Monday, June 30, 2008

Special Occasion

No matter how you feel about the war, gas prices, President Bush, Senators McCain and Obama, even our own Joe Lieberman, one of the more interesting events around the July 4th celebration in Middletown is the annual Naturalization Ceremony. The event takes place Thursday July 3 from 1 - 2 p.m. in the Council Chambers inside Middletown City Hall.

The ceremony is conducted by the Honorable Stefan R. Underhill, United States Federal Judge, and usually attended by CT Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, a member or 2 from the state delegation to the House of Representatives, a State Senator and/or Representative and the Mayor.

It's amazing to watch the people young and old taking the oath surrounded by family members and friends. One cannot help but be touched by the tears streaming down many of the faces. These people, representing many different countries, have come here transfixed by the idea and ideals of freedom. They know what a difficult task it is to become a citizen but they also know what it means.

Monday June 30 was the birthday of one such "citizen", the poet-essayist Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) who was born in Lithuania and settled in Poland during World War II. After defecting to Paris, France,in the early 1950s, he came to the United States in 1960. Milosz taught at the University of California/Berkeley, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 and was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1989. An astute observer of the human condition, he wrote the following words about the U.S. in his book, "Milosz's ABCs" (published in 2000 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

"What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual good will! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity!"

I'm sure the new citizens understand Milosz's sentiments, many agree with him, but, like him, they still want to be part of this "dream."

July 4 is July 3


That is to say, the Fireworks Celebration this year is on the eve of Independence Day, Thursday July 3, as opposed to on the holiday itself, July 4. Boom!

Practical solutions for better development


Two weeks ago, Town Planner Bill Warner made a presentation to the city's Redevelopment Commission on his update of the town's Plan for Conservation and Development.

Commissioners were asked to comment and forward suggestions to Warner.

Commissioner Jennifer Saines Pinch took the task to heart and has created a document with dozens of practical ideas that could make the city, particularly the core city, better immediately.

Here is the body of the letter she forwarded to Warner. Citizens are encouraged to contact Warner with their own ideas, or to ask Warner to add some of these ideas to the plan of development:

I would rather we not consider
the deterioration of the downtown neighborhoods to be
the result of "social problems'. I would argue that
the social problems are a symptom, not a cause: the
downtown neighborhoods have social problems due in
large part to the city's failure to maintain and
enhance the infrastructure and amenities in the core.

Perhaps the most destructive force in the
deterioration of the downtown has been the relocation
of all but one (McDonough) of the schools to the
outlying neighborhoods, robbing the downtown
neighborhoods of their sense of community. Building a
large high school on the outskirts of town has
perpetuated this trend, and created a single point of
investment and educational capital. Without Stillman,
the Kindergarten and High School, the core
neighborhoods to the south of Washington have no
meeting centers. We have to think creatively in the
future about our educational resources. (For example,
the Polish National Home at the corner of High and
Warwick could be a school.) The huge expenditure on
a single school will hamper the city's ability to
upgrade other community and educational facilities.
At the very least, for the short term, Russell
Library's hours should be extended to facilitate
downtown group meetings.

Many of the following suggestions dovetail with the
mission of Transportation Alternatives, since
transportation has so much to do with the quality of
life in urban areas. The lack of courtesy shown to
pedestrians and bikers due to an entrenched
automobile-oriented transportation bureaucracy is a
major drawback to life in the downtown. Noise and
visual pollution, the proliferation of parking lots
and curb cuts, the deterioration of the tree lawns -
these all compound the aforementioned lack of
municipal investment in the downtown infrastructure
and amenities and further undercut the willingness of
parents and prospective homeowners to establish their
families within our neighborhoods.

The following initiatives, many of which overlap and
most of which are simply enforcement-oriented, would
go a long way toward mitigating the challenges faced
downtown residents:

--Tow cars that are parked across sidewalks.

--Enforce the right of pedestrians in crosswalks.
.
--Enforce speed limits. Ticket those that run lights.
Maybe it's time for cameras at key intersections?

--Install bike racks throughout the downtown.

-- Make it part of city policy to ensure that
sidewalks on state bridges are plowed in a timely
fashion..

--Reverse the trend of making tree lawn smaller: Tree
lawns have been made even smaller, not larger, after
storm sewer separation, to allow for excessively wide
asphalt streets. Not only does this decrease the
amount of protection the pedestrian has from traffic,
it also encourages excessive speeds and welcomes an
ever increasing number of parked cars in the downtown
area. Easy parking discourages the development of an
alternative transportation network. And, smaller
tree lawns make it harder for trees to catch the water
they need and develop their root systems, and to do
the work of shading the streets that would help to
keep the city cooler in the summertime. The sliver of
grass that constitutes the "tree lawn" on Saybrook
Road adjacent to the new emergency room is shameful.

--Restore tree lawns to streets like Church St. and
William St. to discourage speeding and to
differentiate the streetscape from the commercial.

--Provide Urban forestry with a meaningful budget
--tree replacement should be a minimum requirement.

--Encourage the police to respond more quickly and
professionally to downtown crime and public
disturbances and to be familiar with the downtown
geography.

--Replace unnecessary traffic lights with stop signs.
This is friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, and
reduces the visual pollution of wires, stop lights and
boxes.

--Push back against the installation of the hideous
massive boxes attached to the base of telephone poles
that provide the next generation of cable
connectivity. Why is city property being debased in
this way, by a private company?

--Bury wires underground whenever a street is being
torn up.

--Smooth out streets (manholes, bumps etc.) to make
them more bicycle friendly and to reduce noise on
residential streets.

--Clamp down on noise pollution from car radios and
motorcycles-Code?

--Be vigilant about graffiti-erase it on a daily
basis.

--Disallow through truck traffic on residential
streets that have become connectors. This has been
done on Grand St. and should be implemented on High
St., Loveland, etc...

--Restore two way traffic to one way streets to slow
down traffic. Do not disallow parking on these
streets.

--Reduce the size of emergency vehicles so that road
radii can be reduced and more effective traffic
calming measures can be employed.

--Move against landlords and homeowners and businesses
and other institutions that use the tree lawn for
parking or for the storage of their garbage cans.

--Invest in McCarthy Park. It has been neglected for
years, while other parks have been undergoing upgrades
over many years. Is there a cost comparison
available of how much has been spent on various parks
over the years?

--Buy a small piece of property on Pameacha pond (when
the next gas station goes out of business) and create
a small access point for the public

--Restore Sumner Brook to increase core amenities and
outdoor activities in the downtown, and to create an
unobstructed connection to the river.

--Implement traffic calming across the city.
Differentiate commercial from residential by painting
yellow stripes on roads and curbs only in commercial
and industrial areas.

--Invest in downtown gateways:

 Saybrook Rd: Narrow it and beautify it
(sidewalks, tree lawns, reduced curb cuts etc). (Too
bad the hospital or the city did not consider it
worthwhile to create a beautiful tree lawn while the
new emergency room was under construction. )
 Install sidewalks on the south side of the
17 connector. The sidewalk on the north side should
not be used for parking, and should be constructed
with properly poured concrete (not asphalt, which is
currently the case).
 South Main has been unnecessarily widened in
parts, has too many curb cuts and needs a design code
to make it more cohesive.
 Newfield St, as it approaches 66, has been
excessively widened. One lane should be removed. The
sidewalk starting there is intimidating as it is
protected by an industrial guardrail, which should not
be part of downtown city furniture. It needs a tree
lawn to protect and soften it. Also, as a gateway to
Veteran's Park, it should be made appealing and
inviting.
 The block of 66 from Pearl to Main is a
hodgepodge of curb cuts and badly sighted trees. An
alley should go behind the block on the north side,
and an impressive line of shade trees should be
planted there. On the south side of the street, St.
Sebastian's Church has asphalted the tree lawn. This
should be replanted with grass and more trees.
 The approach from the Arrigoni should
welcome the newcomer with handsome signage and a well
maintained garden/trees within the median strip all
the way to Rapallo.

