As Westport’s downtown renaissance continues, Seth Schachter sends some fascinating postcards from a far different era.
All 3 show “Fountain Square.” The Post Road (then called State Street)/Main Street intersection was as heavily trafficked — for its time — as it is today.
One of the main attractions was a fountain — actually, a horse trough. (“Trough Square” does not have quite the same ring.)
This 1906 view shows the view looking north on Main Street. The first few buildings on the left look similar to today. The Westporter Hotel (right) was replaced in 1923 by the YMCA.
The view below — also from 1906 — looks west on State Street, toward the Saugatuck River and Norwalk. The building in the center of the photo would soon be demolished for — as the postcard says — “the new Jesup Library.” It would be expanded in the 1950s toward the west.
In 1986 the Westport Public Library moved to its present site near Jesup Green; it was replaced by, among other tenants, Starbucks, Freshii and the recently closed Pop’TArt gallery.
In the scene below, similar to the first photo above — probably from the 1920s — the YMCA had already been built (right). A small park outside the library can be seen at the left. The Main Street streetscape is very recognizable.
A horse drinks contentedly from the trough.
And the street is just as rutted as it is now, a century later.
As 2020 began, downtown Westport looked bleak. Boarded-up storefronts, empty parking spots, questions about its very future — Main Street and environs were grim.
When COVID struck, downtown looked even bleaker. More stores closed. Fewer people strolled. The cancellation of big events like the Fine Arts Festival seemed like one final cruel blow.
Yet to the surprise of many, life sprouted amid all the real and metaphorical death.
GG & Joe opened in an out-of-the-way Parker Harding corner. Their acai bowls and pastries were instant hits.
Plywood and butcher block paper came down. New stores opened.
Two restaurants — Capuli and Basso — opened to rave reviews. Two bookstores — one new, one used — opened too, within days of each other. Two gelato shops announced their arrival. A highly regarded bakery will soon move in on Church Lane.
Capuli is one of several new restaurants opening downtown.
Counterintuitively, downtown has come back.
And no one is happier than Maxx Crowley.
He’s an unlikely champion for Main Street. He’s young (a 2010 graduate of Fairfield Prep). He worked in New York City, in advertising and real estate. He’s single. You wouldn’t figure him for a suburban guy.
But he comes from a storied family. His father Steve is the “S” in SCA Crowley, a residential and commercial real estate services firm. Since starting work in September with them, Maxx has jumped head first into the downtown renaissance. He’s already a co-vice president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association.
Maxx Crowley (right) with (from left) his brother Bob Crowley and father Steve Crowley.
Despite his youth, Maxx remembers “exciting stores,” Onion Alley with its rooftop music, and mom-and-pop shops like Liquor Locker.
He recalls took when chain stores — even big names like Nike and Banana Republic — swooped in. “They took some of the character” of Main Street away, he admits.
COVID was “a weird perfect storm” for Westport, Maxx says.
“There was a lot of loss. People died. Businesses closed. Restaurants struggled.”
But the virus drove people out of New York. Westport welcomed a surge of newcomers. And people who already lived here — but spent 12 hours a day, 5 days a week working elsewhere — suddenly had time to focus on their town.
They walked. They biked. They picked up coffee and lunch, clothes and furniture in places they had never known about.
Landlords struggled. Rents — quite a bit north of $100 a square foot — took a significant hit. But some of those same landlords also realized this was a time for a re-set. They lowered rates, and looked for new tenants. And those were not always the same-old, same-old national brands that could be anywhere.
Some landlords lowered their rents, or accepted late payments. Some offered a few free months, or help with certain expenses.
It was not easy. COVID or not, landlords still have their own fixed costs: taxes, insurance, maintenance and more.
Downtown depends on foot traffic. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)
Commercial real estate is “a relationship business,” Maxx says. Relationships often extend far. When one landlord sees another succeeding, they want to be part of the action.
Downtown has many things going for it, Maxx says. One key element is walkability.
“I can park my car. I get my coffee at GG & Joe. I cross the street to Savvy + Grace. My kid” — he doesn’t have one, but you get the point — “goes next door to Brandy Melville.”
