"But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy...?"
— Thomas Wolfe
One summer, sometime in the early 1990's, I drove to Stamford, Connecticut, the town where I grew up. I'd left in 1965 when I enlisted in the Army and had visited only occasionally, usually on leave and later, after I'd been discharged, during semester breaks from college. When my family moved to Florida in the early 1970's, I had little reason to visit the town of my childhood and so knew nothing of the profound transformation that had taken place over the years.
After a decades-long absence, I expected some changes, but what I found that summer day left me speechless. Except for a few landmarks like the Town Hall, St. John's Catholic Church, and the Ferguson Library, the Stamford of the 1950's and early 1960's that I remembered, especially the once bustling retail district centered around Atlantic and Main, was almost unrecognizable. I stood on the steps of the Stamford Town Hall and stared in disbelief at what I saw—and didn't see.
Old Stamford Town Hall
URC Photo—Ferguson Library Digital Archives
It was noon the day I visited my hometown. A young man wearing a suit and tie sat on the steps of the Town Hall picking at a salad while typing on his laptop. I asked where my Stamford had gone. He stared at me for a moment, no doubt wondering what I was talking about. "I've been away for a while," I confessed. "I grew up here," I explained. "At one time you could see down Main Street all the way to St. John's Episcopal Church, a couple of blocks east." He looked east, where the Stamford Town Center Mall and office buildings now blocked the view. "The mall was built in the early 80's," he replied, still puzzled by my question. It was then that I realized he was too young to know.
"How did the Town Hall escape demolition?" I asked.
"It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places," he said. "It stood empty for quite a while until the town received a state grant to restore the building."
"If you want to see what my Stamford looked like, the Stamford I'm talking about, watch Boomerang, a 1947 black and white film-noir, shot here in town. The opening scene is a 360-degree pan of Atlantic and Main, filmed from right over there," I said, pointing to a spot about fifty feet away, where the streets once crossed.
Whenever I saw the movie in the TV listings, I'd tune in and watch as the camera swept Atlantic and Main, thinking my Stamford was still as it was pictured in this 1947 movie, not taking into consideration the passing of time and the inevitability of progress.
I sat down next to the young man and watched as he Googled "Boomerang." A page of hits came up, but they were all about the 1992 movie of the same name starring Eddie Murphy.
"Try Boomerang 1947," I said.
"Yeah, I'll try later," he replied, closing that window and resuming his typing.
I looked over at the Town Center Mall again and tried to visualize my Stamford, the Stamford of the 1950's and 60's. Back then, Atlantic and Main were the heart of Stamford's retail and business district with Central Park as the hub. Atlantic Street ran north-south. Main Street, east-west. They crossed at Central Park, just across the street from the Stamford Town Hall.
The park was gone, along with the white, triangular wooden memorial dedicated to those Stamford men who'd served in the Second World War. Concrete had replaced grass and the wooden war memorial by a circle of granite slabs. I gazed south, down Atlantic Street toward I-95. The granite spire of St. John's Catholic Church looked out of place, standing in stark contrast to the surrounding glass and metal office buildings.
When my parents divorced, sometime around 1949, my mother and I moved in with my grandparents at 552 Main, in an apartment right over The Skipper Restaurant, a friendly neighborhood bar that served more beer than food. On busy nights I could hear the voices of the patrons through the floor of our living room. Laughter from The Skipper mixed with the laughter coming from the audience on one of the comedy shows I watched on our black and white TV, sit-coms like I Love Lucy, Red Skelton, and The Jackie Gleason Show.
The Skipper at 548 Main Street - circa 1966
URC Photo—Ferguson Library Digital Archives
Now a single parent, my mother had to find work so she placed me in the Stamford Day Nursery, just around the corner, on Greyrock Place. Since it was a stone's throw, literally, from our apartment—you could see the Day Nursery playground from our back porch—I was allowed to walk home alone at the end of the school day. I spent the rest of the afternoon watching TV, waiting for the adults to come home from work; I was a latchkey kid before the term was invented. Today, my mother's fitness as a parent would be questioned by the Connecticut Department of Child Protection.
