Monday, November 2, 2009

Valley of Remembrance

The “Living In” feature of Sunday’s NY Times Real Estate section profiled Oxford, Conn., a small town noted to be 87 miles northeast of Manhattan (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/01/realestate/01living.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=oxford,%20conn.&st=cse) . I would venture to say most of you have never been to Oxford, but for Gilda and me it was the backyard of our first two years of marriage which began in 1973.

We lived in the neighboring town of Seymour, one of the two communities I covered for a year for The New Haven Register. Derby, the other part of my beat, along with Ansonia and Shelton, the latter which I covered my second year at The Register, comprised the Lower Naugatuck Valley. In many ways, these communities were prototypical mill towns that had seen better days decades earlier. The first time I drove through Derby I thought I was riding through Dresden after the War.

Connecticut has a reputation as being affluent, erudite, fall-foliage cheery, men and women clad in turtlenecks topped by tweed or corduroy sports jackets, with or without suede patches at the elbow. In other words, a perfect Lands’ End- or Talbots-type state. In truth, many communities live up to that Nutmeg State picture. And then there’s the Valley.

When we lived there, the Valley had yet to undergo gentrification. It was the expectation, indeed the fervent desire, of most families that their teenage boys directly join their fathers after high school on the assembly line at the brass, copper and rubber mills strung along the winding Naugatuck and nearby Housatonic Rivers. This desired fate persisted even after many of the mills closed down or reduced their workloads and became hulking shells of what they once were.

There was an ingrained distrust of outsiders in the Valley. But the Valley’s location made it a desirable nesting ground. The towns were perfectly situated bedroom communities for professionals commuting to New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Danbury and even New York. Subdivisions sectioned off farm land. But worse than these single family tracts, as far as long-time local residents were concerned, were the multi-unit family developments springing up. Apartment houses or townhouse projects were anathema. They bred “transients,” people who would tax municipal services without replenishing tax coffers. Condominium was a dreaded word.

My first day on the job as a paid reporter reflected this parochial attitude. Don, my bureau chief, grew up in the Valley. He took a jaundiced view of a condominium development going up in Derby. It was way behind schedule, he believed, which to him meant the builder was hiding something, perhaps a lack of funds that would leave Derby with a blighted, half-finished project on a main artery. He told me to check it out. I found the builder at a different project, a subdivision going up in Oxford. To my novitiate questioning, his responses seemed plausible and genuine.

When I returned to the newsroom in New Haven and told Don I didn’t think there was a story there, he exploded. Don was a stocky, cigar-chomping, crew-cut wearing, no nonsense Scandinavian. He picked up my Royal (non-electric) typewriter and threw it to the ground. For a second I thought he’d transport me out the third floor window. Everyone in the newsroom came to a standstill.

After a few heart-stopping moments, we mutually agreed I would do more research. By the end of the week I put together a weak story implying local dissatisfaction with the pace of construction. The project eventually did get completed. Never again did Don ever raise his voice to me. He taught me how to be a reporter in real life, not a diploma holding “journalist.” I came to learn to respect and love Don as a boss and mentor. And friend. For many years I considered him the best boss I ever had.

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