I think that the adaptation of the smart growth plan
for Middletown should begin now, or at least a code
of some kind that will ensure safe and aesthetic
development in the downtown core. Downtown residents
are very distracted by home repair, crime, vandalism
and noise pollution, so it is difficult to get to
every meeting to fight every cause. A solid, enforced
code will take many of these routine decisions off of
our plates, and save our energy for more productive
civic minded pursuits.

Reconsidering the welcome mat for the Army

(Pearse Pinch photo)

An interesting article in today's Washington Post indicates that the Army may not be as nice a neighbor as they would lead us to believe. Considering the fact that the Army intends to conduct its own environmental testing, and come to its own environmental conclusions in their plans to build an Army Reserve Training Center in Westfield, on Boardman Lane, this article is a must read. It may come as some surprise to town and state officials that the army, which refuses to build on brownfields, also refuses to clean up the worst of theirs. And they're the biggest polluter in the country.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A walk with the Wesleyan corridor committee





(This report is based on information provided by Lucy McMillan)

On Thursday June 26, the Wesleyan corridor committee met and walked Williams Street to discuss its potential transformation as a corridor linking Main Street in Middletown to the Wesleyan campus. The group focused on Williams Street because, although it is only one of several parallel streets which could be called corridors between Main and campus, it is the one, in the assessment of Wesleyan staff, and Wes Pres Michael Roth, in need of most help.

The group, which included members of Aware (a group of residents formed to interact with Wesleyan) Joan Hedrick, Shannon Brown, Melissa Schilke, Lucy McMillan and Jennifer Alexander, representatives of Wesleyan including Joyce Topshe, Brandi Hood and Middletown Town Planner Bill Warner, Tom Nigosanti from the Public Works Department and Michiel Wackers of Middletown's Planning Department.

The group walked down the street and examined each parcel of property discussing the ways in which the buildings and ground could be improved to make travel on the corridor safer, and more aesthetically pleasing.

Some of the parcels are held by Wesleyan, some by the Middletown Housing Authority, some by commercial establishments, and some in private hands.

The consensus was that there is much need for improvement, for while some private housing was nicely maintained, other properties featured hideous additions, or were in need of maintenance, and while some commercial buildings added nicely to the corridor, the newly remodeled offices of the Connecticut Humanities Council on the corner of Williams and Broad, for example, others need help.

Some good suggestions were made:

- Improved landscaping at the Wesleyan power plant
- Erecting two small buildings
- Narrowing of traffic lanes by allowing parking on both sides, and widening public walkways
- Closing the street completely to traffic
- Making street a one-way street
- Suggesting fence improvements on the CRT property
- Removing blacktop and planting lawns and landscaping between sidewalks and residences at Traverse Square
- Removing the blacktop parking on the corner of Hamlin and Williams
- Removing parking behind Wesleyan campus safety offices
- Improving landscaping in the parking lot behind the Wesleyan bookstore and Humanities Council

There are opportunities to make improvements including money to perform environmental cleanup at Forest Street Laundry if it is maintained as a laundry, block grants for fence renovations at the CRT building, adaptive historic reuse fundings for some of the privately held buildings, brownfield bundling by Weston Solutions for some of the affected properties.

Still there are challenges. Didato's Service Station on the corner of William and Broad is currently for sale. The Wesleyan Power Plant roof allows only minimal landscaping or construction. Some existing parking lots are still used regularly. Private property owners cannot be forced to make changes. Traffic changes will need public approval. And perhaps the biggest challege - where will money come from to make changes, and who will begin to take the initiative to create a plan to get the job done.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

An eye on the Eye in the Courant


The Middletown Eye is linked to on a Hartford Courant blog page, Richard Kamins' See! Hear!.  In his most recent posting  he discusses upcoming outdoor concerts in Middletown, Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng, from Ghana (discussed in the Eye) and the concert by Elite Syncopation at the Wadsworth Mansion.  

CFA Days and Nights


On those Spring nights when drunk undergrads are lurching loudly down my street, I lie awake and think that the advantages of living across the street from Wesleyan University far outweigh these slight irritations.

This week is proof.

The Wesleyan Center for the Arts is offering some great performances in its Days and Nights series. On Tuesday and Wesdnesday of this coming week (July 1 & 2) there are two amazing free events.

On Tuesday afternoon, renowned musical entertainer, and genius tap star Harold "Stumpy" Cromer will speak and perform at a noon event at Crowell Concert Hall. Cromer has appeared with some of the greats of musical theater including Burt Lahr, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Count Basie. There's an interesting interview with Cromer here.

On Wednesday evening in the CFA Courtyard, Kwaku Kwaakye (Martin) Obeng, a master drummer and dancer from Ghana will perform with his band in a free concert. These outdoor concerts draw crowds, and the kids in residence for the summer Creative Arts programs usually come out to lead the dancing.




A hill with a view


For my seventh hill in seven days, I wanted to get something I did not get from any of the first six hills--I wanted a view of Middletown from the top of one of its hills. Although there are spectacular views from Higby and Lamentation Mountains, and great views from near Bear Hill, in all cases the views are away from Middletown. Middletown's hills all seem to point their gentle slopes towards downtown, so the cliffs only provide views away from town. A hill in the east seemed to be the most likely candidate, so I headed east on Bow Lane from Old Saybrook Road and up into the hills, looking for any named hill with a steep slope pointing towards downtown. I summitted White Rock, a large rocky outcropping uphill from Cedar Lane, first. It was a short, fun climb, but alas the trees completely blocked any view.
I next went to a striking steep slope above the Asylum Reservoirs on Cedar. This is a beautiful outcropping on the Mattabessett Trail, and squinting through the vegetation I could almost make out a tiny bit of downtown. But not only was the view quite limited, I cannot find any indication that this outcropping has a name. Disappointed, I headed back down the hill.
Indian Hill is a gentle plateau, home to the Indian Hill Tree Farm (not to be confused with Indian Hill cemetery on Washington Street). Unfortunately, Indian Hill is low enough that the view of downtown is obstructed by an even lower hill in front of it.
Despairing and dispirited, I headed to the Institution on that hill. Connecticut Valley Hospital sits along a ridge whose highest point (slightly south of the buildings) is Tryon Hill (241'). It was late evening and hazy, so a clearer view will have to wait for another trip, but at last !!!! a Middletown hill with a with a view of Middletown.

Friday, June 27, 2008

America's Cup Restaurant -- A Building with a Past

The recent news about the decision to renew the lease of the America's Cup Restaurant at Harbor Park reminded me of a very fine research project by a former student, Scott Quarrier, about the history of the building now occupied by the restaurant. Scott completed the project for a course I teach called "Waterways: Boats and Oceans in World History". What follows is mostly culled from Scott's efforts. (Scott graciously granted permission to use the fruits of his labors, and to mention his name. For Scott's sailing adventures in 2006-07, click here. Currently he is in New York City getting a masters in public health, conducting TB research, and preparing for medical school.)