That’s not the case in other parts of town. Anyone wanting to cross from Stop & Shop to the cute Peggy’s Cottage Irish store across the street takes his life in his hands.
But the right business in the right spot can succeed anywhere. Maxx points to Terrain: “a beautiful, redeveloped place. No one minds driving there.”
Terrain attracts customers with intriguing displays.
He’s bullish on both Compo Shopping Center too. “Torrey (Brooks, the landlord) is phenomenal,” Maxx says. “He builds relationships with all his tenants.”
There are vacancies there right now. Maxx is hopeful that a “memorable store” comes into the spaces previously occupied by Olympia Sports and Compo Barber Shop.
He also thinks the shopping plaza at the foot of the Sherwood Island Connector — with Restore Cryotherapy, among others — has great visibility.
Further east on the Post Road, Maxx has mixed feelings about Amazon Go, the automated grocery store that’s the rumored replacement for Barnes & Noble.
“People will always want to talk to the butcher and the deli guy. But it’s exciting to see a brand like Amazon come to Westport. There aren’t many Amazon Gos on the East Coast.”
And at the Southport border, Maxx notes that the Home Goods shopping center always has solid occupancy.
The one piece missing from downtown Westport, he says is “experiential” places. He cites the lack of restaurants on Main Street (though a new one will at some point replace Tavern on Main). “In a perfect world,” Maxx adds, “the ice rink would move from Longshore. And music always brings people together. We might not have bars with bands anymore, but they played on Church Lane last summer. That was great. And what about a stage downtown?”
Westport’s Fine Arts Festival is an “experiential” event. It has moved back to Main Street, from Parker Harding Plaza.
He’d also like to see downtown connected, somehow, to Saugatuck. “So many great stores across the river don’t get the attention they deserve,” he says.
“Europe has pedestrian bridges. It’s a beautiful walk along the river. This isn’t Amsterdam. But a bridge or two couldn’t hurt. Can you imagine having dinner at Bartaco, then walking across a bridge — without traffic whizzing by — to have a gelato on Main Street. Then you window shop, and run into friends. That’s a real downtown.”
Meanwhile, Saugatuck itself is filled with “wonderful, local restaurants and markets and shops. Viva and the Duck are anchors. It’s very walkable. There will always be activity there.”
The “ultimate connection” to downtown, he believes, is Longshore and Compo. A restaurant at the beach — and a shuttle between there and downtown — would be “amazing.”
Though not yet 30, Maxx says he has “always” been excited about downtown. Now he sees newcomers getting excited too.
Well, it landed a long time ago. The sculpture has been affixed for years to a building on the east side of Main Street, just north of Brooks Corner.
Some readers referred to it by its current tenant: Brandy Melville. Others recalled previous incarnations: Jewels by Jason, Great Stuff, Things. One remembered the view from Oscar’s, across the street.
Jill Turner Odice provided plenty of background:
This eagle is on the front of the building on Main Street. My late husband Louis Odice’s salon was on the 3rd floor. He took over from Martin Pinto. It was also the apartment of photographer Tom Head, and a vintage clothing store at various times.
Downstairs was an ice cream shop run by one of Stew Leonard’s kids, and New England Jewelry Repair by the Hampel brothers (Matt and Bob) in the back.
Chou Chou Raum’s dad Jason had a jewelry shop there, and they lived upstairs. There was a crystal shop on the 2nd floor, and a travel agency over the years. Also a fur shop at one time…
I’m not sure about Stew Leonard’s kids running an ice cream shop — but the building was also the first of 3 locations for the Ice Cream Parlor.
It’s a proud building, represented by a proud bird. Rich Stein, Fred Cantor, Diane Silfen, Elaine Marino, Michael Don Sullivan, Deej Webb, Ellen Aston and Jill Turner Odice all correctly identified Mary Gai’s image. Click here to see it.
Dave Wilson provides this week’s gorgeous Photo Challenge. If you know where you’d see this, click “Comments” below.
The month-long closure of the south end of Main Street is over. Planters have been removed; cars can once again park on both sides of the road.
