, self-control and perseverance,” Arjun explains. “That drives me now.”

When he was younger, Arjun was targeted by bullies. Tae kwan do gave him confidence in who he was, and that he could stand up to anyone. However, that does not mean he busts up bullies as easily as he breaks boards.

His martial art should not be used against other people “unless absolutely necessary,” Arjun says. The point of the activity is “to make yourself better.”

Arjun Dhindsa shatters boards one way...

Arjun Dhindsa shatters boards one way…

Getting to nationals required 2 types of discipline: mental and physical. He trained constantly on technique, and developed his core, legs and arms. “If a normal, super-strong person tried this, it would be tough,” Arjun says in the same way you or I would talk about the ability to walk to the planet Zork.

The black belt competitor also prepared himself psychologically to break 4 boards — each an inch thick — at once.

“It’s important to visualize yourself doing it,” notes Arjun. “Otherwise it can be daunting and scary.”

In San Jose, Arjun broke boards with his palm, elbow, a punch and a triple front kick.

He knew if he “decimated” them, he’d have a good shot at the title.

...and another.

…and another.

The feeling after successfully breaking boards is “exhilarating.” The pain goes away soon. Arjun’s hand was swollen — he even went for X-rays — but it was fine.

Winning a gold medal at a national tae kwan do competition made Arjun proud. It also reinforced his desire to work even harder in the future. He wants to repeat as champion next year.

Not many Staples students know about Arjun’s U.S. title, though. “I’m not the type of person to talk about it,” he says.

Dr. Wong may not even know. After all, school rules did not allow his black belt pupil to show the class how to break boards like they were twigs.

Though that would have made for a very interesting science class demonstration indeed.

 

 

 

Not Just Another Teardown

Realtors love new construction: It sells. But there’s something to be said about old homes too — especially when the teardown is one you grew up in.

Back in the day, Toni Horton was a 1978 graduate of Staples. Today she’s Toni Mickiewicz, and a William Raveis realtor. She also blogs about real estate trends and local news on “From Town to Shore.” Yesterday, she wrote about another teardown. This one is personal: It’s the home she grew up in.

Toni says:

I was recently told that my mother’s house in Westport had a demolition sign on it. Even though we sold it three years ago, it will always be “my mother’s house.” Well, that is until it’s torn down.

The house of Toni's youth.

The house of Toni’s youth.

It wasn’t my favorite house. I actually always thought that it should be torn down. It was a combination of stages in my mother’s life. It started as a little tiny beach house with no heat and it sat on wine barrels. It gradually grew to have an architecturally designed front section with two floors that looked a little like a church.

When I went off to college it grew a backside with 2 floors, 4 bedrooms and 3 additional bathrooms. It never really matched the front, or anything else for that matter, but it added square footage and allowed my mother to rent it out regularly as we all moved out and she had to spend most of her time caring for my grandmother in Norwalk. The house worked for her and it gave her children what she wanted all along — a place to call home, an education in a town with a reputation for excellence, and a “castle” by the water.

Once, Toni asked her mother if there was room for a pool. Her mom replied: 

“Why would you want a pool when we have the beach?”  I was much older when I finally got how blessed we were to live where we did.

Views of the water, from the home.

Views of the water, from the home.

When I moved back to Westport — a grown-up having been married, raised children, divorced, and re-inventing myself — my mother let me live at the house, as a paid renter of course, but the house was there for me. It was my transitional home for 6 years. It wasn’t perfect, but it was my home, a place to provide my youngest with an education in a town known for excellence. It was our “castle” by the water.

Now it will be torn down. And while I know it’s the right thing to do to get the “highest and best use of the land” for the new owner, it still made me more emotional than I ever imagined.

This was my home, where I grew up and where I sought refuge. It provided me, my siblings, many cousins and lots of renters over the years, a lot of fun memories along with the challenges that an imperfect house can provide. It will only be in my memory now and that is a little sad for me.

Toni knows she is not alone. Many friends have experienced similar situations. And, she adds:

Toni Mickiewicz

Toni Mickiewicz

Much of the landscape of my childhood is gone. Allen’s Clam House, where I used to work in the kitchen, has been gone for a long time. Ten Pond Edge Road, where I lived with my “other” family when my mom rented out the house for the summer, has been torn down as well.

I could go on, but what I really want to say is that after tearing up a little and feeling woeful for a time, I realize that it is okay. I am who I am from my experiences and life lessons in this town and in this home, and I will always have that.

Thanks Mom, for what you did for us and allowing us to grow up in a castle by the water.

(To read Toni’s full blog, click for “From Town to Shore.”)

Another View Of Baron’s South

No, this is not another political view of the town-owned property that was — until a recent Planning & Zoning Commission decision — a possible site for senior housing.

This is a historical photographic view:

Baron's South - back in the day

Alert “06880” reader JP Vellotti found this shot of what is now the site of Fairfield County Savings Bank, on the corner of the Post Road and Compo Road South.

This view was taken from the current site of Winslow Park, across the Post Road, by the daughter of then-owner Dr. Ruland. JP got the photo from his grandson.

It’s interesting to note that the handsome architecture mirrors that of the buildings still on the west side of Baron’s South — the law and other offices on Imperial Avenue.

Lynsey Addario Honors International Day Of The Girl

Today is the International Day of the Girl Child. In honor of the UN-sponsored event, NPR asked 5 photographers — all renowned for documenting the lives of global girls — to share photos with special significance.

Though known as a public radio network, NPR’s website is robust and thought-provoking.

Lynsey Addario — the MacArthur “Genius Grant”-winning/world famous photographer/Staples graduate — does not disappoint. Her photos include a 13-year-old Syrian girl at her engagement party, and another young teenager from Sierra Leone who died delivering twins.

Check out Lynsey’s haunting photos — and many others — at the NPR website.

Lynsey says of this 13-year-old girl, photographed at her engagement party at a camp in Jordan: "Syrian refugees typically marry young. It's been exacerbated by the war. Families are scared something might happen to their daughter. They prefer to marry them earlier so they're under the protection of a husband." (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

Lynsey says of this 13-year-old girl, photographed at her engagement party at a camp in Jordan: “Syrian refugees typically marry young. It’s been exacerbated by the war. Families are scared something might happen to their daughter. They prefer to marry them earlier so they’re under the protection of a husband.” (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

Lynsey Addario photographed this young girl, who died delivering twins. The Sierra Leonean wanted to earn a degree, but at 14 was forced into marriage. (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

Lynsey Addario photographed this young girl, who died delivering twins. The Sierra Leonean wanted to earn a degree, but at 14 was forced into marriage. (Photo/Lynsey Addario for NPR)

(Hat tip to Siobhan Crise)