What Kind Of “Character”?

We use the term often. We use it casually. We use it without thinking.

“The character of Westport.”

We invoke our town’s “character” when discussing the impact of 2 proposed residential developments, with their state-mandated “affordable housing” units.

We mention our town’s “character” during debates about downtown redesign, plans for Baron’s South, the changes in Saugatuck.

We talk about it every time an old home is torn down, and a new one is erected.

New construction in the 1950s sparked discussion of Westport's "character," just as it does today.

New construction in the 1950s sparked discussion of Westport’s “character,” just as it does today.

This is not a new topic. Westport’s “character” was discussed in the 1950s, when hundreds of new homes — and many new shopping centers — sprung up on what was previously open space.

We talked about our “character” 20 years later, during debates on busing in Bridgeport students through Project Concern. We probably talked about it 100 years earlier, when factories began replacing farms, and 100 years before that, when we were split between patriots and Tories.

But — as an alert “06880” reader points out — what exactly do we mean by “character of the town”?

What is our town’s character? Who defines it? Does it change? If so, how do we acknowledge our town’s new character?

Those are just a few questions about Westport’s “town character.” I’m sure there are more. And I’m sure everyone has his or her own answers, explanations and insights.

We’d like to hear yours. Click “Comments” — and please, use your full, real name.

Who decides the "character" of a place like downtown? Who describes it? Who recognizes if -- and when -- it changes? (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

Who decides the “character” of a place like downtown? Who describes it? Who recognizes if — and when — it changes? (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)


24 responses to “What Kind Of “Character”?

  1. I was born in Norwalk hospital, my moms water broke at Roy Rogers (now your family friendly McDonald’s). I was a 90s kid. Downtown movie theaters, Remarkable Book Shop, Sam Goody, ARNIES PLACE. These local businesses in my opinion were the heart and soul of my beloved hometown. All were eventually pushed out. When I read the stories about Max’s and Silvers going out of business it brought a tear to my eye. I visited this year for my 10 year reunion. Hadn’t been back to Westport since my staples graduation in 2004. I took the day and explored the town. It wasn’t Westport anymore, at least to me it wasn’t. I grabbed a square cut pizza at Jordan’s, parked at the library, walked down the library walk, found a quiet bench in the shade, and looked at the Saugatauck river and downtown bridge and finally for a Brief moment felt home. I think each generation will have their own Westport. I was grateful for the one I experienced. I was sad to see the Westport that I visited this year.

  2. How can I “like” Mike’s comment? — because I do. At the risk of incurring displeasure of the newer Westporters I’ll say this as a “disenfranchised ex-resident” as it was so eloquently and “kindly” put in someone’s comment awhile back.

    My first memories of living on earth were Westport and they’re cherished and forever– we lived in modest cape cod house on Richmondville Ave and then a modest cape code on Bridge Street. The feeling of Westport at that time in 60’s to early 70’s was unmistakable and apparently gone. My dad was a jr. high teacher in Westport and then ran a closed circuit educational tv station in Norwalk, my mom a musician and bank teller at County Federal on Main Street.

    The point being, a middle class family could afford to live in Westport and we had wonderful immigrant Italian, Polish, Asian neighbors and friends — all living in Westport. Some ran donut shoppes – (now Coffee An,) restaurants, car service places, we had a policeman dad living on our street too — all living in Westport and that to me, is character — diversity of incomes, backgrounds — not just those who can afford a million dollar house. That gives flavor to a community – that’s all American. Not everyone lived in a mcmansion and now the average price of a Westport house is 1.2 mil or somewhere in there. I had some wealthy friends of course, but many more kids were like me too — middle of the road.

    Westport, I’m sure will be special to all generations but I can’t help but think before it morphed into what it is today, it maybe had a deeper soul. I’m sure it still does have soul but not the one I remember. I, at least, do a drive-through every summer when we visit our family and I will always love it but my heart sinks when I feel the vibe now. Different but that’s from someone who lived there in a different time — the Ice Cream Parlor, the Remarkable, and we all know the list.

  3. I am a native Westporter. I grew up hopping on my bike in the morning in the summer, meeting my friends and going to Lee’s pond, Compo Beach or out to Weston to Devil’s Den. I played all kinds of sports – though became passionate about soccer – and got a great education. I loved Westport then, and I love Westport now. I love that it attracts the type of people Dan features in his column, and mourns when some of our favorites pass away. I enjoy the “do you remember quizzes” that we play, and being able to show my kids the homes where my friends grew up. I love that my kids grew up just down the road from their grandparents. I hope that they will love it as much as I did and perhaps 1 or 2 will return to Westport because their memories of a great town, full of character and characters, offers so much to everyone who calls it home.