Although I had orders to stay indoors, the world outside our apartment was hard to resist. Many days I disobeyed my mother and cruised downtown Stamford, wandering up and down Main and Atlantic Streets, looking in store windows and talking to strangers.
Sometimes I'd wander over to the Central Firehouse, one block east of the Skipper, and talk to the firemen as they washed the big red fire engines. Sometimes I'd walk all the way to Woolworth's on Atlantic Street and play in the toy section until asked to leave. On rainy days, I might stop at Miller's Furniture and try out a new sofa. Or I'd marvel at the movie posters at the Plaza Theater. Some days I'd peruse the travel brochures at the Parker Travel Agency, right next door to The Skipper. Or I'd watch the salesman stack paint cans at Spelco's, also next door.
If it was a warm day and I had a dime, I'd cross Main Street and buy an ice cream cone at Jessup's Pharmacy. Jessup's had a soda fountain. Try finding one at your local CVS or Walgreens. Strawberry was my favorite flavor.
When a kid that age is found wandering the streets today, someone dials 9-1-1, the parents are arrested, and it's on the six o'clock news. But 1950's America was a different time and place. Back then, nobody took notice or bothered me. Despite the threat of war with the Soviet Union, some say America was a safer place.
Main Street looking east—circa 1966
URC Photo—Ferguson Library Digital Archives
I thought back to the days when dozens of businesses lined the eastern end of Main Street, just about all of them family-owned. If I needed a new pair of U.S. Keds, my mother might take me to Spelke and Son, or the Liberty Barber Shop if I needed a haircut. Or she might take me to Loring Studios to sit for a photo portrait. She might have bought me a trike at Sol's Bicycle Shop at 438 Main. Probably not. 552 Main had no backyard, just an alley wide enough to accommodate the trucks that dropped off large stainless-steel beer kegs to The Skipper.
If my mother was in the mood for a new watch or a bracelet, she might stop at Rossman's, Brant's or Harry's Jewelers. A couple of doors up from W. T. Grant's five and dime I might have caught Disney's Lady and the Tramp or Abbott and Costello Go to Mars at the Plaza Theater. I can still smell the buttered popcorn they sold at the concession stand in the lobby.
If we couldn't find what we were looking for on East Main, we'd take a left at Central Park and head south on Atlantic. According to the 1955 Price & Lee Stamford City Directory, there were almost one hundred businesses between the Town Hall and the New Haven Railroad overpass. If you couldn't find what you were looking for on Atlantic, you probably didn't need it.
Especially poignant are memories of Atlantic and Main during the Christmas season. The colored holiday lights, the store-front window decorations, and especially the bustle of holiday shoppers loaded down with presents, all hustling home to loved ones could have been a scene right out of It's a Wonderful Life.
I left the old Town Hall and walked one block north on Atlantic to the Ferguson Public Library. I spent the rest of the afternoon searching the archives in the local history section and browsing back issues of the Stamford Advocate trying to understand what had happened to my hometown. What I found was a decades-long story of the attempts to save an aging industrial town on the skids.
In the early 1950's, the town fathers had looked at their city with a critical eye and saw an urban core filled with abandoned factories and decaying tenements. A 1991 Rolling Stone article described Stamford in the early 1960's as a city that had no skyline. "From the turnpike one saw a landscape of stone churches, weather vanes and the gold-painted domes of municipal buildings. Beyond that stood the abandoned factories and decaying tenements of a blue-collar industrial town in rapid decline." Edith Sherman, chairman of the Stamford Urban Redevelopment Commission from 1974 to 1984 went so far as to say that, "In the 1970's, downtown Stamford was a slum."
In response, city leaders created the Urban Redevelopment Commission. A subsequent URC study determined that eighty percent of the buildings in the urban core, labeled the South Quadrant, were substandard and barely inhabitable. There were fears that without renovation, downtown Stamford would decay and become a breeding ground for crime and fires, not to mention a tax liability for the city.
From a field of ten competitors, the locally-based F. D. Rich Company was chosen to be the sole developer for Stamford's 130-acre urban redevelopment project. The development site covered the central core of the city, which included most of Atlantic and Main, the heart of the retail and business district. Initially, the plan required the relocation of 1,100 families and 400 businesses. One hundred-million dollars of federal, state and city funds were invested in launching this massive renewal effort.
