If you’re relatively new to Westport, you’ve never heard of “Needle Park.”
If you grew up here, you know exactly where it was.
For decades, when the library was located on the Post Road between Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza — think Freshii and Starbucks today — it included a small outdoor gathering spot at the Post Road/Main Street corner.
With trees, bushes and benches, it may or may not have had an official name. It was a pleasant place to sit, hang out, people-watch, read or play guitar, and a perfect place for protests (Vietnam War, Nixon, you name it).
But because (supposedly) it was also a place to use and sell drugs, generations of Westporters called it “Needle Park.”
The Library owned the property. A deed ensured that it would remain open space in perpetuity. Indeed.
Sometime after the library left, and commercial real estate took over, the park turned into a concrete block. It’s now the entrance to the Pop’TArt gallery (which bears no blame for its current state; they inherited it).
All that remains are memories. Plus a sign — “Deeded Open Space. The public is welcome to this park and terrace” — which was last week’s Photo Challenge (click here to see).
And which Pat Saviano, Lynn Untermeyer Miller, Dick Lowenstein and Morley Boyd all identified correctly.
Coincidentally, the tiny park was spruced up on Friday by the Westport Garden Club. It’s part of their #FridayFlowers campaign. Members promise to keep the pots — there are 2 — spruced up throughout summer.
This week’s Photo Challenge is a gorgeous one, by Mary Sikorski. If you know where in Westport you’d see this, click “Comments” below.
Raymond Lewis died in 2001. He was just 24 years old.
I don’t know him. Nor do many other Westporters.
But today, plenty of people are talking about him.
The other day, a headstone appeared outside 1 Main Street. That’s the entrance to PoP’TArt, a pop-up gallery in the space previously occupied by Calypso. For many years it was a small spot outside the original Westport Public Library, at the foot of the Post Road. In the 1960s, when it was a favorite place for scruffy teenagers who (supposedly) used and sold drugs, it was called Needle Park.
Now it looks like Raymond Lewis’ final resting place.
Except it probably isn’t, of course.
No one knows when or how the headstone appeared.
No one — at least, no one I’ve talked to — knows who Raymond Lewis is either.
If you have any information on this mystery, click “Comments” below.
Earlier this month, I posted a story about Kevin O’Brien. He’s the former Westporter who — at 17 years old, in 1970 — spent many homeless nights in what was then called Needle Park.
He’s gone on to lead a very successful life. But he retains fond memories of those tough teenage years. At the end of the piece, he noted that he’d be driving through New England soon, and hoped to stop in Westport.
Last night, he wrote:
I’ll be in Westport on Saturday, October 17th [today] around 4 p.m. I plan to have a slice of pizza for old time’s sake at the Westport Pizzeria, and maybe a drink at the old post office [now Post 154]. If you see a red Can Am Spyder, that’s me. Sunday I’m off to visit the 9/11 memorial in NYC, and points south. 🙂
Kevin would love to see as many old friends — and current Westporters — as possible. If you meet him, please give him a hearty “06880” hello!
Kevin O’Brien celebrating Christmas in Westport, 1970.
I’m often surprised how far this “06880” blog reaches. Approximately 1/3 of our readers are former Westporters, living all around the globe. Most have fond memories of growing up here. Otherwise, they would not be interested in what happens here today.
Of course, everyone has a story. It’s important to remember that not all of them are wonderful and rosy.
The other day, I got an astonishing email. I don’t know Kevin O’Brien. Yet his tale — which he allowed me to share — is like nothing I’ve heard before.
But — at least as much as everyone else’s — it needs to be told.
I lived in Westport 45 years ago. After dropping out of Staples High School, my sister kicked me out of her house.
I was a hippie type. I slept in Needle Park [the former hangout — now a concrete plaza — on the northwest corner of Main Street and the Post Road, across from the old YMCA Bedford Building], on a bench in the snow.
A kind young policeman sometimes checked on me to make sure I hadn’t frozen to death. I had just turned 17.
“Needle Park,” circa 1970.
Across from Needle Park was a diner. Early in the morning, rolls were delivered. If I hadn’t eaten in a while, I’d pilfer one.
I sometimes panhandled for change at Needle Park. If I got 25 cents I’d get a huge slice at Westport Pizzeria. When I wasn’t lucky I used kitchen packets and hot water to make “tomato soup.”
I was 6-1, 140 pounds. I often went days without eating.
I volunteered at the telephone hotline crisis intervention center in the Y basement. Seasonally, I worked directing parking at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Kevin O’Brien (center) celebrates Christmas in Westport, 1970.
We had a group of mainly homeless friends we called The Family. I miss friends like Susan Burke and her sister Sarah, and Helen “Cricket” Wooten, none of whom I’ve seen since then.
Two other friends were Dee Dee and Marie. They occasionally used heroin, which was everywhere in Westport. I would like to find either of them.