The origins of the America's Cup building can be dated to 1896-97, when fifteen Middletown men formed the Mattabesett Canoe Club. According to an article in the May 4th 1901 Penny Press (the forerunner to the Middletown Press), the object of the club was “to promote the social and intellectual welfare of its members, to encourage a canoe yacht and aquatic sports canoe and yacht building and to promote naval architecture and the cultivation of naval science.” [Needless to say, there are some commas missing in the previous sentence, and possibly a word or two. But that's how it appears to have been reported.] The club grew rapidly: by 1906 membership had exploded to 216; the club soon took on a new name, The Middletown Yacht Club, and by 1913 was the biggest yacht club in Connecticut with 300 members; in 1914 the members were contemplating a new building, which became a reality in the following year. That new building, which cost $14,000 to build in 1914, is now occupied by America's Cup Restaurant. The picture below, which appears to have been taken from the river, is from a 1915 edition of The Rudder magazine.



The big change in the club, however (and this is one of the things that grabbed Scott's attention), was the increased popular interest in engine-powered boating, which occurred right around the turn of the century. According to a 1903 document, the vessels registered to the club included over forty canoes, but also nearly twenty steam- or gas-powered yachts. There were only a handful of sailboats. By 1913 power boats easily outnumbered canoes. By then, one of the big attractions was the annual power boat race along the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound, in which the Middletown contingent played the principal organizing role.

Eventually the Middletown Yacht Club migrated south, first to Maromas in 1945, and then to Chester (its current location) in 1957 -- and in the process it again underwent a name change, this time to the Middlesex Yacht Club. According to the Middlesex Yacht Club's website -- where there is a lovely 1924 photograph of the Harbor Park clubhouse, partly covered in ivy -- the shift from Maromas to Chester was precipitated by the decision on the part of the US Government to take over the Maromas location for an atomic laboratory, which eventually became United Technology's Pratt & Whitney plant. (In a way, then, the story intersects with another controversy that is bubbling up in Middletown, that is, the role of the US Government in Middletown, manifest at this particular moment in the new army training center being planned for the Westfield section of town.)

In addition to encouraging leisure boating, the Middletown Yacht Club served as a major social hub for Middletown in the early twentieth century. The Penny Press is full of reports about the annual banquets and other activities hosted by the club. Not surprisingly these were male dominated affairs. (A 1903 regulation, later dropped, advised that “As a precaution of safety, no member shall take out more than one lady at a time in his canoe.”) Nevertheless, one can imagine that the departure of the club left a gaping hole in the social life of the town. By then, of course, the citizens of Middletown had lost their connection to the river, due mainly to the construction of Route 9 in 1951 (which was the subject of another excellent student project and perhaps an upcoming story for the Eye).

Chestnut Mountain

Chestnut Mountain (623') is the 3rd highest hill whose summit is within Middletown, after Higby Mountain (892') and Bear Hill (653'). This guaranteed it a spot in my quest to summit 7 hills in 7 days, even though it is not in a park and has no marked trails. Chestnut Mountain is just northeast of the intersection of Chamberlain and Chamberlain Hill Roads, very close to the border between Middletown and Haddam. The top of the mountain is within a very large, undeveloped parcel of privately owned land adjacent to a corridor of power lines. I parked my car on Chamberlain Hill Road, where the power lines cross. Unfortunately, there were stark NO TRESPASSING signs, blocking my way. While thinking about how I was going to make it up Chestnut Mountain, the sun lulled me to sleep at the base of the signs. I began to dream ...
In my dream, all citizens were responsible stewards of all land, and the world had been purged of no-trespassing signs. I walked north underneath the power lines. The expanse of cleared forest under the power lines is huge, about 100 yards wide, and stretching north-south as far as the eye can see. It has a peculiar kind of beauty--exposed granite, low shrubs, and meadows create a resemblance to naturally stressed landscapes near the tree line of high western peaks in their mid-summer. After half a mile or so I turned west, heading up the hill towards the highest point I could find. In doing so I saw vernal pools and swampy wetlands; it always baffles me how areas near the top of hills in Middletown can sometimes be wetter than areas lower down the slope. In this forest there are also spectacular old stone walls, testimony to the rocky soil, the industriousness of the farm labor that turned the forest into grazing pastures, and the remarkable ability of New England forests to re-grow.
My dream got even more interesting after I reached the top. The clouds obscured the direction of the sun, and I could no longer tell which direction was east or west. I wandered down the slope without trails and without anything to orient me. The forest looked the same in every direction. Would I be the first story on the evening news, rescued after 6 days of eating bark and ferns? Fortunately, this dream was in Connecticut, a state where even if you don't know where you are going, you still get there. In this case the sound of a farmer turning his hay woke me from my dream, and I looked up to see the power lines and the familiar no-trespassing signs. Chestnut Mountain was behind me.

Please don't line the kitty litter box with today's business section


The Hartford Courant did a nice feature on my business, Motion Inc., in this morning's paper. I offer it to my neighbors as an explanation as to why I'm always saying that I'm going off to shoot people. BTW, that "cluttered office;" it's just a reflection of my mind.

You can sample, The Unfortunate Truth About Alzheimer's Disease here.

Ed McKeon lives in the Village District, and also hosts radio shows on WWUH and WESU.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Visual Treats for the Mind


Walking around the Wesleyan campus the other day, I chanced upon this poster and headed over to the Zilkha Gallery in the Center for the Arts. These 3 artists are all students in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan and this exhibition celebrates their work.

It's tough to tell looking at this image of a row of trees in Italy just how powerful Ryan Lee's exhibition is. Titled "Slivers", Lee makes a statement about how man treats or, truly, mistreats the environment. 90% of each image is taken up by the sky, a bleached-out tableau and what one sees of the earth often looks desolate or defeated (one image juxtaposes a lonesome stand of trees with a subdivision of lily-white houses.) It's best to view Lee's work without people milling about because one really needs to take the time to take in what he or she is seeing. Ryan Lee graduated from the GLSP this past May and his exhibition was awarded the Rulewater Prize. You can view the works online at www.ryandlee.com.

William Murray's exhibition, "A Soul's Search for Meaning", is a series of monotypes and one painting that draws one in slowly (the way they were created.) The works are abstract but the careful viewer can intuit that the artist quest had a spiritual intent.

Philip Munroe's drawings definitely tell a story. The title of his work "Visualizing Melville's 'The Confidence Man': His Masquerade" and, while there is no text, the artist has imbued each character in his work with personality and emotions.

Both Munroe and Murray are working towards their degrees and these works serve as their final projects. There's not much time left to view the exhibition; Gallery hours are Friday June 27 4 p.m. - 8 p.m. and Saturday June 28 12 noon - 4 p.m. Go take a look.

(Poster photo by Olivia Barrett and image courtesy of Ryan Lee.)

It started in the Eye


OBSERVATION

Here's evidence that The Middletown Eye can have some influence on the issues of the city. We received an email from Lee Godburn who allowed us to reprint it in the Eye. As a result, a reporter from the Middletown Press, Sloan Brewster, did a follow-up report on the lease of Harbor Park. Her informative article was the front cover story of the Middletown Press today.

Speaking of local news writing, Middletown also made the front page of the Hartford Courant today with a story about the gash in Maromas and the new Kleen Energy Plant.