Demolition of URC Blocks 15 & 16 on Atlantic Street
URC Photo—Ferguson Library Digital Archives
After spending the afternoon reading about the transformation of my hometown, I retreated to the bar of an upscale restaurant, one which, judging by the décor and prices, catered to the CEO's of the corporate HQ's that now dotted the area. I read over notes and articles I'd copied, trying to process the information I'd collected. I looked at a page from the 1955 Price & Lee Stamford City Directory. As I ran my finger down the list of businesses on Atlantic and Main, I realized they were all gone.
The following morning I drove around looking for the schools I'd attended. Except for Stamford High, most were gone: The Stamford Day Nursery on Greyrock Place, Elm Street Elementary School—built in 1872, and St. John's Parochial School had all been pulled down. The outside walls and windows of my sixth-grade classroom at Westover Elementary School on Stillwater Avenue were covered in graffiti. The room was being used for storage, but through a graffiti-covered window, I could see the back wall where, in 1958-59, my little paper airplane slowly rose, a thousand imaginary feet for every book I read and reported on to my teacher, Mr. Gaipa, and my classmates. Burdick Junior High on Forest Street lay empty, neglected, and up for sale. There was talk of turning it into senior citizen housing.
I drove up Strawberry Hill Avenue to Stamford High. It was August and the halls were deserted. I slipped in and wandered around, peering into classrooms, stopping to remember favorite teachers, like Miss Corrow, my more-than-patient tenth-grade algebra teacher, and Miss O'Connell who, for two years, taught me French. Like downtown Stamford, the high school had also undergone a major renovation and an expansion that tripled its size.
Worried that more of my hometown would disappear under the wrecking ball, my visits back to Stamford became more frequent. Over the years, the remaining schools I attended were pulled down. The original Westover Elementary School—built in 1955—had been razed, replaced by a larger and more modern facility. Burdick Junior High had caught fire for the third time in its history and had finally been taken down. On YouTube, I watched a video of the fire and demolition of the building. At separate times in our lives, both my mother and I had attended Burdick Junior High. A high-rise apartment complex now occupies the site.
On every trip I would invariably drive up Broad Street and take a left at Merrell Avenue. Just down the street was Vidal Court, a 216-unit city housing project built in 1956. Located on the west side of town, it stood just across the street from Mickey Leone Park and behind Stamford Hospital. I lived at Vidal Court from 1957 until June 1965 when I left for Fort Dix and Basic Training.
On one of my visits, I parked my car in the courtyard and took the elevator to the sixth floor of Building A. I'd been warned that Vidal Court was not always friendly to outsiders these days, but I had a premonition that this might be my last chance to visit. From the sixth-floor balcony, I took pictures of Apartment A-63 and the surrounding buildings. I lingered, remembering childhood friends and their families.
After a half-century of housing Stamford's poor, Vidal Court had seen better days. There was graffiti on the walls, bars on the windows, and no access to the basement where, on cold winter days, we kids played hide and seek. I snapped my pictures, took the elevator one last time to the ground floor, and drove away. A photo of buildings A and B sits on my office desk.
Buildings A and B at 42 Merrell Avenue
I drove back downtown and parked my car on West Main, a part of town—like the northern end of Atlantic Street—relatively untouched by redevelopment. I discovered that all the family-owned businesses there had been turned into bars, bistros, and restaurants, all catering to the white-collar masses who toiled in the modern office buildings.
I treated myself to a fifty-dollar haircut at a barbershop next door to what was once C. O. Millers Department Store. In 1954, I had my picture taken with Santa at C. O. Millers. My mother probably paid about one dollar for my haircut back then. I treated myself again, this time to an eighteen-dollar glass of Cabernet Sauvignon at a trendy wine bar on Bank Street, just across from the old Town Hall.
In the summer of 2013, on one of my now-yearly visits to Stamford, I had lunch with my sixth-grade teacher from Westover Elementary School, Mr. Robert Gaipa. During my research, I'd found a newspaper article about him, saying he finally received the medals he was awarded for his service in the Korean War. The article also noted his email address, so I wrote, re-introduced myself, and asked if he'd like to have lunch. We met at a local restaurant and talked about our lives since 1959—the last time I saw him. We reminisced about old Westover Elementary School and Thomas Reardon—my principal and his boss. We also talked about old Stamford.
