Homeward Bound

Growing up in Westport is one thing.

Coming back here to live is something else entirely.

That was the consensus, a couple of weeks ago, at a Green Village Initiative event attended filled with students from Staples’ Advanced Placement Environmental Science classes.

They were skeptical — if not downright incredulous — that anyone could ever return to Westport without first making incredible amounts of money in the materialistic world.

So GVI organized a meeting with Westporters who had done just that  — that is, came back home without a pit stop on Wall Street.

One of the panelists was Justin Miller.  The 2001 Staples graduate described why he left Westport after college — and why it was important to return.

It’s tough to make a career as a choral music performer, he said.  He got his start as a choral director in California.  And while he knew that teaching music was the way to go, the Golden State was not the place to do it.

He also knew he wanted to eventually raise a family here.  When the Staples choral directing job opened up last spring, he went through the rigorous application process — and got it.

“You should go away,” Justin told the students.  “Get a grasp on the rest of the world.

“I was excited to leave.  As I went, I learned and appreciated what Westport has to offer.”

When GVI leader Dan Levinson opened the floor to questions, the discussion veered to money.  Because the classes had been discussing sustainable local economies, the issue of mom-and-pop shops arose.

Justin pointed out that many small businesses exist — but are often overlooked.

And Mitchells — the high-end clothing store — is actually a grandma-and-grandpa business.

Driving home later, Justin said, he realized that the town is filled with places like Fortuna’s, Angelina’s and Westport Pizzeria.  Even Planet Pizza and Bertucci’s are small chains.

In any other town, he noted, the equivalent of the Post Road would be lined with Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters.

“The world has changed,” he said.  “In some respects, Westport has had slower change — in terms of a close-knit community aspect — than many other places.”

He was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students’  questions.

One of the harshest young critics of the ability to return to — and sustain — your hometown came from a boy who recited statistics about average incomes and tax structures.  He said he’d love to come back after college, but knows he must go elsewhere first, to acquire wealth.

“We talked about different kinds of finances,” Justin said.  “It can be done.  I’m a music guy.”

Another student declared that he’d go somewhere else, learn about the world — and maybe not want to return.

“When I went away,” Justin replied, “that’s when I realized how special Westport was.

He paused.  “And still is.”

12 responses to “Homeward Bound

  1. This is a very good and important article. I hope they all come back at some point.

  2. I’m curious whether GVI or the students gathered any data. Roughly 1/4 of the parents on my kids’ soccer teams were returning Westporters, including myself. Ask the teachers in the schools how many second generation kids they have taught. Or maybe we should start a roll call on Facebook. It’s likely that the go-go ’90s helped, but even that says that of those who have enough money to live anywhere, many still choose Westport.

    I have lived in several places after leaving Westport for school, including LA for 3 years. My family was able to return, more from luck than planning. We’ve moved away again, but maybe we’ll come back some day.

  3. The Dude Abides

    I came back after a 30 year absence. With an average housing price of 1.1 million in Westport, I am not sure many can afford to buy here for a certain time frame after college. I would guess that less than 5% of my class of ’66 live here now. I do agree with Justin that a time away does give you a different perspective on our fine town. I am not sure about the abundance of “Mom and Pop” stores. I would guess that Corporate America far outweighs those who originate here. As for the next generations, projections for 2050 of an additional 100 million individuals indicate that they will opt for warmer weather, more jobs and affordable housing in Houston, Dallas, Denver and Atlanta. With the increasing wealth differential in this country, I don’t see any of Fairfield County undergoing any populus influx of the young family in the future.

  4. rare commentator

    I would like to hear from Justin, Isaac, Laz and others – What makes Westport so unique that you would rather live here, instead of where there are more jobs, warmer weather and affordable housing?

  5. My folks moved here in 1972 for the schools. Staples had a national reputation as an outstanding public high school.
    Our family has always tried to live near the water, and job opportunities brought us back to Fairfield County. We ruled out the bigger cities in favor of the better schools, then we looked at the secondary criteria. Westport has good access to LI Sound, good restaurants and stores, access to I-95 and the trains. We also considered Fairfield. The other non-urban towns fall short in at least one of those categories. Westport is also more diverse and welcoming (in my opinion) than the other towns, except Greenwich and maybe Fairfield.
    We got lucky in finding a fixer-upper at a greatly reduced price. We stayed for 12 years and loved our time here.