Ed McKeon is a writer, filmmaker and radio show host (WWUH, WESU) who lives in Middletown's Village District.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Prospect Hill

The first four of my "Seven hills in seven days" took me to the west (Higby Mountain and Lamentation Mountain), to the south (Round Hill), and to the East (Bear Hill).  Today I wanted to summit a hill in the north of Middletown. I found one on a topo map which seemed perfect: in the North End, near a cemetery, and most importantly on a busy work day not too far away.  Prospect Hill is just west of Prospect Street, which is almost the western border of the North End residential area. I biked there and discovered that the map was not quite accurate, the actual top of the hill is almost certainly right on Prospect Street. Thus, this became my second bicycle ascent of a Middletown hill.  Prospect Hill, like all the others except for Round Hill, is actually somewhat of a ridge. To the east it slopes gradually down to Main Street and the Connecticut River, to the West it drops very steeply down to the Coginchaug River.  The Prospect Hill ridge is bisected by the deep cut for the railroad tracks, which curve here towards the river.  
I continued north along Prospect Street to the St. John's Cemetery.  This is a small cemetery and mausoleum, housing about a hundred people whose lives mostly spanned from about 1900 to 1985.  The grave markers are flush with the ground, giving an impression of modest people who lived practical lives.  The roster of names included many familiar ones, important families during the years after the big wave of European immigrants at the end of the 19th century, names like Coleman, Marino, Milardo, Kidney, Footit.  
When I was bicycling around the North End, I passed a car on jacks with one man working on the brakes, and another man and a woman leaning against the car, smoking and chatting. When the woman saw me, she said in a very loud voice (it sounded like a shout to me), "Look at that guy on the bike, he bikes around everywhere. I mean it, no matter where I go, there he is."  I laughed and turned around to reply, but she was turned away to chat with her friends.  I don't know if she thought I couldn't understand the language, or if she thought I couldn't hear her shout, but I felt a little bit like a funny-looking lemur whom the tourists assume cannot understand things that are said about him.  

Questions about Harbor Park


This email, written by LK Godburn, and published with his permission, raises question about the lease deal between the City of Middletown and the current and future leaseholder of Harbor Park.




Date: Mon, 23 Jun 2008 19:24:22 -0400
Subject: Somethings fishy on the Ct. River

To: Governor.Rell@ct.gov

CC: cwproctor@courant.com


There has been no official comment from the public on this Harbor Park fiasco because frankly no one believed a governing City body in it's right mind would have re-leased the property, so people were caught unaware. That is now changed. If you would like to hear public outcry get ready. We want to know how and why Harbor Park has been allowed to operate with the violations of it's last lease for so long without the City taking action. We want to know what, if any, benefit the tax payers of Middletown are receiving for their hard earned tax dollars going to foster this bar. We would like to know why after all this time in business and the millions of dollars earned by this property Middletown needs to financially help it along. If we are forced to live with this new lease we would like to know what the City intends to do so we don't have to deal with another 25 years of the best location in town being misused and prostituted. We want to know why in a town that is known for it's restaurants the City is financially, unfairly, helping only one. We want to know what the taxpayers liability is going to be when someone finally sues for a drunk driving accident, and we want to know what right the City has to force the guilt of such a tragedy on us. We want to know when a City feels it is appropriate to own and be partnered in a bar. We want to know how appropriate it is to have a former Mayor's husband be the negotiator for this lease. We want to know why budgets are being cut for schools and arts but we have money for a bar. We demand to know the terms of this lease and if it includes the private boat dock for the Marratta yacht and why Frank Marratta has the right to charge other boats docking fees. We want to know what part of this expenditure benefits the taxpaying family. We want to know why it is felt that a low class bar is the best use of our priceless waterfront property. We want to know why other restaurants or developers were not given the opportunity to present other plans for use. And last but not least we want to know why this whole thing seems so shady?


Please tell all you know to call, write, E-mail City Hall www.Mayor@cityofmiddletown.com to let them know we are not just blindly approving this. Start and or sign petitions stating that you are not in agreement with this arrangement. Let's all meet at the meeting City Council should have to discuss this public expenditure and talk about the best use of this property. I don't know about you but my taxes are too high and my money to hard to make to see it being spent like this.

A new direction for Miller & Bridge?

Last night was the gathering of the Redevelopment Agency and the Public Safety Commission on the topic of Miller & Bridge.  It should be noted that this was not an official meeting -- it was sort of a workshop, since addressing the topic separately led to a stalemate.  

First some facts, which were prepared by Michiel Wackers.  Since the 1999 adoption of the Redevelopment Plan, there have been 12 acquisitions by the City in this neighborhood, and those properties have been demolished.  There are 16 pieces of private property remaining, which include about 27 housing units and there are 40 cars registered at those addresses.  The only business -- Alfredo's Riverside -- is closed but could potentially be re-opened.  To finish the plan, it is projected that it would cost just under $3 million buy those properties, relocate the people, and demolish the buildings.

We also discussed the option of connecting Miller Street to North Main Street, and then closing off the Route 9 entrance and leaving Portland Street alone.  The challenge here is the cost -- which was estimated by the State DOT as just under $3 million (coincidentally the same cost as demolishing the whole place!)   Of course, that's just a first estimate and there was lots of debate on how adding 300 ft. of road could cost that much...but it does mean acquiring an easement from Providence and Worcester Rail, and getting state legislature approval for at-grade crossings on the tracks.

And finally, we discussed the option of opening Portland Street -- the police did a count and gave an estimate of 100 trips a day, primarily between 5 and 8 pm, but personally, I am entirely unclear about what that means -- whether that is one car making two trips (which could easily be residents) or whether there are a lot of people turning in there when traffic is bad, and then making a u-turn.  Also, the narrowness of Portland Street, the need to eliminate some of their on-street parking, and the potential disruption to their neighborhood were issues -- and eventually, that option took last place, only to be pursued if the other two options fail.

So, I believe the next step is to have a full, public review of this at both the Redevelopment and Public Safety meetings.  Each group will be considering whether they can endorse the following request to our state legislators:  For approximately $3 million in funding to pursue either option one (demolish the neighborhood) or option two (connect it to North Main).   Any members of the public who care about this issue will have their chance to speak at both of those meetings.

The feeling is that giving them both options makes it easier for the legislators to find a way to get this funding.  But of course, they may be unsuccessful.  I should note that both Representative Serra and Senator Doyle did meet with Redevelopment last year, and they agreed to champion this cause at the legislature last year, whether for approval to open Portland St. or funding for some other plan, but that first we needed to agree on what we wanted (including approval from the Council).

So now we have a long-term plan on the table, but no short-term relief for the people on Miller & Bridge.  If we can actually get funding within the next year, then this is a positive step.  If not, we have to go back to the Portland Street option.

The one thing everyone agreed on -- there are no easy solutions for this situation.