  4. We have left the determination of the meaning of the word “character” to numerous committees and the more vocal members of those committees who have determined it is their mission to preserve the “character” of Westport, whatever that might be. For many is these groups “character” is determined by a historical physical ambiance, as a result they tend to look backward primarily when determining the nature of Westport’s character. How far back each member of these committees looks is a direct function of when she/he arrived in Westport.

    The argument that one subjective evaluation of the past and the “character’ embedded in it is to be preferred to that of any other has no coherence.

    As we are learning now, there are constituencies outside of Westport for whom our historical “character” is largely irrelevant. Moreover, they have evaluated our “character” and found it lacking. Our continued dalliance with the past will not help us deal with a future that might be thrust upon us, as a result of that dalliance.

  5. While the ideal of a “small-town”, middle class community is a dream I would have loved to live, I also refuse to deny the awesomeness, charm and “character” of this town. I walk most mornings with my neighbors and our dogs, creating a funny dog parade. I run at the beach, kayak (and snow shoe) at Longshore, spin at JoyRide, buy groceries at Stiles and Peters (in Weston), shop at boutiques like Dovecote and Tina Dragone and eat at delicious restaurants from The Granola Bar to The Whelk and dessert at Saugatuck Sweets. My kids are extremely fortunate to go to Coleytown Elementary and Middle Schools. We see shows at The Westport Country Playhouse and the Pavilion. Do I go the Gap and Nike, of course – and how lucky for me I do not have to go to a Mall! The charm is NOT all gone. It’s different, but still an amazing place to live – we should celebrate it, not bash it!

  6. I looked up the dictionary definition and it reads “Character – an aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” Like any person or thing, over time, change is inevitable but it is how we handle that change that defines who and what we are. .

  7. Chip Strphens - Staples 73

    Westport is like an old friend or a relative.
    Their face and physical features change over the years, some get larger and get wrinkles, others get surgery or botox, some get mellower and some get more uptight, some live where they always did and others change location. But under all that the same DNA, the same person that you always knew is inside, same heart same soul.
    If we look out over the Saugatuck from the new library you still see the old buildings, modified but for the most part the same height and structure, National Hall was Fairfield Furniture, most of the buildings downtown you can still see Bills Smoke Shop was then Westport Pizza (now where S and M was) now Athletica, the YMCA profile there soon to be Bedford Square . You can still see for the most part the same profile you saw in the 50s to now save a few GAP type buildings. If you go to Compo beach, Longshore the view stays, details change some wrinkles some botox but still classic Westport.
    Thanks to many in town who care, not only is the outer beauty basically still there but the soul too, still is a LWV, still the neighborhood associations, still the crazy political parties, still the many who volunteer which is the soul of 06880.
    Yes there are those that those short timers, that resemble the town bird (the Seagull who fly in, eat all the food, make the most noise, poop all over everything, then fly away) but there are still those you remember the Gaults, the Mitchells, there is still a Parker, a Sherwood, an Atwood, a Giunta, a Purcell, a Woog…… They still live in Saugatuck , in Coleytown, in Greens Farms……
    Westport’s CHARACTER is its ‘ profile both physical and its soul, it is here, it survives , just look beyond the wrinkles, and the botox, your friend is still here.

  8. I read with sadness the other day that Don Masiello passed way. I didn’t know Don well – in my 51 years in Westport I probably spoke to him a handful of times – and most of those times were as a child at Christie’s when he worked with there with his mom and aunt.

    Over the years, I would see him around town – mostly at Coffee ‘n Donuts, and it was always a reassuring connection to the Westport of my childhood (the donuts helped too).

    This week, when I think of the character of Westport I’m thinking of Don, his wife Jean and his mom Mary who along with his aunt Christie gave me free candy on my birthdays when I was a kid. RIP Don. Condolences to the Masiello family.

  9. Oops – hit the post button to quickly.
    Westport is defined by the people who live here through their own efforts and by the officials we elect to represent our views and concerns. This process cannot stop change nor should it but it must protect the essential things that define what is Westport. A small New England town is what most residents have asked to have protected. The only way this can be achieved is by having good zoning regulations and protecting the historical elements that have defined the development of Westport till today. Historical buildings and houses that represent the chronology of our development and help define our character must be protected in the same way we look to protect Compo Beach, Longshore and our few remaining open spaces.This does not preclude growth but it does require that expansion of either residential or commercial development be done in such a way as to not overwhelm and change the nature or Westport.

