The recent grade-crossing train wreck in Westchester, plus heroic actions by a police officer preventing a similar accident in Norwalk a few days later, jogged what alert “06880” reader/1970 Staples graduate Scott Brodie calls “a dim memory.”
Long ago, he thinks, he heard that Westport was spared the same hazard by “thoughtful negotiators who represented the town” when the New Haven Railroad was first built, in the 19th century.
“They granted permission for the right-of-way through Westport, on the condition that there be no grade crossings,” Scott says — er, thinks.
True? A (sub)urban myth?
I’d never heard the story. But this is a great question for our “06880” readers. If you know about this — or anything else regarding the early days of Westport’s railroads — click “Comments” below.
South Compo Road crosses under the railroad. It floods often, and trucks regularly get stuck — but those are subjects for other posts. (Photo/Google Maps)
Scott Brodie was a baby boomer — one of tens of thousands of youngsters who arrived in Westport with their families during the late 1940s and ’50s. Like nearly all of that generation, his story begins with his parents.
In 1954, my father set out to relocate with his wife, 2-year-old son and infant boy. They left a 1-bedroom apartment on upper Broadway in New York City for a town midway between Manhattan and New Hartford, Connecticut, where he was the director of a summer sleepaway camp. They chose Westport, then a sleepy community of farmers and artists, with a population under 10,000.
They rented a house on Newtown Turnpike, and went looking for a lot on which to build a home. They settled on an acre near the end of Burr Farms Road, which was being developed as a street of cookie-cutter split-level homes extending past the Burr Farm apple orchard into the woods just west of North Avenue. He chose a wooded spot, on the uphill side of the street.
With time on his hands after the camping season was over he became his own general contractor. He built a California-style ranch house, unlike anything else on the street, largely with his own hands.
Richard Brodie in the rafters as he built his home, 1954.
There, he and his wife raised 2 children, and welcomed a generation of youngsters growing up on the street. It was a simpler time. Dozens of kids, all nearly the same age, enjoyed the quiet of the cul-de-sac, riding bicycles and toy cars, and sledding down each other’s backyard hills.
There were no “play dates.” We would walk over to a friend’s house, literally knock on the door and ask, “can Johnny come out and play?” We went trick-or-treating by ourselves, without a parent lurking a few steps behind.
Richard Brodie and his wife Esther, in the house he built. They were married nearly 65 years.
We all walked through neighbors’ yards to Burr Farms School, and later (through different yards) to Staples. (The first day I walked through the woods to the high school, I was worried to see a sign at the edge of a yard. Not to fear — it didn’t say “No Trespassing,” only “Please keep off the grass”!) Long Lots Junior High was a longer way off, most days a bike ride away.
The “synchronous culture” of the first generation on the street grew up and went their separate ways. We became doctors, lawyers, musicians, furniture makers (novelist Cathleen Schine grew up down the street). As new families moved in, they found fewer children of the same age as theirs to walk over and knock on doors.
Then came the tear-downs. With increasing affluence and rising real estate values, the 1-acre lots became desirable as places to build much larger houses, with 3-car garages, pools and tennis courts. But the lawns to play on and hills to sled down were smaller. We still refer to them by the names of the families who first lived in them, all of them long gone.
The “Steidel House” across the street from the Brodies’ – one of the few 1950s split-levels in its original state on the road, as it looked in 2012.
Most of them have been enlarged beyond all recognition except to a practiced eye:
The “Fleming House” just to the north of the Brodies’. The deck over the original garage remains, but the garage has been converted into living space, and a new garage added (left). The porch, dormer and new gables effectively camouflage the original ’50s split-level.
Our California Ranch is still there – now a wonderful place for an older couple, with no stairs to negotiate.
The Brodies’ house, today.
The house to the south of ours was replaced a year or so ago. The “Steidel House” diagonally across the street came down last month. There have been massive excavations, and new foundations were poured last week.
The lot where the “Steidel House” sat, as it looks today. At least the demolition crew left the red maple on the front lawn.
No one builds his house on our street with his own hands these days…
My father, Richard Brodie, passed away earlier this month, at age 96. He was a Westporter for nearly 60 years.