Bear Hill

With the exception of Higby Mountain, all of the highest elevations in Middletown are in the Maromas area.  However, very few hills are named, because the area is a relatively uniform plateau. Bear Hill is the only one I have found on a map, so far.  Bear Hill lies about halfway between the Aircraft Road and Bear Hill Road trailheads on the Mattabessett Trail.  After running an errand in southeast Middletown, I left my bicycle at the Aircraft Road end, drove north to Bear Hill Road, and hiked south on the Mattabessett Trail.  The hike was spectacular, unlike Round Hill, Lamentation Mountain, and Higby Mountain, the Maromas terrain and trees have not been suited for exploitation and associated road building.  The land is not just rocky, but largely just rock.  Large expanses of exposed granite were never out of sight on the four mile hike. The trail twists and turns around and over some 40 foot exposed cliff faces.  These 40 foot cliffs don't provide many views of the distance, however, because the areas at the base of them seem to be particularly well suited for growing 50 foot oak trees. The terrain has a micro-grandeur, vertical cliffs of solid granite shaping the land-- an Amato's train set toy version of Yosemite Valley.  At some point on my hike, I walked over Bear Hill, but I must confess that it was not at all obvious which of the exposed granite slopes was the summit. 
I bicycled back north from Aircraft Road on Maromas and Bear Hill Road.  Bear Hill Road follows a stream in a fairly narrow gulch for most of the way, but near the top the terrain opens up to a beautiful farm with hundreds of goats grazing on a gently sloping pasture.  The little valley nestling this farm has only 2 or 3 houses, and is surrounded by hills. Coming onto this scene unexpectedly, I thought of the children's stories about discovering a "lost valley" that retains the peace and calm of another world.  

Loss of libido in Middletown


REVIEW

Last night the Green Street Arts Center hosted a reading by the editor, and three authors, who have contributed to Dirty Words, A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex.

While the topic is such, that one would surely expect a crowd of curious listeners, the Middletown audience only numbered a couple of dozen. To be fair, it was a Tuesday night (a lovely summer Tuesday night at that); this was the second central-Connecticut reading and there was a joint meeting of the Redevelopment Committee and the Public Safety Committee on the other end of Main Street. And perhaps Middletown, with most of the student population of Wesleyan absent, is a bit more prudish than I might have guessed.

There was no need to be abashed, because while the language was sometimes blunt, the readings were sensitive, insightful, and often hilarious. Sam Brumbaugh, a novelist from Northampton, and coincidentally the producer of Be Here To Love Me, the great documentary about singer-songwriter Townes van Zandt, read his entry about fobbing - the act of weeping during sex. Hartford-born writer Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, gave a hilarious recitation about her first hum job. Dan Pope, a novelist now living in West Hartford, revealed a cross-border journey that ended in coitus interuptus. And editor and author Ellen Sussman revealed the truth about her brother in an essay on commitment, or lack thereof.

If you have any questions about the terms I mentioned above, you may want to get a copy of Dirty Words, and, shall I say, bone up.

Ed McKeon is a writer, filmmaker, radio host (WWUH, WESU) who lives in Middletown's Village District.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The army training center

Tonight I went to a meeting between the executive committee of the Westfield Residents Association (WRA) and the folks responsible for constructing the large army training center in Middletown.  As previously reported, they have chosen a site on Boardman Lane, in Westfield, and they have refused to hold another public hearing regarding this choice.  Unlike a minor two-bit land subdivision, these folks do not even have to tell the neighboring landowners what their plans are.  Boardman Lane is a beautiful country lane west of Middle Street (more here).  The Army Corps of Engineers' report on the site selection process here.  I am not entirely sure why they elected to hold a meeting with the WRA executive committee, because they did not seem interested in any of our suggestions or concerns.  Perhaps they hoped that we might be dissuaded from raising too much of a fuss about the site.  The meeting was explicitly private, I asked ahead of time if I could invite others to come and was told emphatically "no". In attendance were 5 WRA board members, a Lt. Col, a Major, a hired architect consultant, a "base transition coordinator", and Diane McCartin, the Army Corps of Engineers manager for this project. 
Ms. McCartin took us through the selection process, the assessment and approval process that the project will go through, and the general plans for the project.  Much of this was similar to what she presented at the public meeting last month.  Ms. McCartin is the ideal face for the army, she is affable, likable, and patient.  But in the end, while she projected the aura of an empathetic listener, she also made it clear that nothing we said or might do will have any impact on the project.  She illustrated this by insisting that the change of site from Maromas to Westfield was in no way a result of public pressure (they are above such petty concerns).  They abandoned the Freeman Road site because the State of Connecticut made it clear to the army that they would buy the land if the Army pursued it (the State has right of first refusal on that CL&P land).  All of our concerns about the Boardman Lane site were met with the kindness that one might show to a harmless, senile dementia neighbor who is worried about crabgrass. 
The sole approval process for the project is an Environmental Assessment. This "EA" is done by the army, for review by the army. A copy will be deposited in the public library and made available for public comments, to be reviewed by the army. The EA will not only look at traditional environmental concerns (run-off, wetlands, endangered species, soil contamination, etc), but will also address community issues like traffic, impacts on commerce, impacts on community services.  Twice, Ms. McCartin said that after this is done there will be a "Finding of No Significant Impact", and then the building can commence.  I asked her how she knew that the EA would come back so perfect, and she backtracked and said of course the FNSI depends on what the EA says.  My impression is that they will conform the EA to demonstrate the wisdom of their decision, it certainly seemed inconceivable to them that the EA would raise any issues that would impact the project. 
There were a couple of good features about their plans for the training center.  First, the Lt. Col and the Major both insist that this facility feel like a campus, not like a high-security military base.  They want soldiers and residents alike to feel that the facility is open, friendly, and part of the community.  Second, everybody present seems to be genuinely committed to building a facility that has the character of New England Architecture (I hope they don't mean it will look more like the Cromwell Walmart than the Orlando Walmart).  Several of us expressed a preference for brick buildings with window accents of marble.  
Ms. McCartin was refreshingly candid and forthcoming in a fearless way, and I reciprocated towards the end of the meeting.  I expressed my support for the interspersion of military personnel in non-military communities like Middletown, I think that is a good thing for our town and society. However I expressed my dismay that Middletown's most valuable resource, farmland and open space, was being taken away from us and we were getting a financial and traffic burden in return.   The military brass present had three responses, first that the intangible benefit of having military personnel in our community could not be overstated.  I agree, but in this location, the military personnel might interact with 5 houses on Boardman Lane, and then they'll be on I91.  Second that the training center will generate commerce for Middletown.  All of the Westfield residents agreed that the people working and training at the center would NOT support Middletown businesses, and we strongly suspect that the catering, janitorial, snowplow, and other services that the training center will hire would more likely come from Meriden, Cromwell, and Berlin than from Middletown. This site does nothing for the commercial or cultural integration of the military and Middletown.  And third that the Army was returning to Middletown a beautiful 30 acres on Mile Lane.  
Ms. McCartin convinced me that as far as the army is concerned no amount of public outcry will change the site.  However, I would like to find out if outcry by elected officials can change the site.  I would like to call on Mayor Giuliano, our Common Council, and our State and Federal representatives to vigorously pressure the Army to go outside of Middletown. I would also like to know if the Army's selection of the firm to design and build will be based in part on the aesthetics of the structures being built.  I will request a copy of the RFP from Ms. McCartin.  Finally, I would like the EA to be available on-line, I have already asked Ms. McCartin for this.  
The WRA will be meeting on Thursday evening to discuss what to do. I will report on that meeting.

On Riding the Bus to Work

We all know commuting solo by car is a bad habit. As a Middletown resident who works in Hartford, I am trying to break it. But if you are a car owner, committing to actually using Connecticut’s public transportation requires a unique combination of personal characteristics: crazy frugality, tenacity, eccentricity, and a little self-righteousness. Gas is not quite expensive enough YET for most of us to look at the bus as a realistic option and the quality of the system we have does not provide an incentive to do so either.

Unfortunately, we are indoctrinated to be anti-bus very early: even the intelligent and reasonably socially conscious Middletown High student living in my house considers it social death to ride the school bus.