  6. The Dude Abides

    I have a question as well. Without children, does Westport really offer the social life and setting that a thirty-something + would want????

  7. “When I went away,” Justin replied, “that’s when I realized how special Westport was.
    He paused. “And still is.”
    You betcha…Westport is a very special place for all ages and for seniors as well as younger folks. It’s best to have a higher income anywhere but you do not have to be rich. Special people make Westport a special place.

  8. Pretentious.

  9. To answer some of the questions –

    Dude: I’m not sure if Westport itself does, but there are certainly enough things to do in the surrounding areas. It also really depends on where your friends are. Keep in mind this is coming from someone who rarely goes out.

    Also, you mentioned previously that you weren’t sure about the abundance of “mom and pop.” I think you’re right about that, but I still think there is more small business in Westport than some people give credit for. Could there be more? Absolutely. But we are certainly far less corporate than many places I’ve visited.

    Rare commenter: The reason I wished to return to Westport is because there are few communities around the country with the same combination of wonderful things like there are in Westport. I’m talking about things like Compo Beach, Longshore, the Playhouse, a great school system, and proximity to New York City. Perhaps there is also something intangible – a charisma that I can’t really put my finger on.

    I lived in Southern California for 10 years before returning to Westport. While it was fun living there, it got old pretty quick. The traffic, the smog, the wildfires, the lack of seasons, the massive urban sprawl – they all bugged me. And it’s even more expensive than living in Westport. I’ve been to places like Atlanta, St. Louis, and Dallas, and while there are great things about them, I don’t think I would be happy there. Just as I became unsatisfied with the suburb of Los Angeles I was living in.

    This whole conversation got started by students at Staples talking about how to benefit local economies, and the conversation evolved into the one we are having today. I was happy to be asked to share my 2 cents from the folks at GVI.

  10. rare commentator

    thank you for taking the time to respond and also for contributing to the GVI conversation regarding local economies.

  11. The Dude Abides

    If the basic thread of the discussion is to stimulate local economies, I would suggest that townspeople buy from local businesses. In particular this includes community banks and the exclusion of buying online.

  12. I grew up in Westport, arrived at the age of three in 1969 and left for college in North Carolina in 1983. My childhood was ambiguously blissful . . . Westport is not an easy place to grow up because of the wealth and status conscious population, but then again, its a wondrous place with its shoreline and stone walls and lovely trees. Its proximity to the City makes it that much more interesting and sophisticated, but then again, its claim to be the Country has always been funny to me . . . I think that claim should have been nullified sometime in early 70s.

    I married my college sweetheart, a Southern native, and we remained in NC til a job took us abroad in ’96. When the job was over in ’98 I convinced my husband that living in Fairfield County would be a great way to return to the States. Boy was I wrong. We couldn’t find an affordable place to live in Westport, so we ended up renting in New Canaan, which was miserable. He was working in Westchester and I took a job in Stamford. I still had family and friends in Westport, but moving back to Connecticut was not the blissful dream I thought it would be. I somehow thought our days would be spent on the beach, or walking in the woods, or taking the train to the city to hang out — I thought me might get a little sailboat. I actually thought it would be my second childhood! But instead we were working long hours in high pressure jobs and constantly worried about making ends meet. I spent hours stuck in traffic on the Merritt or I-95 and couldn’t believe that my life had come to this. And then winter came! You get the picture. We moved back to NC after 10 months with no regrets.
    I return once a year for a summer vacation — I stay with friends and do all the things that I love to do in CT – go to the beach, go for long walks on the not-so-country-roads, take the train to the City, enjoy a slice at Westport pizzeria and a real honest to goodness bagel at Oscars, and then I leave — happy and well rested, full of nostalgia, glowing with conversation with old friends. For those who return to make their way in the old town, I wish them all the luck in the world.