"Except for a stint in the Army during the Korean War, I've lived in Stamford all my life," he told me. Mr. Gaipa also lamented many of the changes that had taken place over the years. "The population of Stamford has almost tripled from the time I was born, in 1929," he said sadly. "The quiet, leafy New England town where I grew up is gone."
After graduating from New Haven Teacher's College, Robert Gaipa was drafted into the Army and served in Korea with the 8055th MASH, the same unit portrayed in the book, film, and television series. "Was the 8055th anything like the 4077th?" I asked. "No," he replied. "That's not how I remembered it. In fact, the movie made me angry," he said. "I saw nothing like those hijinks portrayed in the movie and TV series."
I was happy to reconnect with one of my long-lost links to my Stamford, but I knew that at the age of eighty-three, Mr. Gaipa, like the Stamford we both knew and loved, would soon be just a fond and treasured memory. We lingered over lunch, filling in the fifty-year gap since we'd last met—as teacher and pupil.
After lunch, I drove up Broad Street through the rain, heading for Vidal Court. At Stamford Hospital I turned left onto Merrell Avenue, expecting to see in the distance the six-story brick apartment project silhouetted against the sky. Instead, I found an empty sky and a large parking lot. Vidal Court was gone. I thought this city-owned housing development would always be there, like the Pyramids, the Coliseum, or the Great Wall of China. The poor would always need a place to live, I thought, but the projects on Merrell Avenue were no more.
Later, back at my hotel, I Googled "Vidal Court/Merrell Avenue, Stamford" on my laptop and learned that Vidal Court had been torn down in March 2012 to make way for a parking lot, the expansion of Stamford Hospital, and the construction of several city-owned low-rise apartments. On YouTube, I found videos of the demolition. I played one particular video over and over, the destruction of Building A, 42 Merrell Avenue. I watched as my home of eight years toppled into a pile of bricks, cinderblocks and dust.
"That's where I lived," I said to no one in particular. "Apartment A-63."
I continued to talk to myself as I watched the video.
A divorced woman with two kids lived in the apartment below. One night I heard her voice through the floor when her ex-husband stopped by, looking for a conjugal visit. "I am not an animal!" she cried.
The Murray's, a black family, lived, right next door in apartment A-64. They later moved to another city-owned housing project on Connecticut Avenue, just a mile or so away. Sometime later I read in the Stamford Advocate that Mrs. Murray and two of her three children had died in a fire one night while Mr. Murray was at work.
Mindy whats-her-name lived on the third floor, in apartment A-31, I think. Right there. She and Janice Ashlund were inseparable. The day after the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the two serenaded a crowd of us kids down below from the third-floor balcony, singing one of the tunes they heard the night before on TV.
Johnny Johnson lived with his sister Debbie and their mother in Building B. On the third or fourth floor, I think. You can see it in the corner of the picture. In this video, Building B is still standing but was later torn down. One day—I think it was in 1962—Debbie asked if I wanted to go to a dance held by her dancing school. When I told her I didn't know how to dance she offered to teach me. So, every afternoon for two weeks we practiced in her living room under the watchful gaze of her mother. Debbie taught me the cha-cha, the lindy, the polka, and the waltz, enough to get me through the night. And I did, without making a fool of myself. A couple of days later, she told me her dance studio was scheduled to make an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. She asked if I'd like to go with her.
"I don't know," I said. "The Ed Sullivan Show?" I knew that if I got in front of a camera, on a show that was viewed by millions of Americans, and in front of a live audience, I would probably wet my pants or freeze. Sometime later, she told me that their appearance on the show had been canceled. Seems Topo Gigo or some dancing bear act had preempted Debbie's dance school appearance.
I played the video again.
Bonnie Cook lived across the way, in Building C. Bonnie and I went out for a short while but it was never serious—I was deathly afraid of her father, a Stamford cop, not to mention her mother, a boisterous and buxom woman from Scotland. I can still hear her thick Highland accent as she yelled at her kids and argued with her husband.