At present, our transportation planners have elected to deal with commuter preferences by offering a two-tiered system. The first tier is the DATTCO-run Middletown-Saybrook Express, with relatively upscale clientele, plush seats and its own dedicated bus stop/commuter lot on Silver Street, right off Route 9, exit 12. (Note that unless you live in or around CVH, you need a car to get to this bus.) The fare for a 20 minute express ride to Main and Gold in Hartford is $2.95. There are three departures in the morning between 6:50 and 7:50.

The second tier is the Connecticut Transit “U” line, which offers aging and slightly seedy buses with plastic seats and handicapped accessibility for $1.25. These buses stop in downtown Middletown at unmarked kiosks and wherever the bus driver feels safe stopping, which you have to figure out yourself because Middletown does not allow bus signage or any amenities that would in any way encourage a non-indigent person to consider these buses as a transportation option. The Connecticut Transit “U” bus leaves hourly to meander through Cromwell, Rocky Hill and Wethersfield in a route that takes about 40 minutes from downtown Middletown to downtown Hartford. The “U” happens to be the option I prefer, much as I prefer public schools over private. (I did warn you about the self-righteousness.)

I wonder what is the justification for this two-tiered system and if it negatively affects the quality of service as a whole. It will be interesting to observe the discussions about this as our policy makers try to cope with increased ridership and demands for better and more flexible service.

Dirty words for dirty minds


It's surely not the first time that literary writers have turned their minds and their pens (keyboards?) to eroticism.

Tonight, the Green Street Arts Center presents readings from Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. Here's what Green Street has to say about the event:

    Our favorite contemporary authors on an irresistible subject: sex. From sexual relationships to sexual positions, from the classics to contemporary twists, Dirty Words collects the most provocative definitions of the most outlandish sexual terms, as defined by some of today's most exciting writers. Editor Ellen Sussman is joined by the region's literati for an evening of readings that step in where time-honored discussions of the birds and the bees fall short. Featuring live readings by: Sussman and Sam Brumbaugh, Rand Cooper, Thaisa Frank, Dan Pope and Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. Due to mature content, this event is recommended for people age 18 and up. Advanced Reservation is recommended.

Sebastian Barry in Madison and New Haven

REVIEW

Last night, I went down to RJ Julia Books to hear Sebastian Barry read from his new novel The Sacred Scripture, and was mesmerized by Barry's talent, as was the entire audience. Read a sample of The Sacred Scripture here.

I fell in love with Barry's writing when my wife Lucy brought me a copy of his The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, as a gift from her travels in Ireland many years ago. He is a gifted writer who was granted the Irish gifts of language and story.

Barry is in this country because his play, The Pride of Parnell Street is being staged during the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven this week, by the Irish theater company Fishamble. The play sold out its run, and a new show was just added for Saturday evening.

Barry read his story, which is written in the voice of a 100 year old woman who is being moved from the institution she has lived in for decades, after being committed for a problem with "morals."


He explained that it took him months to hear his character's voice, but suggested "if you remain quiet and contemplative enough, these voices will rise up and tell their stories." Barry's reading was theatrical (his theatricality credited to his recently departed mother, an Abbey Theater actress, who was doing television roles until just before her death), as he fell into a lilting Sligo accent (his own Irish accent has been softened, presumably by education, and his time spent in the London theater), and brought to life the remembrances of time lost to a life sequestered behind locked doors. While Barry warned that the story was "dark," both passages he read were colorful, detailed, soaring description of days when his character experienced exalting moments of joy and love.

Barry, a playwright, poet and novelist, explained that many of his works are built around the skeleton of forgotten ancestors. This book is a tribute to the true story of a great aunt. In it, we meet Eneas McNulty again - a great uncle. And Barry's grandfather and great grandfather are at the core of central characters in his successful play The Steward of Christendom, and his novel, A Long, Long Way which was nominated last year for the Booker-Mann prize.




The reading was one of many hosted by Roxanne Coady at her amazing independent bookstore, RJ Julia in Madison.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Round Hill

Today's hill in my quest for "7 hills in 7 days" was Round Hill, on the Southern edge of Middletown, near the borders with Middlefield and Durham. It is in many ways the opposite from my previous two hills, Higby Mountain and Lamentation Mountain; Round Hill seems to be privately owned and completely surrounded by relatively small lots with homes, farms, and a nature preserve.  In fact, Round Hill Road passes within about 200 yards of the summit, and I was able to bicycle all the way to the top.
I rode the very beautiful Coleman Road away from the heart of Middletown. Coleman is a small country road seemingly from another era; throughout the U.S. these beautiful and exquisitely local roads are frequently parallel to, and barely separated from, a more modern, faster, commuter-full and expressly non-local highway (in this case Route 17).  Coleman Road ends at Round Hill Road. At this intersection is the Guida Farms Conservation Area, with the Cassa Preserve established and maintained by the Middlesex Land Trust.  I turned uphill (east) to climb Round Hill Road, which is blessed with one of the steepest grades of any street in Middletown.  As the grade leveled off, I turned off the street onto a trail heading into the woods to the south, towards what seemed to be the highest point of land around.  The trail led to a large clearing with a heavily secured radio transmission towers and DANGER!!! HIGH VOLTAGE!!! GO AWAY OR YOU WILL FRY!!! signs.  Duly petrified, I wandered around the summit (512') for awhile, listening to the sounds of the radio station. It turned out to be WIHS, the Christian station broadcasting from Middletown to all of Central Connecticut.  While loitering, I learned from a visitor being interviewed at the station about an upcoming event at one of the beautiful churches on Main Street:
2nd Annual Joyful Noise in Downtown Middletown--Saturday June 28--Doors open 6:00pm -- Joyful Noise Ministry is having their "2nd Annual Joyful Noise in Downtown Middletown Concert" at Church of the Holy Trinity, 381 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457 -- The concert will feature Unspoken and the Joyful Noise Praise Band---Tickets are $5 in advance or $7 at the door-- For more information email joyfulnoise@holytrinityct.org or call 860-347-2591

After lingering and listening for a while, I concluded that while Round Hill may not have the most spectacular view in Middletown, it must boast the only radio broadcasting 24/7.   I headed back the dirt trail through the forest, down the very steep Round Hill Road and then through Middlefield on Laurel Grove, Cherry Hill, Strickland, and Jackson Hill Roads.  Round Hill itself may have been disappointing, but the journey to and from carried me through some of the most beautiful farmland of Middletown and Middlefield. 

What to do about Miller & Bridge?

What to do for the neighborhood known as "Miller & Bridge"? That's the tiny section of town that has it's own entrance from Route 9, just north of Exit 16, where the former Alfredo's Riverside Restaurant did business until earlier this year.



View Larger Map
As a Redevelopment commissioner, I was part of the process in the late 1990's that designated this area as a "Redevelopment Zone", including a plan to purchase and demolish all the structures in the area, by eminent domain if necessary. At the time, I spoke against the plan to demolish and I remember Catherine Johnson speaking eloquently about the importance of the area as an "architectural billboard" for our town, as the historic, wood-frame, working class houses are the first glimpse of Middletown as you arrive from the North -- she felt they could be restored and the highway access might be a positive instead of a negative, if the right owners and uses could be found. But there was an assumption that as the state looked at eliminating Exit 16 and connecting directly to the Arrigoni Bridge to Portland (that should be the subject for another post), there would likely be a buy-out of this neighborhood by the State D.O.T. And we all agreed that the status-quo was not good -- because of the isolation of the neighborhood, it had become a source of blight and the easy highway access provided a sort of "drive-thru" for drug dealers from outside the neighborhood, making life miserable for residents. In addition to other problems, unprotected train tracks run right through the neighborhood and lead paint falling from the bridge had contaminated a number of properties. And so it became the official policy of the City to eliminate the neighborhood through Redevelopment.

