From Brooklyn To Westport: Life In A Changing “Hometown”

Antonia Landgraf was born and raised in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. It was a tight-knit Italian neighborhood — like long-ago Saugatuck, perhaps — and she loved it.

Her grandfather — born on the same block — was a mailman. Her grandmother worked in a school cafeteria.

Her parents worked for the government. They lived on the bottom 2 floors of a brownstone, and rented out the rest.

In the mid-1980s, yuppies began to move in. Bodegas and religious artifact stores gave way to crêperies, boutiques and bars.

“The good part was there were nice restaurants and shops. Not everything was a chain,” Antonia recalls.


A “Farmacy” has probably replaced a pharmacy in Carroll Gardens.

Real estate prices rose. Some renters were priced out. Antonia’s parents and grandparents owned their property, and benefited.

Many of her friends stayed in Carroll Gardens. On Facebook, she reads their comments about the changes.

“It’s not like the days when everyone knew everyone,” she says. “That’s ironic, because the first people who came did it because it was a great Italian-American neighborhood, with everyone sitting out on their stoops.”

The oldtimers-versus-newcomers debate is not confined to Carroll Gardens. It echoes in many places — including Westport. Which is where, since 2013, Antonia and her husband have lived.

They moved first to New Jersey, in 2002, because they could no longer afford Brooklyn. Then they had kids. Her husband’s company has an office in Darien. They started looking for bigger, suburban homes.

Antonia and her husband visited Westport on a beautiful September day. The water sparkled under the Bridge Street bridge. Downtown, they walked past the gorgeous Christ & Holy Trinity church, and stopped at the Spotted Horse. “It felt like we were on vacation,” Antonia says.

Moving here has been wonderful. The town is gorgeous. Folks have been welcoming. She could not be happier.

Her 3 sons — the youngest was born here — are busy, and thriving. On the day we talked earlier this summer, one was collecting crabs on Burying Hill Beach. Another was at sports camp. This is their home town.

Antonia's boys have discovered the magic of Burying Hill Beach.

Antonia’s boys have discovered the magic of Burying Hill Beach.

Antonia sees parallels between Carroll Gardens and Westport. Both places are changing. Some longtime residents resent what’s happening. Recent arrivals feel the undercurrent. They try to be sensitive — but this is their town too.

“We moved because of the beauty, the downtown, the historical homes,” Antonia says. Some of her new friends are natives. One of them lives in new construction, she laughs.

“We’re new, but we still respect what there is here, and what there was.” Yet, she adds, Westport is always changing. “This used to be onion farms.”

She followed the Red Barn closing on “06880.” “We went there once. We were not impressed. But I understand it was an institution.”

The same thing is happening in Carroll  Gardens. Antonia pointed me to a New York Daily News story about the demise of a beloved restaurant there.

“It’s not just Westport,” she says. “It’s everywhere. If your secret gets out, that’s it.”

So, I wonder, does Antonia have any message for Westporters of every era, seeking to understand what’s going on here today?

“Not everyone who comes here is not uninterested in the town and its past,” she says.

Antonia Landgraf and her husband understand the importance of the Westport Historical Society.

Antonia Landgraf and her husband understand the importance of the Westport Historical Society.

“My husband and I are very much invested in Westport. We want to contribute to the community.

“We’re not just passing through. We’re here for at least the next 16 years, through high school for our youngest. We might stay here after retirement.

“New people come in all the time. They may be different from those who were born here. But don’t assume they don’t respect all that has made the town what it is.”

8 responses to “From Brooklyn To Westport: Life In A Changing “Hometown”

  1. Good story I related to this morning with my java, and so true. As much as some of us old timers, (and some of us long gone from Westport), pine for the wonder years Westport that we grew up in, which of course, is an impossible dream — everything everywhere is changing fast – Westport is no exception. We’ve moved for work a couple of times in the last 25 years from our roots which is sometimes painful. I can relate to the feeling like you are investing your time and money into a community that you didn’t start out in — some of the natives may feel they have a leg up on you . Perhaps but…the world is transient — people move now much more than they did. It’s rare that people stay their whole lives in the place where they were born so we have to keep open hearts and minds to change and new people much more. Westport still seems such a beautiful town — just different in some ways. We have our mind’s eye for the memories.

  2. Antonia, you have an opportunity to help safeguard one of the landmarks that you mention: the 1884 Saugatuck Swing Truss Bridge. Although this bridge is the only hand cranked movable type of its kind left in the State of Connecticut and has been determined to be of national significance by the Department of the Interior, it is, once again, in the crosshairs of temporary leaders. Few structures are more closely associated with Westport and fewer still have a more interesting and colorful history that this little bridge. As it happens, our Historic District Commission is mounting what I hope will be a robust effort to save the bridge from demolition and is holding a hearing this coming Tuesday night at 7:00 in Town Hall. The bridge carries something like 1,700 vehicles a day and is still capable of swinging itself open to let a boat through, but the one thing it can’t do is save itself. If you and you husband want to contribute to the conservation of that which, in part, attracted you to this place, consider lending you voice to the defense of this remarkable and unique piece of Westport’s heritage.

    • Elizabeth Thibault

      1700 a day? Is there a typo in that? Did they take a sample at 3AM and extrapolate the rest of the day’s traffic from that? I’d believe multiples of that.
      *My perception may be skewed from sitting in it’s traffic so frequently.

