Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bad Reputation

First of all, yeah, that's another old schoolhouse. Adams Academy, 1837, Westport. I made a movie there once for a school project, back when video cameras were roughly the size of sewing machines and if you weren't rich you had to rent one at the video store. I'll get back to that (the schoolhouse, not the project; you don't want to hear about that) in a minute.

Last week I was listening to an episode of WNPR's Where We Live, about why young people leave Connecticut, or never come here at all. The "young people" range ended at 34, which I guess makes me sort of like a packaged food that expired a year ago. But the statistic cited was that Connecticut has lost more young people since 1990 than any state but Michigan, so I felt it involved me after all. I was one of those young people who left Connecticut after 1990, several times in fact. And I was also one who came back.

So I started thinking, why did I return and what could make me say with any certainty that I would stay here? What could Connecticut do, or what could anyone do for Connecticut, that would make me pull my metaphorical foot back over the border and settle down for good?

Partly, to be honest, nothing. I wander by nature, and I would like nothing more than to live in a different city, or state, or country, every few months. There may be nothing Connecticut could do to hold me. There was nothing New York, my favorite city and the city of my birth, still the center of the world in my conceited little New Yorker mind, could do to hold me. But, to the extent that it was possible, I wanted to answer the question.

My first thought was: make my friends move here. Or, because I know they won't, make other people move here who could become my friends. I thought of this New York Times article which I've saved since 2003, about how Connecticut's culture is often incompatible with the goal of making friends. This is, and always has been, an incredibly hard place to break into. The difference between this state's personality and that of larger, younger, Western states and cities, is that they have always been intended for newcomers. Since the 19th century, or arguably before, the East Coast has been the place you left and the West a place you moved to. We can't ignore all of American history just because we want to compete with Portland.

But maybe, somehow, we could change the perception - the one the media constantly reinforces - that Connecticut equals Fairfield and occasionally Litchfield Counties. Maybe we could lure in just enough new residents to change that thing where you have to have lived here for 30 years before anyone will talk to you. If that happened, everything else would have to change too. The double-edged sword of the Land of Steady Habits, though - and a problem that was pointed out on Where We Live - is that "openness to change" is not exactly a Connecticut trait.

But changing a place's reputation is not the same as changing the place itself. A region with affluent suburbs where you can raise young kids amidst country clubs and sprawling cookie-cutter McMansions is not going to entice the kind of young people the show was addressing. As long as they hear "Connecticut" and think of that closed and cloying world, it's over. But if you told them there was a region near all the major Northeastern cities; full of beautiful farmland (and the organic restaurants and back-to-the-land opportunities that come with it); full of small towns (not suburbs!), some working class and some with upscale amenities, but a relatively cheap cost of living, and no snotty attitude; full of lovely rivers, lakes, and forests, with trails and wildlife and coastline; full of small and medium sized cities that are part artsy, part quirky, part dilapidated grandeur just waiting to be brought back to life...well, that might work.

Which brings me back to Adams Academy. I looked up the school and the first thing I found was a page on the town's Historical Society website. It was about an event at the schoolhouse promoting a new book, called Westport, Connecticut - The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence. (Ed note: Ick.) The website explained that the Academy was started by a graduate of Yale, not uncommon for early Connecticut schools, and mentioned the classical curriculum. But then it felt the need to tell us that not only did "the majority of" the students go on to attend Yale, but that "many" of them "went on to attain fame and fortune."

Now, I've read about a lot of old Connecticut schoolhouses. And until this exception, not one of these accounts has deemed the percentage of the school's graduates who attended Ivies or got rich to be a salient fact. Yet this is the Connecticut that overrides the other Connecticuts. This is the version that makes it into the national consciousness. (This version doesn't need more inhabitants, or if it does, it's doing fine attracting them - just drive through Westport or Fairfield on the Post Road in the middle of the day, or look for a parking spot in Greenwich or New Canaan. You'll see.) This version is so strong, in fact, that many of those living in it never learn that it isn't the only version there is. I didn't; that's why I left. When I discovered otherwise, that's when I came back.

All that stuff everyone brings up about what makes a place attractive and liveable, the stuff about jobs and housing and entertainment, isn't wrong. But it's also not the reason - or not the whole reason - I've ever known anyone to move anywhere. If enough people could be made to see past the prevailing reputation of Connecticut and find the potential of the rest of - no, the majority of - the state, jobs and housing and entertainment options would follow them, as they have in every Western town in American history.

I don't know if I'll stay here. If I leave, it will probably be more about me than Connecticut. But I do want other people to move here, young or not. I want them to know the truth - the whole truth - and to see what I saw, that unknown, unexpected place too often overlooked.

2 comments:

  1. Yes, yes, yes to everything in this post. Connecticut has so much to offer young people. I think it's a branding issue.

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  2. What a beautiful post! I understand exactly what you are saying on so many levels. Thanks for writing this.

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