Whether for good or for worse, the State D.O.T. never came up with money to purchase Miller & Bridge. Meanwhile, the City spent hundreds of thousands of federal grant dollars buying certain properties and demolishing them, before they ran out of money and decided instead to focus the City's resources to demolishing historic houses on Ferry Street to create the Richman/Wharfside Commons apartments.

So, it's 10 years later and the Miller & Bridge neighborhood is in limbo, as the Redevelopment plan is still in effect, yet action on that plan has ceased and there is no intention to move forward with funding it. Some properties were purchased and demolished, and the quality of life did improve somewhat, but the remaining residents continue to feel that they do not receive the same level of city services, and property values must be affected by the fact that -- officially -- the neighborhood has no future. The people who live there would like to see us either lift the Redevelopment designation, or find the funding to finish the job. Either way, they would like immediate improvements to the traffic safety problem (one resident suggested to the Police that they should be exempt from tickets when they are involved in accidents on Route 9, since they frequently have to take risks just to get in or out of their neighborhood.)

The North End Action Team (NEAT) and Lydia Brewster raised this issue in the first place and have kept it on the Redevelopment agenda all these years, with repeated meetings to try to push it forward. This year, a compromise solution was approved at Redevelopment: ask the State to open the rail crossing at Portland Street for a few years, and to close the Route 9 entrance. In the meantime, perhaps try to find State funding to build a proper connection for the neighborhood from Miller Street to North Main, across the land controlled by the Providence and Worcester Railroad.

This temporary solution of opening Portland Street is understood to be a complicated proposal for two reasons -- first, it requires a special act of the state legislature, since opening Portland Street will require Miller & Bridge residents to cross the railroad tracks (which of course they already do within their own neighborhood -- and without any safety signals.) And second, St. John's Church and Portland Street residents are concerned about the social and traffic problems which might result from connecting to Miller & Bridge.

When this motion from Redevelopment made the necessary stop at the Public Safety Commission before going on to the Common Council, it was denied -- Public Safety doesn't want to open Portland Street. And Miller & Bridge remains in limbo.

And so I come to the reason for today's post on this topic: Tomorrow (June 24th) at 5:30 pm in Room 208 at City Hall, there will be a joint meeting of the Redevelopment Agency and the Public Safety Commission. I don't actually know if there will be a public session, but it should be interesting to see if we can't find a solution that brings some justice to the people in this neighborhood -- and if we can't, why not?

Green Energy

At the beginning of the month, the Common Council approved a plan to proceed with a landfill gas project.

Another slice gone


I drove by Gianni's Pizza on Broad Street, across from the Middlesex Mutual tower, and saw that it had closed. I may be late in reporting this, but there's nothing like cold pizza.


Ed McKeon is a filmmaker, radio show host (WWUH, WESU) and resident of the Village District.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lamentation Mountain


After successfully summitting the venerable Higby Mountain yesterday, my goal today was to conquer Lamentation Mountain, in my quest for "7 hills in 7 days".  Although the actual summit of Lamentation Mountain (720') is in Meriden, part of the mountain is in the northwestern corner of Middletown. 
I decided to climb Lamentation from South to North, so after dropping my bicycle off in Berlin on Lamentation Drive, I drove back to Giuffrida Park in Meriden. Chauncey Peak (688')  rises steeply from Country Club Road.  The west side of  Chauncey has spectacular views of Meriden and beyond. The east side of Chauncey is literally 6 feet under, a victim of Chauncey's misfortune of being made of good road-building rocks.  North of Chauncey Peak is a man-made canal, which had water flowing through it down into Crescent Lake.  After these beautiful views and the amazing canal, the rest of the hike was quite disappointing.  Lamentation Mountain is a very gentle mountain that is thoroughly criss-crossed by trails and small roads.  Unlike Higby, Lamentation has large patches of monoculture pine trees, and an abundance of poison ivy.  The 1940s and 1950s automobiles abandoned in the forest provided a beauty of sorts.  Some might say that these rusting jalopies are less ugly than the ones recently glorified on Main Street
The summit is indiscernible along the very gentle slope.  Worst of all, the trail has changed in the past year, a victim of selfish landowners unwilling to allow hikers on their remote land.  The ambiguous and contradictory trail markings left me temporarily lost, and I found myself crossing big, bold "no trespassing" signs to make my way north.  How I wish we had the British tradition that requires all landholders to allow walkers to traverse their land.  
Eventually I found Stantack Road, which is nothing more than a fire road through the forest. I followed the road along the ridge through a corner of Middletown and into Berlin, where my bicycle was waiting.  The bicycle ride back south was more spectacular than the hike, as I went first along the beautiful hilltop north end of Atkins street, and then explored Boardman and Bell Lanes on my way back to Giuffrida Park. 
On Boardman Lane, I examined the beautiful cemetery and the land that the Army has chosen to build a training center.  The training center would consist of the equivalent of two buildings and two parking lots the size of Walmart.  But that is a topic for another post.  

Army base on Boardman Lane?


My favorite cemetery in Middletown is on the south side of Boardman Lane, about a quarter mile west of Middle Street. It is a small, well-kept cemetery, with burial dates ranging from about 1770 to about 1815. Here lie men, women, and children from the great families of Westfield, members of the Wilcox, Bacon, Higby, and Boardman families. The names, as well as the simplicity, uniformity, and antiquity of the tombstones conjure up another time, when essentially all of the land in Westfield (and most of the land in Middletown) was farmland. The people below these stones would not recognize our Middletown: in the past 75 years or so, we have replaced our farmland with housing, commerce, factories, and parks. This inexorable transformation continues to take place today, as progress, population, and the economics of farming make agriculture less attractive to Middletown residents.

It is a Utopian dream to completely stop all the development of what farmland that remains, one that is incompatible with property rights and the desire of so many people to own a home in Middletown. However, our Planning and Zoning department, reflecting the expressed wishes of the citizens of this town, have been evaluating remaining farmland for preservation. Some farmland has already been preserved in perpetuity, through the open space bond initiative that voters approved last year. Other parcels of farmland are being considered, based on the condition of the land, their proximity to other farms, and the alternative uses to which they might be put. This makes sense: if we are to lose farmland, let us at least get something which makes Middletown a better city in some way.

Thus, it was quite a shock to learn (Hartford Courant article) that the city would allow an Army Reserve training base to cover an 88 acre farm on Boardman Lane with the equivalent of two Walmart stores and their parking. Others have pointed out that the economic effects of an Army base in this location are likely to be completely negative. From this location, weekend warriors will not journey to a Middletown business, they will travel to the much closer commerce of Meriden and Cromwell. The residential neighborhoods surrounding the base will be burdened with an enormous increase in traffic. Boardman Lane, a simple country lane, may need to be widened, as the only buildable part of the parcel is at the very end of the Lane. Meanwhile, 88 acres of land will be taken off of the city's tax rolls, FOREVER. Especially in a time of war, we should all be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the country. However, the ONLY rationale that has been given for the placement of an Army base in Middletown has been that somebody (unknown) inserted a line in some legislation in Congress.

