Notoriety spotlights steps toward renewal

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / February 26, 2006

NEW LONDON, Conn. -- The most talked-about location in the city these days isn't in any tourist book. It's a weedy 90-acre parcel filled with vacant lots, boarded-up houses, and a makeshift shrine to one of the most contentious land fights in the country's history.

Last June, the US Supreme Court ruled that municipal authorities have the right to force homeowners to move to make room for private development, a controversial eminent domain decision that could signal an important turning point for this beleaguered, yet beautiful, city.

If a planned hotel, marina, and upscale housing complex is built on the disputed Fort Trumbull parcel along the Thames River, it could anchor New London's economic revival. But if the land remains nearly vacant, with just a few defiant residents, it may become a symbol of the latest failed effort to rescue this former industrial city of 26,000.

The eminent domain drama drew me to New London recently, but I stayed long enough to discover that this former whaling city is home to a growing number of stellar inns, good restaurants, and funky art galleries. There are clean beaches and stunning architecture. And a visit to the makeshift shrine at Fort Trumbull will be a thoughtful primer to the inevitable conversation you will have with a local over the government's right to take private land.

''Everyone knows New London now because of the eminent domain case . . . but the city has character," said Susan Munger, who, with Neild Oldham, writes and privately publishes The New London Gazette, a monthly tourism newsletter. Munger is against the eminent domain taking and says it's too early to tell if it will benefit the city. But in the meantime, downtown condos are going up, a jazz club just opened, and several restaurants are on the way.

''It's moving forward inch by inch," Munger said.

Tourists often overlook New London, wooed instead by the glitz of nearby casinos or the quaintness of Mystic Seaport. Some visitors waiting at the Long Island ferry terminal might be curious enough to walk over the railroad tracks and cross a busy street to get to the heart of downtown, but it's not a particularly pretty journey and downtown shopkeepers say they see few ''ferry people."

The effort to breathe new life into downtown is obvious on Bank Street. There is an upscale wine shop, a cheese store, and a cluster of easygoing restaurants with back porches that overlook the river. A gourmet New York-style food store opened a few weeks before my visit and two new restaurants were on the verge of welcoming customers.

Don't miss the Hygienic Art Gallery, which was once an all-night diner that attracted a crowd of artists. A group of them began a makeshift annual art show at the diner 27 years ago under the slogan ''no judge, no jury, no fees, and no censorship."

Five years ago, the artists succeeded in buying the building, making the first floor and basement an art gallery, and rehabbing the top floors into artists' residences. The art show, held during the last week of January, has grown to be the city's biggest winter downtown draw, attracting 4,000 visitors. Last summer, the Hygienic expanded outside to a gorgeously designed ''art park" with an amphitheater that will hold concerts and plays on summer nights.

From the Hygienic, I walked a few hundred feet and turned up State Street, stopping in Bangkok City Thai Cuisine for some authentic pad thai. I poked my head into several nearby art galleries before checking out Hanafins, an airy, new Irish bar with a great feel. Sadly, State Street -- the city's original main drag -- is still filled with vacant storefronts, although it is bookended by the well-regarded Garde Arts Center and Union Railroad Station, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, who also designed Boston's Trinity Church.

A zigzag down a few side streets will take you to Golden Street to find a true bohemian treasure: Peacock Feathers, a vintage clothing and knickknack shop. Take time to look up at the buildings. The city drew well-regarded architects, such as Robert Mills, who designed the 1833 US Custom House on Bank Street, according to Abigail Van Slyck, director of the architectural studies program at Connecticut College in New London.

For a totally different take on the city, drive down Pequot Avenue past the waterfront ''cottages" where some of the country's wealthiest people once summered. Eugene O'Neill's childhood home, called Monte Cristo, is here. Most of the nicer places to stay in the city are here as well. Nearby, stop at Ocean Beach Park; in season, it offers amusement rides, a nature walk, and a splash of honky-tonk.

New London thrived once as the industrial and professional hub of southeastern Connecticut, anchored by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center that sprawled along its waterfront, nearby submarine maker Electric Boat, and a naval base.

But by the mid-1990s, the city's economic woes had worsened. The warfare center relocated. Other businesses and jobs followed. The city was infused with new life when drug giant Pfizer completed a $300 million facility in the city in 2001. Since then, Electric Boat has announced more layoffs.

City officials, seeking to expand on Pfizer's success, turned their attention to Fort Trumbull, a working-class neighborhood next door. They envisioned a hotel and a bioscience center on the waterfront parcel. They declared their intention to take it by eminent domain.

But unlike other eminent domain cases, Fort Trumbull wasn't being taken for a highway or anything to directly benefit the public. Rather, city officials maintain it will benefit the public because what is eventually built there will provide jobs and increase the city tax base. Opponents saw the move as giving carte blanche to governments intent on taking over private property to increase its value. Since the Supreme Court ruling, local and state governments across the country have moved to pass laws to guard against similar land takings by local authorities.

Fights began as soon as the city began trying to close up the neighborhood. Most homeowners eventually sold, but a small number stayed and fought. Today, homes with signs in the windows that declare ''not for sale" are surrounded by vacant lots where neighbors once lived.

''I don't believe they are going to force us out -- not with the whole country looking," said Bill Von Winkle, one of the holdouts, who has lived in Fort Trumbull for 22 years. Last week, the City Council appeared to open the door to allowing the holdouts to stay by voting to require any settlement to include locating all the remaining houses on one parcel.

Still, the area has been permanently altered. Drive halfway down Walbach Street and stop in front of a granite staircase that leads to a sad makeshift shrine to the former neighborhood.

''Welcome to eminent domain central," a sign declares, noting the area once held hundreds of homes. ''Now there are only six. Their own city government drove them out."

Ponder what the area will look like in 10 years. And then stop in at Monica's State Street Diner. People will have a lot to say on the topic.

Contact Beth Daley at

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