For a while we rented the upstairs and attic at 35 Post Road West, across the foot of Wright Street.
We sometimes hung out at Devil’s Den, and imagined the dragon/troll that lived under the bridge.
There were seemingly a lot of aimless, homeless kids back then. Celebs like Paul Newman and many more never stopped or tried to help any of them. I never understood that. They were all very charitable, just not in their own hometown where kids really needed help.
As tough as life could be, especially in winter, I loved Westport and have many fond memories. I guess it’s the difference between experiencing all that at age 17 and 18, rather than age 62.
I’m brokenhearted to see what happened to Needle Park (on Google Maps street view). I’m glad the pizzeria is still there, even at a different spot. On a visit in the ’80s I left notes written on paper plates for lost friends on the wall behind the counter, but never heard from anyone.
Kevin O’Brien, in the Navy.
Eventually I left Westport and returned to Florida. A few years later I enlisted in the Navy. After 10 years of senior enlisted service I was given a meritorious commission as an officer.
I retired from the Navy in 1998, was elected to city council, and became vice president/director of operations for an international corporation in Georgia. I later retired for good, and moved to North Carolina.
I’m planning a visit to Westport in a couple of weeks, on the way back from a road trip through New England. Having developed some serious health issues, this is a bucket list trip for me. Westport is a chief stop. God bless Westport.
I guess I’m living proof that a homeless, aimless kid living on the street in Westport can turn out okay.
A recent “0688o” post — about the evolution of the vest-pocket park on the corner of Post Road and Main Street, from wooden benches and trees to concrete plaza — drew the usual slew of comments.
What a shame! some wailed.
You can’t stop progress! others countered. (I’m paraphrasing here.)
And there, smack in the middle, was this:
Now is about the time someone laments the passing of the Remarkable Book Store.
It’s always a good time to lament the passing of “Remarkable.”
For the increasing number of Westporters who never knew it, Remarkable was a homey shop in a former 1700s home at the corner of Main Street and Parker Harder Plaza (the exact end of the block that starts with the new concrete “park,” come to think of it).
The Remarkable Book Shop.
The 2011 way to describe it: It’s now Talbots.
“Remarkable” — the name, uber-cleverly, referred not just to its books, maps and knick-knacks but to the backward spelling of owner Esther Kramer’s last name — was painted a distinctive pink.
Even more remarkable was what was inside. Books on every topic imaginable — including cutting-edge topics like women’s rights — filled uneven shelves. Overstuffed chairs invited browsers to sit, read and linger, long before Barnes & Noble turned that concept into corporate policy.
A cat curled in the corner.
The floor was wooden, and uneven — something Esther and her staff never were. They knew every customer — from Paul Newman and hotshot writers down to 3rd graders — by name. Esther and her staff knew everyone’s tastes, and never hesitated to recommend a good read.
They knew what a local bookstore could — and should — be: A community gathering place. Warm, friendly, funky. Something remarkable, which no one seemed to remark upon until it was gone.
If some of those words sound familiar, it’s because I wrote them last April, shortly after Esther Kramer’s death.
I lamented the passing of the owner. And I lamented the bookstore’s passing too.
So sue me.
Barnes & Noble
I’m not naive. Having written 16 books myself, I know the economics of bookstores. The bulk of my royalties came from Barnes & Noble and Amazon, not Giovanni’s Room (just hanging on in Philadelphia) or A Different Light (its 3 locations — New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — are all closed).
Where do I buy my books? Barnes & Noble. Amazon. The iPad store.
But being a realist doesn’t mean I can’t lament the loss of a mom-and-pop (pop was Sidney Kramer, a noted New York publisher) store that was funky, familiar and fun.
A store that added a bit of life to downtown, at a time when other locally owned shops sold African clothing, records, used blue jeans and pizza. (Okay, Westport Pizzeria‘s still there.)
I know we won’t see a return of those shops to Main Street. Nor will we see small bookstores with knowledgeable clerks and a cat curled in the corner cropping up like, um, Gaps in airport terminals.
Santayana said (basically), those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
I say, those who diss our past are doomed to spend their lives in soulless corporate boxes, not knowing what they missed.
Though the parking, prices and pastries at Barnes & Noble are all pretty good.
In the 1960s, the small park on the corner of the Post Road and Main Street was called “Needle Park.” Supposedly, teenagers shot up heroin there.
In reality, the spot — adjacent to what was then the library, graced with benches, flowers and a fountain donated by the Sheffer Family — was a great place for playing guitar, protesting the war, hanging out and making out.
The library moved across the street. Shops and banks (and Starbucks) moved in. The park fell into disuse.
In May, it was bulldozed. A construction worker assured me that, after renovation, it would still look like a park.
More like a parking lot.
“Public access” continues to be guaranteed, I am told. But the only “public” that will ever set foot on that uninviting expanse of concrete that once was Needle Park is whoever goes into whatever store happens to have its door there.
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