Middletown should consider not only these enormous direct costs of an Army Base there, but also the alternative uses to which the land could be put. About half of these 88 acres are wetlands (Middletown's zoning maps are here), which cannot be developed (but can continue as grazing pasture). These 88 acres are zoned IT (Interstate Trade), which has been an enlightened zoning designation that has kept this area from being overrun with traffic, while allowing the development of businesses whose tax payments contribute to our city. Businesses like Aerospace Technology, Yellow Freight, Electronic Wholeseller, etc, have done very well for themselves and well for Middletown. The removal of these 88 acres eliminates a major tract of land in the IT zone from future development by companies like these.

These 88 acres are a classic New England farmscape that the Boardman family of 1776 would recognize, it forms part of a productive and beautiful area of farming that is only one block away from the Schliemann farm that the city recently protected using the open space bond money. If Middletown cannot find a way to maintain the Boardman Lane property as farmland, we should at least vigorously oppose its destruction for the sake of a use which not only provides no benefit but actually generates an enormous cost to the city.

Automobility vs. Bikability vs. Walkability

Some of you will recall Robert Orr's informative presentation to the Planning and Zoning Commission earlier this month. Orr is an architect and town planner in New Haven, CT, and an early practitioner of what is called the 'new urbanism'.

Today's Hartford Courant features a commentary piece by Orr on the challenges faced by pedestrians in New Haven -- and all over the US -- due to decades of misguided street design. It's well worth reading. A passage that caught my eye:

"Engineering policy over the past 50 years has nudged streets toward increasing mobility. Mobility is the term used by engineers to describe measures to make drivers feel safe at higher speeds, called design speed. The tools for increased design speed are wide and multiple driving lanes; one-way streets; absence of parking and visual obstructions, especially near intersections; streamlined corners with large radii; and highly legible signage. All these measures make drivers feel safer at higher speeds."

Of course, and as Orr makes abundantly clear, enhanced roadway design speed translates into greater danger for pedestrians. "All these automotive assets spell liabilities for pedestrians, especially now that studies demonstrate 37 mph to be the threshold for guaranteed pedestrian fatality. By contrast, speeds below 20 mph rarely result in serious injury. Other studies now link accidents directly to street width; as streets widen, fatalities increase exponentially."

Another interesting feature of Orr's piece is a related point about cyclists, who feel a need to use sidewalks as bike paths because the streets -- even as they are progressively widened -- have become too dangerous for them. This results in the occasional pedestrian-cyclist collision.

The essay made me wonder about the degree to which Middletown's walkability has been compromised over the years, sacrificed on the altar of "design speed". Little things like the incremental widening of roads (especially East Main, Washington Street, Newfield Street, not to mention all the streets that were routinely widened during the sewer separation work in the late 1990s, such as our old haunt, Brainerd Avenue) to the absence of sidewalks to the "one-waying" of residential streets (Liberty, Court, College, Loveland, etc.), make what were and are centrally located neighborhoods seem like pockets of isolation. Add to this the cumulative effect of tree pruning and cutting for power lines, the destruction of the tree lawns by the salting of roads in the winter, and the plague of cars parked across the sidewalk, and you get a barren landscape that is not at all conducive to walking.

And I haven't even mentioned Route 9 and the loss of easy access to the riverfront, Middletown's raison d'ĂȘtre.

For an indication of how one street used to look, see this image of Washington Street (looking west from the intersection with Broad) in the collection of old photographs at Connecticut History Online.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Tourist "Eye"


Out in the blogosphere, I stumbled upon this lovely description of someone visiting our town for the first time (she came for the Wesleyan Writers' Conference). Interesting to see how we are seen!

Read it at Crazy Pete's Blotter.

More on Making Biking Irresistible

For a cool visual accompaniment to the previous post on biking in Amsterdam, go here

Higby Mountain

This morning I began a "7 hills in 7 days" journey through Middletown. I decided that my first summit would be the spectacular Higby Mountain, in the Westfield section of town.  I started at about 6:15 in the morning, driving my bicycle over to Guida's Restaurant, on Rte 66, and leaving it there. I am always torn between locking my bicycle out of sight so that nobody knows it is there, and in full view so that everybody knows it is there.  I chose to lock it to a sign in front of the restaurant for all to see. 

After driving back home, I walked to the Country Club Road entrance to the Higby Mountain portion of the Mattabesett Trail. The entrance to the trail is not auspicious, but it is at least better than it was last year. Last summer a land-owner on Higby Mountain collected money from ATV users to drive all over the mountain. This illegal use turned the Country Club Road base of Higby into a parking lot, and was stopped by the city.  Now the same landowner has his logging skid and a dozen or so giant logs stored there.  Fortunately, the muddy ruts of the logging vehicles are present only in the first 100 yards or so of the trail. 
Once past these, the trail is largely a spectacularly beautiful small hiking trail. The trail traverses the east side of the mountain for about 0.5 miles, then climbs gently up to the top of the ridge.  Most of the forest is tall, beautiful oak trees.  Where a little bit of sunshine hits the forest floor, small patches of lush grass rise towards the light.  It has a magical feeling in the morning, the mist in the air was silvered by the sun's early rays.  At 7AM, the sounds of I91 were completely blocked by the Mountain, and the only sounds I could hear were those of birds and the occasional screaming chipmunk.  Images of Bambi dancing and prancing with squirrels and the flickers came to mind.  Sure enough, near the top of the ridge I did see a deer resting in the grass.  She probably was busy digesting her morning's predawn grazing, and for quite a while we stared at each other, about 30 yards apart. 
Shortly after reaching the top of the ridge, I reached the actual summit of Higby Mountain (892').
The views from all along the ridge top are spectacular.  To the north is Lamentation Mountain (also partly in Middletown), due west is Chauncey Peak (in Meriden), and to the southwest is the valley containing Meriden, Wallingford, and other towns along I91. I continued walking along the ridgeline, getting better views every time the trail came near the top of the cliff.  The terrain is surprisingly flat on top, the trees are shorter, and as a consequence there is beautiful green grass over much of the ridge, under a canopy of short trees. It reminded me of a California walnut orchard in March.  The beauty of the ridge itself and the spectacular views thwarted my original intent to do a rapid hike with no stopping. I lingered on a rock for
 half an hour. At one point a red-tailed hawk went past me at eye level,  soaring on the air currents rising up the cliff face from the valley below.  

About halfway along the ridge line, the elevation drops a little bit, this is Preston Notch, which forms the border between Middletown and Middlefield.  Off to the east of Preston Notch is a large rocky outcropping called Camels Hump.  The trail down the south side of Higby Mountain is sunnier, with more vegetation on the forest floor.  In several places, the trail took advantage of natural steps in the stone to make an easy descent down the ridge towards Guida's.  The European settlers named these ridges the 'traprock' ridge in honor of these steps (trappen means stairs in German).  The last half mile of the trail is annoyingly close to the very noisy Rte 66, but with coffee and eggs beckoning, I felt like a horse turned towards the barn after a long ride.  

Fortunately, my bicycle was still there, unmolested.  I hopped on and headed for home.  Route 66 is a bit intimidating for a bicyclist, but at least when they widened the road a couple of years ago, they created a very wide breakdown lane.  I felt safe riding back down into the Connecticut Valley, crossing over the beautiful Mount Higby Reservoir.  I turned left at the Red Dog Saloon, and took Higby Road back north towards home.  I've always thought Higby Road to be the most beautiful road in Middletown, with its views to the west over farmland, down into a valley of hay fields, and then up towards glorious Higby Mountain. This morning, knowing that I had just traversed across the top of Higby, the view was more beautiful than ever.