  3. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    Hello, Winsome Westporters, from the West Coast:
    My parents moved to Weston in December 1942, because my father was transferred from General Electric in Dallas to GE’s HQ in Bridgeport. I went to grade school in Weston, then entered Staples (on Saugatuck Ave.) in 1949, graduating with the class of 1953. Following, I enlisted in the USN. Main Street in Westport in the 1950s stopped at Elm — an Esso gas station was there. Nat Greenberg’s Westport Hardware had just opened up. I visited Westport in 1978 and in 2003 for my 25th and 50th class reunions, respectively, and found how much “my” Westport had changed. It is the nature of what we (should not jokingly) call “progress.” It is the nature of belonging-ness (if there is such a word) to either embrace or despite newness: new stores, new people, and so forth. By the 1970s my first wife and I lived along Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Just as Antonia noted in Carroll Gardens, from my third floor front office where I wrote I saw the “old” stores give way: the Dress store became a Korean-owned fruit stand. The two prime-meat butcher shops gave way to “Back to the Land.” And so on and so on. My teenage son, Jackson, visited Westport through connections to the Y (the old, Ivy-covered Y). But most recently, as an RLA (registered landscape architect) with an NYC civil engineering firm he has been active in helping to scope and ‘scape the next iteration of Westport. What I find interesting is to compare how little has changed in Weston. I was Google-earthing the other day and located the house where our family lived in, on Lyons Plain Road. Yes, there are many more houses now than when I was a teenager; many of the Colonial-era tracks through the woods had been developed once again as two-lane blacktop roads . . . with houses. Yet . . .and yet: it is still a buccolic town with only one tiny cluster of stores. You Westporters think you have problems with stasis? Here in Portland, OR where I live now, preservationists literally have chained themselves to the porch of a 19th century house to save it from the wrecking ball. What was once a Park Slope/Carroll Gardens-like neighborhood called “the Pearl” is disappearing block-by-block and being replaced by glass towers.

  4. What a nice story that I feel is reflective of most Westporters’ views of our fair town and certainly in line with my own.

    Like Antonia, we also moved here from Brooklyn where my wife, Cathe, had grown up just a dozen or so blocks up the hill from Carroll Gardens on Montague Street. It was 40 years before Antonia and her family first came, but it. too, was a beautiful September day when we visited the town. Our realtor, Althea Taylor, gave us a quick tour that was likely standard for prospective buyers from the city…..sparkling Saugatuck, Tudor YMCA, tree lined streets, manicured town-owned golf course, town tennis courts, town swimming pool and the piece de resistance, Compo Beach. Our day ended that evening with a meal at Mario’s where our 5 month old daughter Kara drew attention from passersby as she dozed off and on in the window facing Railroad Place. The food was ok, but the buzz of the crowd was infectious and not necessarily the result of trips to the bar. Meanwhile, Cathe and I were saying to ourselves and each other….”Wouldn’t it be great to live here?”

    It was, and still is.

    Sure things have changed but, in many cases for the better. Granted I hate to see so many of the great old homes torn down and replaced by so many huge houses, but I guess that is one price of capitalism. The good thing is that people do take an active interest in what is going on and generally the community is more effective than many at keeping things from getting totally out of hand. Favorite restaurants and stores come and go, but that happens everywhere.

    Like the Landgrafs, we have three children (all girls instead of boys). Two out three have chosen to return to town along with our three grandsons, so I have to think they like the place as well. And as Antonia said about her first visit to town, we still feel when we are walking around, and actually verbalize it, “this is like we are on vacation”. Never more-so than during this glorious summer we have had.

  5. A. David Wunsch

    I’ve commented on this subject before so forgive me if this sounds familiar. I lived the first 13 1/2 years of my life in Flatbush, Brooklyn and then came to Westport and attended Staples. The move was a mixed blessing.
    My parents got along nicely with one car. My mother and grandmother could do all their shopping on foot. There was a wide variety of stores all within walking distance. We could walk to the movies . My grandmother lived nearby in an inexpensive apartment.

    There was always a game of stickball, punch ball or stoop ball going on in the street in front of our house. Looking down the block we would see our friends. I and my 4 sibs walked to all our schools. In fact my elementary school was so close by that I came home for lunch and then returned. No high school student I knew had his/her own car — there was no need for one.

    Yes, Westport has its advantages but so did the Brooklyn of my childhood.
    ADW Staples 1956

  6. Antonia, just to reinforce the adage “the more things change…,” in case you haven’t read it, you should check out the 1950s novel, “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” by Westport writer, Max Shulman (or perhaps go straight to the movie adaptation starring future Westporters Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward).
    PS–as someone who started out in Queens, I hope you will still instill in your kids the joy of playing with a Spaldeen.

  7. –“Not everyone who comes here is not uninterested in the town and its past,” she says.

    Wow. A triple negative. Don’t see those often.

    Nice article tho. Having lived in Brooklyn, the Catskills, and of course Westport, I often shudder to think what life would be like if Fairfield County gets “discovered” someday, and swarmed as were the Catskills in the 20s-60s, and as are the Hamptons today.

    It’s amazing to me that Westport remains, in large part, relatively ignored in this regard. We seem to enjoy a good balance of old-timers/newcomers.

    PS: ditto to saving the Bridge St. Bridge! And comment on the Red Barn.

    PSS: Just saw the Marlon Brando/Anna Magnani/Tennessee Williams/Sydney Lumet movie, “The Fugitive Kind”–which also featured a very young, wild and wonderful Joanne Woodward!