COVID And Isaias: A Boon For Downtown?

This may be counterintuitive. It may be provocative. It may also be dumb, and wrong.

But here is my thought, 5 months into a pandemic and 3 days after a tropical storm with a powerful punch:

Downtown may be going through a renaissance, thanks to our twin disasters.

COVID-19 caused the closures of many businesses, and the demise of a few well-known restaurants like Tavern on Main and Le Penguin.

But — thanks to the Westport Downtown Merchants Association and town officials — it resulted in the closure of Church Lane this month. The area was hopping last weekend, with music, outdoor dining at places like Spotted Horse and Manna Toast, and plenty of smiles.

Shops like Savannah Bee and the new hemp place boomed.

Church Lane, last weekend, (Photo/Dan Woog

Across the Post Road, the Levitt Pavilion is shut. But the Remarkable Theater has pioneered the surprise hit of the summer — pop-up movies in the Imperial Avenue lot — and the space has been used for other stay-near-your-car, socially distanced but very fun entertainment like Supper & Soul (sponsored by the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce and Westport Library), and a Staples students-and-alums concert (organized by teenagers).

Drive-in movies, courtesy of the Remarkable Theater.

The tropical storm, meanwhile, spared downtown. It did not even flood, probably because merchants sandbagged their doors figuring it would. (The fact that we had less than an inch of rain also helped.)

So the power stayed on (though unfortunately not on Church Lane). Residents who could get out of their side streets descended on the area.

Starbucks did a gold rush business (even without credit cards — cash only). So did Rye Ridge Deli and GG & Joe’s açaí bowl spot, along with full-service restaurants like Jeera Thai, Don Melo, Walrus Alley, Amis and others.

All day long, and into the evening, folks wandered. Kids rode bikes. Let me repeat that: Downtown, kids rode bikes. It was as close to the 1950s as you can get, without actually being there.

Adults stopped and chatted. They shopped. You couldn’t see, but behind their masks, they smiled.

But the best thing — if by “best” you toss out the reason for it — was the gathering on Jesup Green, along the Riverwalk, and on the Westport Library steps.

A small part of the large WiFi crowd. (Photo/Miggs Burroughs)

Hundreds of folks sat, enjoying free WiFi. They did business, read emails (and “06880”), talked on their phones, watched movies on their tablets.

There was not a lot of chatter, during the day. Using devices will do that. Staying 6 feet apart didn’t help.

But when evening came, things got more social. A woman picked up her ukulele, and gave an impromptu concert. Folks put down their phones, and started talking. They watched the rowers gliding past.

An (Photos/Miggs Burroughs)

The sun set. The moon rose. The river shimmered. You could see stars.

Is this a harbinger of things to come? What will downtown look like once everyone gets power and internet — and the world gets a vaccine? Will this be a fleeting moment in time, or a sea change?

I have no idea. But for right now — despite all that is bad in Westport, the country and the planet — downtown Westport is suddenly, inexplicably, momentously, both fun and cool.

14 responses to “COVID And Isaias: A Boon For Downtown?

  1. Sitting on a bench at the library at 5:45 am, looking out at the river and listening to birdsong, I took in the words of your morning post. Once again, Dan, you were able to get to the heart of hope for our town and for that I am grateful.

  2. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of the way. I hope RTM n p & z are taking notes. And Dan ..I was lost without being able to read your blog. I caught up at the library parking lot! But I’m home at the moment. Yay!

  3. Loooove this


  4. This is so beautiful, it made me teary.

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. I love your optimism, Dan. It’s always appreciated, especially at these times.

    • Thanks, Carol. We all do what we can. I hope Fairfield County Story Lab is back online soon. Lots of writers need you!

  6. Melissa Augeri

    Let’s hope this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Thanks Dan.

  7. Celeste Champagne

    Dan Woog, you have been our lifeline throughout this pandemonium of apres-storm et al. I am in Norwalk & one of the lucky ones who has power.

  8. Jennifer Meerow Berniker

    Thank you for writing this Dan!! The secret ingredient to a thriving downtown seems not necessarily to be the number of fancy shops lining the sidewalk but the amount of restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating and string lights, grassy open gathering spaces, live music shows, and play spaces. For some reason it took Westport these back to back catastrophes to get here, but our town rallied and now that we are here, no one will want to go back. I hope people who can will keep walking, biking and eating in town and these new spaces will remain public and car-free. And props to the town for following through on all of the much needed side walk improvements in that area too. Our downtown has a pulse!

  9. I understand and share the Town’s frustration at Eversource but let’s also make sure all parties do some self-reflection. It has been astounding to me to see such an absence of coordinated response from the Town on things it could be doing while we wait for Eversource to do the job it is paid for. As an example: two nights in row I have driven on Post Rd and Post Road West where most traffic signals have no power. Cars are racing through these lights because there are no temporary stop signs. The worst situation is Post Road West. In addition, on both night, it adds insult to injury to consistently see Police SUV’s parked in the shadows waiting to ticket people as if these are normal days. Maybe just get out if your car and help direct traffic or put stop signs out to ensure our safety.

    Are we in a third world country?

    And don’t start me off with tree trunks holding up our cables. It is from the dark ages.

    • And Dan, my comments relate to the earlier article. Your piece was wonderful! Thank you.

  10. This is a terrific piece. Thanks so much Dan. Best yet.

    🎼en⚜️ fr🎯m my iPh🌀ne