  10. Dan, thanks for the wonderful column and question. Based on other comments, Westport’s character means different things to different people. Most individuals talk about it in terms of nostalgia – what we fondly remember. But this shouldn’t be confused with character. I grew up in upstate New York and when I go back I too pine for things the way they used to be. Before supermarkets really took off I used to run errands to the neighborhood grocery store for my mother. It had creaky wooden floors and the head of the fruit and vegetable department knew me by name. I miss that but I don’t consider it the “character” of my old community.

    Character is something in the air and in the water. It transcends decades and generations. My family and I have lived in Westport for over 35 years and I believe character is embodied in the atmosphere of the Town, an atmosphere that has remained relatively constant throughout the period I’ve lived here and most likely existed for decades before. It is a sense of community rather than places and buildings and stores and restaurants. It is a smallness that allows accessability to government officials, participation in community events and generally a small town feel that offers simple pleasures on one hand and sophisticated services on the other.

    This character, or sense of community, has been a constant while all around us there has been change. Change is inevitable. Improvement is inevitable. It must be so in order to avoid shabbiness and dilapidation. We cannot bring back our childhood environments and our children will be unable to hold on to theirs. We can hold on to some of it through preservation of buildings and architectural design but our efforts should be primarily directed at preserving the spirit and neighborliness of our community. That is where the real character resides.

  11. I graduated with Mike back in 2004 and I completely agree with him. Westport was a completely different town growing up and I do miss it. Growing up it was an artists community with a small town feel. Everyone knew each other. I miss places like Hay Day, The Remarkable Bookstore, Arnie’s and other small mom and pop stores that have been replaced by corporate stores or town events like The Italian Festival. While I agree that some of the changes to Westport have been beneficial and necessary, it still makes me worried of what’s to come. The thought that some people want to change the look and feel of our beautiful town beach (i.e. wanting to include a mini golf course!) does scare me. I am hoping moving forward we can still maintain that small beach town community.

  12. Barbara Sherburne '67

    So many great comments have been made, but I do want to add something here. I met my dear friends, the Gerrys, when I was in junior high school at Long Lots. The father of Louise (Weezie) Gerry was Michael James. His wife was Emma. Michael James was a builder, and a number of homes in Westport were built by him. I don’t know where they were, but they have probably all been demolished by now. Weezie Gerry graduated from Staples High School in 1949, the year I was born and Judy Gerry was born. She and her husband, Glenn, were able to buy a modest home and resided in Westport almost all of their lives. They moved to Newtown in about 2000 after having raised four children and also many grandchildren. In fact, the home they had on Amber Drive, in the 1980s, they raised the roof and built a second floor to accommodate most of their children and grandchildren. The thing about our graduating class of 1967 is that almost none of us could afford to live in Westport. We all went to other states or other towns in Connecticut. I find a significant contrast to this in Wallingford, where I have lived since 1982. I know so many people who have lived here their entire lives, and their children and grandchildren live here too. A lady upstairs from me died a week ago, and she lived in this house since 1953. That is not an uncommon story. Another friend of mine moved back to her mother’s house a few years ago, and it is the house she was born in 61 years ago. I think character just might encompass how well we can keep our townspeople together. Westport was so expensive to live in that very few of my large high school graduating class could afford to stay here. We had to move elsewhere, and we’ve never been able to afford to go back home.

  13. I grew up in Westport and lived there from 1950 to 1976 except when away at college, etc. I think by “character,” we mean the vitality, creativity, thoughtfulness, and high standards of the community. We think of beautiful natural features like the beaches, the Saugatuck, the woods that remain, and stone walls (old fashioned ones, not the news ones that cost 200K.) And nostalgia for a town with the charm of things we remember, like a New Englandiness, Rippe’s Farm, Big Top, Remarkable, Klein’s. Less traffic and more courtesy when driving – and parking. More modesty and less ego. Friendly service from mom & pop stores on a two-way Main Street, homes and cars that were modest (by today’s standards, anyway) and did not make others feel small by their ostentatious showiness and elevation of money above respect for heritage and tradition. We lament the passing of the old ways and suggest that the town’s character has changed. Indeed it has, in many ways. Supply and demand rule the day everywhere in America, and as the old Zen saying goes, “Change is inevitable.”

