Every man, we are told, craves some distinction, and we have ours, a plain, simple, and unfortunately secure one. We come horn the least beautiful town in New England—New London, Connecticut, known to sportswriters as the Whaling City but to those who operate on less historical principles as Eyesore-on-Sea. Our citizens have been celebrated in the past as smugglers, as embezzlers, as book burners; oui town as a nest of privateers, a rendezvous lor rumrunners, a Navy “liberty” port, and the watering place of the hard-drinking family of the late Eugene O’Neill. Several of his plays deal with our declining fortunes. Now we are in the papers again, because our city fathers are about to tear down our railroad station, a registered national landmark designed in 1885 by one of the great American architects, H. H. Richardson.
Any distinction, of course, must be earned, and New London did not attain its lack of beauty by an act of God, like Sodom or Gomorrah, or by inheritance, as did such mill towns as Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Bridgeport. We worked to get where we are. Our city stands upon one of the most beautiful harbors in the world, the mouth of what geologists call a drowned river, the Thames, wide, deep, and locally mispronounced to rhyme with “James.” (We sound the h , too.) Despite these advantages it was already mean and unsightly by the time of the Revolution, according to our able local historian, Miss Frances Caulkins. During the war we were given a second chance when Benedict Arnold, a native of New London County and by then a British general, came with a British force in 1781, took the town, and burned it to the ground, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not. Our tiny garrison Rred one round and Red across the river.
We missed the chance provided by this native son. As Miss Caulkins tells us, we rebuilt an even more unsightly town, for partial evidence of which she cites the story of an early steamboat heading into our once busy harbor. A stranger was standing next to the captain, who heard him say, “If I only had the money!” The captain turned and asked, “What would you do if you only had the money?” “Buy that town and burn it,” said the stranger.
Miss Caulkins, who would feel at home in New London today, died more than a century ago at the height of the whaling boom, in the 1850’s and 6o’s, when the city had only one less ship at sea than New Bedford and when the streets began to be lined with the imposing columned mansions of the shipowners and the smaller but picturesque houses and cabins of the masters and crews. After whaling waned, the New York Yacht Club discovered the lower harbor of New London, and a string of enormous summer “cottages” of the Newport variety went up along the drive on the shore to house the rich in their migrations. But New London’s destructive spirit asserted itself, aided to be sure by the Depression. The great houses are gone, along with the yachts, the rambling summer hotels, and the YaleHarvard regatta. Street widening took away the trees, which obscured the Rre-sale signs of the merchants. Urban renewal in its most acute form levelled most of the old captains’ cabins and most of the mansions, which had become offices and funeral parlors or slums, so that the center of town looks like Carthage after the Romans were through with it. Large areas lie empty, gone to weeds and beer cans, pierced by streets that go nowhere; and the rest is full of neomodern housing, landscaped in trash and decorated with bas-relief graffiti. (This is from bas meaning “low,” and relief , signifying “financed by welfare.”)
Practically all we have left in the center of the town, besides a few churches and one building that escaped Arnold (but is now stuccoed over and falling to ruin), is a line of four fine old Greek Revival mansions called Whale Oil Row. One of (hem was badly burned recently but is being entirely restored by a public-spirited doctor. Across the street, where once stood a replica of Mount Vernon, is a full-grown A & P . At the head of (he main shopping street stands a handsome Georgian wooden clapboard courthouse, built in 1784, we believe, thai has often been threatened as obsolete by generations of local politicians but by oversight not yet actually destroyed. At the (bot of the same street, now being converted into an automobilefree shopping mall called Captain’s Walk, one looks along the brand-new but, alas, fake cobblestones to Richardson’s massive three-story red brick Union Station.
It is called Union because it handled several railroads: the Central Vermont Railroad trains to Brattleboro and, until the wholesale cutbacks that gave us Amtrak, the passenger line to Norwich and Worcester. Principally it handled passengers and freight for the shore line of the New Haven Railroad—now swallowed by Penn Central—from Boston to New York. It is still a very busy and imposing place, if unspeakably dirty and decrepit. Amtrak would like to save it, but New London’s standing order doesn’t care about that. The big old building crosses the bottom of our town’s main street like the top of a T, cutting off part of the view of the docks, the harbor, and the town of Groton across the Thames. The chief local argument is that it must come down because it is so dirty, as though cleaning had never been invented. The second argument is that it spoils the view, which will only impress those who have never seen the full vista of downtown Groton. The third is a xenophobic attack on “meddling outsiders,” which is, considering the ever-changing ethnic cast of New London, too preposterous to discuss.
But if the arguments are weak, the bulldozers of New London are strong. They will raze that station somehow, and they will get us the squattest, flimsiest, most modernistic glass-and-plastic passenger shed cum bar and grill between Bridgeport and Boston, with a fine view of the submarine works across the river, the garbage floating around the docks, and any British expeditionary force that may happen in, some day, to give us another chance.