17 Dec 2012

“An Adorable Little Town”

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My old TVR two-seater sits in front of our Newtown manse one Xmas season back in the 1980s

We commonly look backward in imagination trying to visualize dramatic events that occurred in our home neighborhoods in a distant past, long before our own lifetimes. It rarely occurs to us to imagine bad things happening in future times, after we are gone.

In my case, it seems to be the future that you have to worry about.

In 2008, a Mexican illegal immigrant, Luis Ramirez, died as the result of a beating at the hands of white teenagers. The altercation occurred on the same block where I grew up in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. I had personally ceased living there decades before, when I went away to college. My father also eventually moved away, to take up residence on a farm I acquired in Central PA, and we sold his house early in the 1990s.

The latest mass shooting occurred on Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. Karen and I moved to San Francisco from Newtown in 2001, but we had lived there for twenty years.

We moved to Newtown in July of 1982, from Redding Ridge, where we had been renting a small house located on a dirt road bordering several miles of uninhabited watershed property. I had a couple of pools of the Aspetuck River to call my own and fly fished for trout nearly every day during the season.

Redding Ridge was a very nice high-end suburb, but it was indubitably a suburb, and back then Newtown still seemed, by comparison, authentically the country. Newtown (the second largest town in land area in Connecticut) had plenty of open land, working farms, and included the headquarters of the local hunt.

Karen and I had been riding weekly at an equestrian center in Southbury, and one day near our home we helped recover a lost horse and made the acquaintance of several people from the Fairfield Hunt. Newtown was where aspiring equestrians wanted to be, we thought, and we concentrated our house searches there.

As soon as we started house shopping in Newtown, we came upon a white elephant property which seemed ideal for us. It was the sort of thing you refer to architecturally as “a remuddle.” The original house dated back to 1712, but had been enlarged in the 1820s, then later Victorianized. We owned a lot of books and needed and desired a lot of room, and this house had over 5000 sq. ft.

Newtown is what was referred to historically as a “hill town.” The original colonial settlers established themselves on hilltops because the local valleys were swampy and malarial. Newtown had been founded in 1710 as the product of what might be referred to as “agricultural sprawl.” The original settlement site in Stratford had been completely divided up, and the grandsons of the original settlers of Stratford Colony (founded 1639) needed more land for new houses and new farms, so new settlements were established in the remoter, inland quarters of the original colony, each built as a parish around a new Congregational meeting house.

Newtown was too far from Manhattan for convenient commuting but, by the early 20th century, the Connecticut hill towns were able to attract summer visitors from the city with cooler temperatures and New England quaintness.

Newtown never became a major historical site. Rochambeau’s French Army marched through town on its way from Rhode Island to Virginia during the Revolution. Charles Goodyear allegedly invented his process of vulcanizing rubber while resident in Newtown, and the game of Scrabble was later invented there.

Mr. & Mrs. Clarence Narramore, the last aboriginal descendants to own our house, added an additional pair of wings to the house in 1929 and (one week after the Crash) opened for business as a tourist hotel and family restaurant, serving chicken and steak dinners for $2. The inn and the original 16-acre home farm survived up into the early 1960s.

The old house had on the order of twenty-odd rooms (depending what you counted as a room) and in some portions definitely reeked of antiquity.

We lived there from 1982 to 2001.

When we took up residence in Newtown, Karen was working for an IT consultancy in Stamford, and I was commuting into the city on Monday and coming home on Friday. In the end, both of our businesses were sold. Lowell Weicker became governor and introduced the income tax, and the economy of Connecticut went to pot. The income tax cost Connecticut its competitive advantage in the Tri-State region, and (at least for a while) people stopped starting service companies in the readily-commutable lower coastal towns. By the late-1990s, both Karen and I were involved in new start-up companies and doing an exhausting hour and 45 minutes each way commute to Manhattan.

The fields and farms which attracted us to Newtown were all subdivided and covered with new subdivisions. The local roads were choked with commuter traffic, and our taxes which had been roughly $2000 a year in 1982, with a new sewer assessment, were now more like $10,000.

The fox hunt and the fields we had once ridden over were long gone.

The quaint colonial town aspect of Newtown had become, in our eyes, an ironic hollow shell.

The truth of the matter was that Newtown was a bedroom community. Its residents were typically an exhausted set of far-commuting executives, pushing the outer envelope of possible commuting distance. They got home at 7:30 or 8:00 (if lucky) on week nights, and staggered off to bed. Life consisted essentially of Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon. The cynical boosters and looters making up the town’s political leadership set could do anything they pleased. Nobody else had the energy to go out to weekday town meetings. Taxes went up 10-12% per year, good times or bad, and development just kept on rolling. Newtown had no retired old people. The taxes were too high. If you retired, you sold your house to the next commuter and moved to some low tax Sun belt location.

ABC News spun the story depicting Newtown as “an adorable little town,” the sort of place where psychological disorder and violence seem unthinkable. In reality, I expect for many Newtown is the scene of a characteristically desperate American struggle to retain some of the characteristic amenities of rural and small town life while making a decent living.

Places like Newtown are often high-pressure environments in which people live in something somewhat resembling the country, but with all the same anonymity and anomie characteristic of the big city. Residents commonly rapidly come and go. Most of us barely knew our neighbors. And nobody really had the time to develop a community social life.

I expect places like Newtown are even less agreeable for children and teenagers. They can’t go anywhere without a car. There isn’t much of anything for them to do. And, the ethos of upper middle class competitiveness, materialism, and compulsory achievement broods over all. You obviously don’t hear about shooting massacres very often, but the usual vandalism expressing adolescent bitterness and resentment of adult authority can be seen everywhere.

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Maggie's Farm

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