And up there, where the elevator machinery was housed, that's where we took our girlfriends to make out. You had to use a knife or screwdriver to pry open the door.
Other YouTube videos showed the demolition of buildings B through J. All of them had stories to tell, especially one apartment on the fourth floor of Building G where a girl named Betty made a man out of a boy one sultry summer evening in 1963.
It took over a quarter-century, but the Urban Redevelopment Commission eventually performed a complete revitalization of downtown Stamford. That it came at the expense of hundreds of displaced residents and uprooted family-owned businesses, and resulted in a bulky architectural style that marginalized pedestrians is an often-cited fault. "Stamford is no longer a city for the people who live there," is one often- heard complaint. "It's not pedestrian friendly," is another. More importantly, the soul of the city, the retail district centered on Atlantic and Main was no more.
In a bit of irony, this fault that downtown Stamford was not pedestrian friendly, was partly addressed in 2006 when the south end of the Stamford Town Center Mall—which had housed first a J. C. Penney then a Filene's—was demolished due to marginal profits and replaced by a pedestrian-oriented exterior complex of restaurants and retail stores called The Plaza.
In the mid-1980's, efforts to slow down the wholesale demolition of downtown Stamford resulted in the preservation of much of West Main and the northern end of Atlantic Street. New blood on the URC advocated for halting further demolition pending historic review, tax deferral for property owners willing to rehabilitate instead of tear down, instituting a procedure for design review, and permitting sidewalk cafés. As a result, wholesale demolition eased, and sidewalk cafés, abuzz with convivial small-talk and the clink of wine glasses, sprouted, especially on West Main, the northern end of Atlantic, and Bedford Streets. Complaints that Stamford was no longer pedestrian-friendly were finally being addressed.
One August evening, on one of my trips back to Stamford, I sat at the bar in the Marriot, located on Tresser Boulevard, a busy, four-lane, east-west thoroughfare that hadn't existed before urban renewal. I asked the bartender, a young lady who appeared to be in her twenties, where she'd gone to high school.
"Stamford High," she said.
"Me too," I replied, happy to meet a fellow alumni. "But long ago. Class of '65."
"I'm class of 2008. I bet you didn't have a police sub-station in the building back then."
"Nope. We all got along, for the most part. But when we didn't, it was usually over a girl," I said with a mischievous smile. "Did you live on Merrell Avenue or Connecticut Avenue?" I asked, wondering if she was also from the projects. "I lived on Merrell Avenue."
"No, I lived in the south end," she told me. "There were lots of gangs in the projects. Some people got shot a couple of years back, but the cops went in and cleaned the place out."
"I lived at Vidal Court way back in the early '60's," I said. "We occasionally fought each other, but with fists, not guns. And it was usually over and forgotten the next day."
"I only tend bar here part-time a couple of nights," she said, pouring me another beer. "I'm a secretary by day. I live in Norwalk now. Can't afford to live in Stamford. The rents are crazy high."
"When I was a kid I lived not far from here on Main Street," I told her, "across from the phone company, before the mall was built." By her non-response and blank stare, I realized that she thought, like most Millennials, the mall had always been there. She'd probably never shopped for clothes at Sarner's or bought shoes at Miles or a bracelet at Atlantic Jewelers or cruised the aisles at Woolworth's or taken guitar lessons at The Stamford School of Music or bought a loaf of warm rye at the New York Bakery or taken in a movie at the Plaza Theater. How could she? They were probably all pulled down before she was born.
But I bet she's shopped at The Stamford Center Town Mall. No mom and pop stores to be found in that 850,000-square foot shopping complex. You will, however, find an Apple store, Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale, Bath and Body Works, J. Crew, Starbucks, Macy's Kay Jewelers, Williams Sonoma, Foot Locker, the Gap, and Victoria's Secret, just a few of over one hundred retail stores listed in their directory. Visit just about any mall in America and you'll probably find the same chain stores—owned, no doubt, by multi-national corporations and run by CEO's who live far from Stamford.
"Excuse me," she said, smiling and walking away. There were other customers to serve, CEO's and office drones, no doubt, Millennials, for the most part, who never knew my Stamford.