    Yet we learned about “conspicuous consumption” at Staples in the early 60s, because it was around then too. We read Great Gatsby and The Status Seekers to help us understand it. (Very smart on the part of the English Dep’t!) And now, as then, and as Friend and Lover noted in 1967, when we “reach out in the darkness,” we often find that people we thought we did not care for may become friends. This is an underlying theme, I think too , of Dan’s good work here.

  14. Peter Jennings Talbot

    It reflects the vision, as well as lack thereof at times, of the people who live there, work there, and assume a mantle of leadership to enact change, or limit it. One thing is constant, and that is that change will continue. I only hope those enacting it, always remember the efforts of those that came before them and placed their indelible imprint upon the town, and recognize that the precious aspects, the history, and intrinsic beauty, serve as the foundation for current and future residents, and it is what will continue to draw people there who will uphold its position as a very special place.

  15. Luisa Francoeur

    The word “character” will be defined subjectively by each individual but I think it refers to the essence of a being whether it be animal, mineral or vegetable. Dogs are thought of as loyal companions; micah reflects and sparkles in the sun; a ripe garden grown tomato (really a fruit) tastes like the sun, apples are crisp, watermelon is gently sweet and quenches the thirst. So what is the character of a place? I agree with others that it is not merely the physical attributes and certainly not just buildings, but the “soul” or the feeling created by being in the place. I was born in Norwalk Hospital in 1951 and live in the house I grew up in. I have seen many changes in Westport, some good others not as positive to my way of thinking. But the physical beauty remains: the river (much healthier now) is used for rowing and paddle boarding; the beach has sand instead of rocks and one can still hop from boulder to boulder going out to the point at Compo; there are parks close to downtown for strolling; the Youth Museum, now Earthplace, has more trails than it used to. Many people in Westport care about its future and want to retain the quality of life we have here. And how will that be assured? We must acknowledge that times change and if we don’t find a way to work with that ethos, we may have unpleasant changes forced upon us. For me, and i have lived in other places, Westport still feels like home.

  16. I moved to Westport in 1983 from Westchester County. In addition to its beauty and “small town” atmosphere, I found the people to be friendly, kind, courteous and helpful. Now I find people rushing through stop signs and red lights, hogging two or more parking spaces, letting their kids run wild in restaurants and supermarkets and a general “Me first, screw you” attitude. The people is how I define the character of a town. Yes, there are still “friendly, kind, courteous and helpful” folks, but I find them greatly outnumbered by the others. Or, at least, they make themselves more conspicuous.

  17. It dis not surprise me to see some people speak about character of Westport in regards to buildings or stores. Sad. Come on–the true character of Westport is based on the people in Westport and what they do to make our town the best.

    Lets start with Dan Woog and his tireless effort to make 06880 the ‘go to’ place for Westporters. This is the character of Westport. His donating of time and energy is a true sign of what defines the character of Westport.

    Lets also add in the many mothers and fathers who donate their time and effort to such things as Westport Soccer Association, Westport Lacrosse, Basketball, Little League and the PTA. How many parents donate their time (and sometimes money) to make these wonderful organizations the best they can be. How many girls and boys have benefitted from growing up in Westport by participating in these organizations.

    Add in those that donate their time to work on the many town Boards and Committees. While I have been known to comment about some of their decisions, they provide our town the leadership we need to drive Westport forward. A great example is our Board of Education–we can all look to them and thank all for helping make our schools the best in CT. The character of Westport is shown by their hard work. And lets not forget the teachers and principles who work to educate our children. Just recently the Staples principle announced his retirement, and the thanks and praise was huge. How many towns can brag about that. And those that serve do it as a service for all of us, with hours and hours of work they are required to do.

    Our character is not about buildings or stores or homes that define the character of Westport. To some–give it up–the internet is here and the ‘times’ have changed. Some homes have been enlarged, some removed and made new. And books are bought online.

    Westport is not about that–but the wonderful neighbors and friends we have. And what we all do, and do right, to make Westport our home.