Cancellation of the July 4th fireworks disappointed thousands of Westporters. But the decision was especially tough on Westport PAL. They sponsor the annual show. The money they make pays for a host of activities: sports programs for thousands of kids, the Longshore Ice Rink, an annual Halloween parade, a party for children with Santa, health and wellness efforts, and much more.
Which is why their upcoming golf tournament (September 14, Longshore golf course) is more important than ever.
The 58th annual event — named for former Police Chief Samuel Luciano, a staunch PAL supporter — begins at 7 a.m. with a continental breakfast and putting contest.
There’s a shotgun start, scramble format; lunch; more golf, then dinner, raffles and prizes (hole-in-one, hula hoop, longest drive, closest to pin).
The cost is $175 per golfer, $700 per foursome. Sponsorships are available too, from $150 to $5,000 (largest sign at first tee, banner on dinner tent, complimentary foursome). Click here to register, sponsor — or just donate to PAL.
Westport’s “Back to School” and “After-School” programs — both of which serve families in need — are always well utilized, and generously supported. In our new coronavirus world, they are more important than ever.
Elaine Daignault — director of the Department of Human Services, which oversees both projects — notes, “This is not a typical fall. COVID-19 has disrupted the usual back-to-school enthusiasm with a sense of anxiety, and fear of the unknown.
“Still, you can help to reinforce a child’s sense of hope and stability by ensuring they have tools they need to excel in school, and an opportunity to participate in after-school activities.”
Human Services relies on the generosity of neighbors to provide financial assistance for income-eligible families. Last year, 192 children benefited from Westport’s Back to School Program, and many families accessed affordable after-school childcare.
Tax-deductible donations (cash or gift cards to Staples, Target, Walmart, etc.) can be made online; click here, then select “Family to Family Programs – Seasonal Program – Back to School”), or send a check payable to “Town of Westport/DHS Back to School Program” to Human Services, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.
Families who may qualify for this program should contact DHS youth and family social worker Michelle Bottone by phone (203-341-1068) or email (email@example.com).
The Department of Human Services’ Back to School program helps youngsters get backpacks — and fill them with needed supplies.
Residents of Glenwood Lane have had it with Optimum.
After Tropical Storm Isaias, it took 12 days for cable and onternet to be restored to the street, off Maple Avenue South. Pieces of old cables still hang there.
Two days ago — August 31 — a crew finally arrived to clean up. But they turned the service off again, leaving residents who depend on the internet during the pandemic unable to work.
Optimum responded that the earliest they could come back to fix their mistake would be September 5. They then said they would come yesterday (September 1). However, they did not show up. Optimum now promises to come today.
Instead of sitting waiting for another no-show, some residents publicized their plight. This is one of 2 signs at the head of their road.
(Photo/Aurea de Souza)
Westport knows him as Willie Salmond. He was born in Scotland, lives here, and has spent much of his professional career (and retirement) in Africa, working first in international development and then in AIDS relief. He is also an author and screenwriter.
As William Salmond, he’s just published “Deep Secrets.” Here’s a brief description, on Amazon:
As the Coronavirus ravaged the world economy with the yawning chasm of inequality between rich and poor getting deeper and wider, no one seemed to notice the movement south into Africa of swaths of Al Qaeda-hardened committed fighters. It was a unique opportunity to regroup and prepare for the final knock-out blow to the Great Satan and her allies whose economies were already on the ropes.
Is life a game of chance? Or is there a guiding hand? Racked by guilt and shame can we truly be forgiven and find healing and even love?
Money man Winslow Kirk looks for answers to these questions as he steps out of his comfort zone into the heart of Africa in search of his granddaughter Eleanor whom he allowed to be given up for adoption following a tragic boating accident. A threat note from the world’s number one terrorist who is coordinating the threat to Western countries sharpens his resolve. Can he find Eleanor and will she forgive him? After his wife’s death and his own cardiac illness he begins to muse about what really matters.
And finally … today would be the 81st birthday of Robert Lee Dickey. When he began singing with his cousin James Lee Purify, the duo became “James and Bobby Purify.” Dickey died in 2011. You may not remember their names, but this beautiful song may ring a bell:
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