I sighed and turned to the ball game on the enormous, flatscreen TV hanging over the bar. Three others hung on surrounding walls. I could watch the Yankees, the Mets, or the Red Sox if I wanted—in color. The Skipper had one large black and white TV that sat high on a shelf, on the wall between the men's room and the rear entrance. It was always tuned, it seemed, to either WPIX, Channel 11 when the Yankees were at home, playing at the original Yankee Stadium, or WWOR, Channel 9 when the Dodgers were at Ebbett Field. On Friday evenings you could catch the Gillette Friday Night Fights on WABC, Channel 4.
Despite long delays, lawsuits, a reprimand from a federal official and problems relocating families and businesses, the Stamford URC eventually created one of the most economically vital downtowns in the State of Connecticut. This transformation was helped by the movement of corporations from New York City starting in the 1970's when The Big Apple verged on the brink of bankruptcy. Eventually, more than five million feet of prime office space were built in downtown Stamford making it the largest financial district in the New York Metro area outside of New York itself, and one of the largest concentrations of corporations in the nation. With its lower taxes and attractive lifestyle amenities, many Manhattan-based Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies found Connecticut hard to resist. With this influx of corporate wealth, Stamford has been called one of the most dramatic and successful transformations of an urban area to be found anywhere in America.
The transformation of Stamford from a blue-collar industrial town in decline to a vibrant modern-day metropolis hadn't been easy, however. One Stamford Mayor, Julius Wilensky, speaking back in 1972, characterized the efforts as "the most frustrating experiences of all of our lives."
The redevelopment of the South Quadrant had also spilled over to adjacent city blocks. Many single-family homes eventually gave way to expensive high-rise apartments and condos built to house the hordes of white-collar office workers.
Even President Trump found Stamford attractive, joining a development group that built a three hundred and fifty foot-tall, thirty-four-story premier condo complex at One Broad Street that was named Trump Parc. It features views of downtown Stamford, Long Island Sound, and the Rippowam River. A one-bedroom, bath-and-a-half unit, however, will run you close to half a million dollars. Back in the late 1950's and early 60's, we paid sixty-six dollars a month to live in our two-bedroom apartment at Vidal Court.
I finished my beer and rode the elevator up to my hotel room. From the upper floors, I had a panoramic view of downtown Stamford, especially the South Quadrant. To the north, on East Main, stood St. John's Episcopal Church, just down the block from the former site of The Skipper. The small park next to St. John's is now partly occupied by an office building. I learned to play catch in that park with one of the kids who lived upstairs from us at 552 Main.
There was another playground behind the site of the old Central Fire Station, located just across the street from St. John's. The Station was torn down and a new firehouse built on an adjacent lot. I've been told that ghosts occasionally push remnants of the old foundation up through the asphalt of the parking lot on the site.
Just across the street from our apartment at 552 Main Street was The Southern New England Telephone Company, at one time the tallest structure in Stamford. It's now Frontier Communications. The building is showing its age, but, except for an addition, remains relatively unchanged. There's an empty lot next to the old SNET building where Jessup's Pharmacy and Granelli's Market once stood. It waits patiently for another office building or condo. On one of my trips to Stamford—before a fence was erected—I picked up a small fragment of brick, probably from Jessup's or Grannelli's. It sits on a shelf in my home office.
The Skipper—along with the entire block was pulled down in the 1970's to make way for an office building. The old Suburban Club, on the corner of Main Street and Suburban Avenue, escaped the wrecking ball due to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. I wondered how many other buildings could have escaped the wrecking ball if the owners had likewise listed their property.
I looked over to the Ferguson Library in the distance, on the corner of Broad and Bedford Streets. I worked nights in the reference room during my junior year at Stamford High. Although the library underwent a massive update and expansion between 2008 and 2010, the original front entrance remained unchanged.
For some reason, when I left to join the Army in 1965, I brought a postcard of the old Town Hall with me. It was one of my links to home. Later, when town offices outgrew the old Stamford Town Hall, a new town hall, called The Stamford Government Center, was constructed to the southwest, on Washington Boulevard. Built in 1905 in the classic Beaux Arts architectural style, the old town hall today houses a museum, art and office space.
