Of Fires and Floods: Ansonia CT 06401
I've traveled thousands of miles over the span of a month to reach "home", or to be more accurate, where I'm from. Ansonia, Connecticut 06401. A small decaying factory town located in the Lower Naugatuck Valley, in southwestern New Haven County, population 18,554. "The city, settled in 1840 and named in honor of the merchant and philanthropist, Anson Green Phelps (1781-1853), was originally a part of the township of Derby; it was chartered as a borough in 1864 and as a city in 1893, when the township of Ansonia, which had been incorporated in 1889, and the city were consolidated." (from Wikipedia) It's about 3,000 miles from what is currently my home, Portland, Oregon, and feels like a world apart.
I've been in town since Sunday, staying at mom's, and will be around through the weekend. It's been the longest stay that I've had in the state since 2000, and on one hand it feels good to be back in native territory, on the other hand, it's pretty strange. Even though I spent about 24 years of my life in the Nutmeg State, and almost 15 of it in Ansonia, the place feels alien. I ride my bike around town and I see things I've seen forever, and I have all the memories attached with those places ("This is where I went to school. This is the library that I spent so much time in. That's where the comic book store used to be"). But it all feels so dead.
It doesn't help that Ansonia, and the other communities that make up the Lower Naugatuck Valley (Derby, Shelton, Seymour, Beacon Falls, and yes even Oxford) are pretty much dead. This is the part of Connecticut that doesn't fit the stereotypical idea that most outsiders have of "the richest state in the Union". It isn't like the Gold Coast, the tony coastal towns of Fairfield County, where executives commute to Manhattan in the morning and come back to their manicured homes at night. It isn't the more New England-y areas to the north and west, with tree covered hills and white churches in village centers. It's the Rustbelt, Northeast style.
I survey downtown from the top of Tremont Street and see the progression of the deconstruction of a once-vital city, previously filled with thousands of manufacturing jobs and the social and economic support structures that come with. The old American Brass mill at Bridge and West Main, which became Latex Foam products, burned to the ground in 2001. I wasn't around for that, but heard the stories: a several acre site burning up with latex, black acrid smoke to be seen for miles. South of Tremont is the current site of Big Y Supermarket surrounded by acres of parking. Before that was the failed Ansonia Mall, hangout of my early youth, a 70's attempt at attracting shopping back to downtown that never lived up to it's potential. You can't just throw a suburban style shopping plaza into the center of a town. Before all that was an actual neighborhood, streets layed out in a grid, filled up with small businesses and multi-family houses for the workers of the various factories. It all got cleared out in the name of urban renewal.
Destruction was a part of my growing up. I saw some "good" fires back in the 80's, whether it be a couple houses that lit up in the neighborhood (the substandard rowhouse on South Cliff Street was a particular doozy), or the old hardware store on Main that went up in '98, or Hull Dye on the Housatonic in Derby back around '82. The most vivid one was when River Restaurant exploded in Derby in December of 1985. I was only a couple blocks from it when it happened, and remember leaving my dad's house and looking down the street to see a big plume of smoke. When I got to the site, what was once a three-story brick building was just a pile of burning rubble. Only part of one wall was left standing. The cause: natural gas buildup due to shoddy line work by the utility company (who had been working along the street all week), ignited when the pizzeria ignited the ovens for the night. Total dead: 6.
The granddaddy disaster of the Valley was the Flood of 1955, a dramatic flash flood caused by rain from two hurricanes. It destroyed much of downtown Ansonia. While the Valley was already showing the signs of decline before the flood due to the rapid suburbanization of the nation, the flood exacerbated the situation, and Ansonia never recovered.
While in town, I've been doing some research on the Great Flood in the Local History Room. The librarians are a bit puzzled, since I'm not old enough to be around during the flood nor am I doing the work for school. (I think the librarians here are generally confused when people use the library for anything other than internet, reading the paper in the main room, or checking out best sellers). I've been copying photos from the flood, showing an Ansonia I'll never know.