Richard Brodie, at his 96th birthday party.
Richard Brodie graduated from New York University in 1938. His medical studies at the University of Edinburgh were cut short by the outbreak of World War II. He joined the US Army, serving in the Philippines, New Guinea and with the Occupation Forces in Japan.
After the war he joined his father as director of Camp Berkshire in Winsted, Connecticut. In 1954 he, his wife and 2 young children moved to Westport.
He was active as president of the local chapter of B’nai Brith, and a leader of local Boy Scout troops, in the off-seasons between camp. He returned to school in his 40s, earning M.S. and Ph.D degrees in educational psychology from Yeshiva University.
Brodie spent many years as an educational psychologist in the Ridgefield and New Canaan school systems, and developed a private practice as a psychologist and nutritional advisor.
In the 1980s the Camp Berkshire property was sold to the town of New Hartford, which operates the site as Brodie Park. Richard remained an active and very competitive tennis player into his 90s.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Esther; his sons Scott and Bruce, and 5 grandchildren.
In 1964, Scott Brodie got his 1st pair of glasses.
Standing in his Burr Farms Road kitchen — looking at the house next door — the 12-year-old was stunned by how clearly he could see.
Fifty years later — after time on Riker’s Island (see below) — vision is still at the core of his life.
After graduating from Staples High School in 1970, and Wesleyan University (where he did 3 majors and a master’s in 4 years), Scott embarked on specialized study.
In 1985 — following 15 years at places like Rockefeller University (biophysics), Cornell Medical College, Harvard Medical School and NYU Medical Center — he was ready to begin his ophthalmological career.
Besides research, teaching, treating extremely rare retinal disorders, and publishing enough papers to fill 14 single-spaced pages on his CV, Scott consulted for the medical examining division of New York City’s Department of Personnel.
For 10 years — until Mayor Giuliani abolished the office — Scott helped set official standards for public safety positions.
That involved touring Riker’s Island to see (ho ho) whether it was okay for a prison guard to have only one eye (no), and whether night blindness would disqualify them for work (yes).
He also determined whether someone who lacked depth perception could operate a crane transferring garbage from a transfer station to a barge. (Yes; the candidate had done similar work on city streets for 20 years without an accident.)
Scott spent a lot of time working with color-blind police officers. (It’s not very good when they’re on the witness stand, and can’t describe the color of the getaway car.)
“I saw it clearly, Your Honor. They were driving a lime-green vehicle. I’m absolutely sure of it.”
Which brings us — in a roundabout way — to Westport traffic lights.
I was talking to Scott about all this because he’d emailed me after reading a recent “06880” story about the odd tint of the Post Road/Morningside light.
He sent several paragraphs of fascinating, highly detailed information about traffic light colors. It began:
The basic color scheme for traffic lights was inherited from the scheme developed by the railroads in the 19th century. Red was early on selected as the signal for “stop” as it was considered to carry universal connotations of warning.
The original color for “go” was white, but this was changed to green after a disaster caused by a red lens falling off a stop signal, thus causing it to be confused with a white “go” signal.
Green was chosen as the color thought to have the highest contrast against red; yellow was added later for “caution” as the next brightest and contrasting color available after red and green.
However, Scott said — and I’m paraphrasing here — in the mid-20th century it was realized that red and green are the most problematic colors for people with color blindness and deficiencies.
Here’s a chromaticity diagram. (The colors of traffic lights are found on the periphery of the diagram, rotated somewhat in the counter-clockwise direction from the “reddest” red and the “greenest” green.)
Clear as day. Now I understand!
So, I asked, has Scott actually seen that Morningside light? After all, his parents — his dad is 95, his mom 86 — still live in the house on nearby Burr Farms Road they built in 1955.
“I have to say, I haven’t noticed it,” Scott admits.
“But I’ll check it out the next time I’m in Westport.”
(Bonus fun fact: Westporter William Phelps Eno — who created the stop sign, pedestrian crosswalk, traffic circle, one-way street, taxi stand and pedestrian safety islands [but NOT traffic lights] — was one of the first honorary members in the Institute of Transportation Engineers.)
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