From my hotel room, I looked down on St. John's Catholic Church on Atlantic Street, across from the former Stamford Advocate building and Woolworth's. I made my First Holy Communion at St. John's. Built in the 19th century by the Stamford Irish, St. John's status was elevated in 2009 and is now called The Basilica of St. John the Evangelist. To serve the needs of the Haitian Catholic community of Stamford, Sunday 6 pm Mass is celebrated in Creole and French. Behind the church once stood St. John's Parochial School where, for a while, I studied my Baltimore Catechism under the watchful eyes of the Sisters of Mercy. St. John's Parochial School was closed in 1973 and later razed.
The Main Post Office on the southern end of Atlantic Street is empty and up for sale. Next door once stood the YMCA where I learned to swim. The last time I visited, the site was an empty lot, waiting for an out-of-town investor to build either condos or office space.
Two blocks west of the Ferguson Library, on Broad Street, the University of Connecticut built a state-of-the-art campus in 1998. It sits on the site of the old Bloomingdales department store, closed in 1990. One Christmas season I worked as a wrapper in the toy department for $1.25 an hour. We were handed our pink slips on Christmas Eve. I remember trudging home that cold winter night, up Broad Street toward Merrell Avenue and Vidal Court, pink slip in one pocket, last paycheck in the other.
In his novel You Can't Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, "We can't turn back the days that have gone. You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood..." Perhaps what Wolfe meant is that you shouldn't go back home because your high school sweetheart—who you haven't seen in almost half a century—is now a gray-haired grandmother. And those high school teachers you once had a crush on are long retired and living in Florida—those still alive. Or that every school you attended, every place you lived, or store you shopped is gone.
On one of my trips to Stamford, a reference librarian at the Ferguson Library showed me a way to revisit the Stamford of my youth—sort of. By law, the Urban Redevelopment Commission was required to photograph all the buildings slated for demolition. The Ferguson Library Digital Archives makes those 2800 URC photos available online.
"When I was a kid I lived not far from here on East Main Street," I told the reference librarian, "across from the phone company, before the mall was built." By her blank stare, I realized that she, too, thought the mall had always been there.
Later, back at my hotel, I wondered how many more trips I could make before my Stamford completely disappeared. I opened my laptop, called up the Ferguson Library's Digital Collection of URC photos and toured my Stamford once more. I reluctantly admitted that the URC photos did reveal a decaying Stamford, maybe even a slum as Edith Sherman had claimed back in 1974. But these URC photos were taken in the late 1960's when the death warrant of downtown Stamford had already been signed by the Urban Redevelopment Commission. Business owners knew their days were numbered. "Why put even a penny into maintenance, let alone improvements," they probably asked themselves.
The decaying Stamford of the URC photos was not what I wanted to see. I wanted to visit the Stamford of my youth—or at least how I remembered it. But I'd been warned that memories can't be trusted, that we unknowingly filter and revise them, sometimes to suit our needs and desires. "Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were," Marcel Proust once wrote.
Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Childhood came to mind. In this collection of stories detailing her early life, McCarthy wrote vivid descriptions of her and her younger brother Kevin's lives after the deaths of their parents. McCarthy wrote clear and vivid descriptions of people and events that took place on such and such a date at Uncle So-and-so's house, like it had just happened the day before. But after each chapter, McCarthy deliberately cast serious doubt on her own story. These follow-on chapters, each written in italics, make the reader wonder what really was, what really happened.
I found other old photos in the Ferguson Library's Digital Archives. The Carl Lobazza Collection of Stamford photos include pictures of Atlantic and Main from the 1880's to the 1930's. It was then that I truly came to understand what had happened to my Stamford. Change is constant, sometimes glacial-like, but inevitable, the photos said. It was unfair of me to expect Stamford to remain as it was back in the 1950's and 60's, preserved forever like a prehistoric bug trapped in amber. My Stamford existed for only a moment in time and only in my mind. Stamford, like life itself, was, is, and will be forever changing.
" ...All that he knew was that the years flow like water, and that one day men come home again."
— Thomas Wolfe
Images provided courtesy of Michail Mulvey. Title image depicts Downtown Stamford today. Boomerang image Copyright © Twentieth Century Fox 1947.