  18. Mary Ellen Rose

    Being a teacher, I always look to answer questions in the most “technically” accurate way possible. And so in doing, I looked up the true definition of the word “character.” And it pretty well matched my business training in the 90’s (before my career change) when my company made mandatory a “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” training developed by Steven Covey. There, it was described as your “Moral Compass” and being “Principal Centered.” The dictionary has it as thus: NOUN: 1. the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. Synonyms: personality · nature · disposition · temperament · temper
    I’ve never really thought of character as the landscape or the buildings that identify us, but the mental and moral qualities people possess.
    So, in looking at it with that lens, I see a community of such a vast diversity of religious and political beliefs and creative abilities and passions that, in itself is the true character of the town. We have people from all walks of life, various life experiences. And while, yes, it is still not as economically diverse (and has its’ fair share of self-seeking “characters”), I would say that is mostly filled with people who are compassionate and dedicated to donating their time and talents to making the world inside and outside of Westport a better place to be. As well as a place where people are welcome to come and participate and feel a sense of belonging. Whether it be places like my church, Saugatuck Congregational (and Temple Israel — that welcomed us for 3 years while we rebuilt from the fire) or the Library or Homes with Hope or The Levitt and even our schools, which are open to many agencies that extend opportunities to kids who couldn’t normally afford to go to them. It is a place where highly educated and driven people enjoy the company of more laid back and “in the moment” people; feeding off of each other, making each of them better people for it. It is a place where people are dedicated to educating and raising their children to continue the traditions of citizenship and contribution to the greater good. It is a place where people value the past and welcome a beautiful future. It is a place where every person can find a place to feel at home and friends that will support them. They are there, you just have to be willing to look for it- It’s a little like picking through a salad with 10 wonderful ingredients to find your favorite crouton in the middle of the mix. It is a place with multiple perspectives and a very positive character.

  19. Sandy Soennichsen

    I have to agree with Michael Petrino and Michael Nayor. Yes, the character of the town is changing and it would be naive to think of wanting our character to be back in the 50’s or 60’s, or any previous time, it isn’t going to happen. And it shouldn’t happen. Westport has to develop and evolve into a character of the future, and hopefully what will be best for the town. So to those who keep saying “bring back” this or that and lament the change of character, it’s time to catch up with the world and look to the future.

  20. I applaud, with great appreciation, the many thoughtful comments shared here, now and always. To all of you, thank you for sharing your perspectives. We are all richer for these conversations; a vital part of what contributes to Westport being the special place it continues to be.

    Like many others posting here, I have a long history with this town. My grand parents became homeowners here in the 1950s and my parents decided to make this their home in the early 1960’s, immediately following my birth. My dad was a volunteer firefighter for more than 25 years, retiring as a captain, and also served as a member of the Westport Police Department as a Special Officer. Like many who have commented here, I desperately miss the charm and character(istics) of the Westport I knew growing up, and wish that my children could have known that magical version of this wonderful community. That said, none of this dampens my appreciation of today’s Westport. It’s different, to be sure, and missing some of what made it so special to me, and yet most certainly continues to be a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

    As I consider the meanings of the term “character”, much of what many of you express and define as such, and as Westport’s in particular, resonates with me roundly. Yes, without doubt or question, the character of this town and community is defined in part, and large measure, by each and all of us, and through how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. And, as has been noted, we are a community that is characterized by an abundance of wonderful, engaged and compassionate people.

    The character of our town is also defined and informed by the characteristics of the physical place, and what exists on and within it, whether natural or man-made…Whether it’s the coastline, the parks, the center of town, the Post Road or any and many of the inland residential neighborhoods, and the topography end natural elements found in and among each, there is also the size, scale, style and spacing of the structures, along with the business mix among our commercial residents, that does so much to define our sense and experience of the ever evolving physical environment. Just as we cannot underestimate, or undervalue, the importance of the people, neither can we underestimate, or undervalue, the importance of the physical characteristics of the place as they are, and as they become.

    And now more than ever, particularly with an influx of outside real estate speculators and investors choosing to invest significant sums in our community, among others, it’s vital that we remain connected to our past while planning our future, and likewise remain ever vigilant and deeply engaged in the public process to ensure that we are good stewards of our town and community, ensuring that the growth we witness and support is smart, sensible and contributes to the long-term vitality of this place. Essential to ensuring the maintenance, and enhancement of town is our supporting the Planning & Zoning Commission’s efforts to ensure that regulations are zealously enforced and, when necessary and appropriate, are thoughtfully – and carefully – revised and amended.

  21. For me, this very message board represents one very nice aspect of the “character” of Westport: it’s literate, engaged, sensitive, human. Not many message boards can boast such quality of opinion.

  22. Kenneth Ormand

    In the eyes of some character can be seen as an elegance or classic style
    that highlights one person from another, or in this case one town from another.
    However,as we know character is not something we can touch.
    It is something you visualize or experience.
    This is Westport! A town with a classic style and a charm all its own.
    For me, it says home. Maybe it is something you can feel. It’s unique
    for each person.
    People choose to live here for many reason. I’m sure that character tops that list.
    Sure, people change, towns change, but Westport is still a quaint charming
    town with character.
    Let’s keep that way.