Wednesday, September 28, 2005

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.

14 Comments:

At Friday, April 14, 2006 10:28:00 PM, Anonymous Smitty said...

You mention some fires in the valley but what about the huge fire at the Sponge Rubber plant in March of 1975. 1200 hundred people lost their jobs as a result of that huge industrial arson job.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2006 2:40:00 PM, Blogger adventure! said...

Yep, I knew about the Sponge Rubber fire back in 1975, and that was the largest of the bunch. I didn't mention it because I was only mentioning the fires I was around for--Sponge Rubber was March of 1975, five months before I was born (so i was there, albeit in the womb). Of course I do mention the flood, a full twenty years before I was born, but that's a special case!

 
At Wednesday, July 05, 2006 1:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another big fire - Aug 12, 1991 Caroline Street rowhouse fire, in Derby.
do you have any other info on the Ansonia rowhouse fire you mentioned? I'm doing a research project on fires in rowhouses built around the turn of the century, I'm interested in finding out any further details you might have on the Ansonia rowhouse "doozy".

 
At Monday, July 10, 2006 6:23:00 AM, Anonymous Amos said...

I would add to your list of fires: the big rowhouse fire in Derby, on Caroline street, in 1991.
I am doing research on fires in this area, in buildings built around the turn of the century. I had not heard about the Ansonia rowhouse fire -
would you be able to give me any further details about it (any info you know, plus any other sources of this info you know of?
thanks.

 
At Monday, July 10, 2006 11:17:00 AM, Blogger adventure! said...

Hmm, details not exact but here goes:
The fire was in 1988 in the fall, either October or November. It was on South Cliff Street, east side of street, south of library but north of Tremont. There have been other houses built upon the lot since then.

 
At Friday, August 04, 2006 1:56:00 PM, Blogger adventure! said...

Oh yeah, Amos, who are ya? You're asking all these questions but don't provide any contact info for me to get in touch with you. This project interests me. So please email me at urbanadventureleague@scribble.com

 
At Saturday, August 09, 2008 9:28:00 PM, Blogger Coll69 said...

Thankyou for that. You described not only what its like growing up in Ansonia perfectly; but also how terrible; desolate; dead and lonely that town seems after having had, much like you, returned for the fist time since I graduated from Emmett O'Brien in 1987. Reading your article took me back to my childhood. I'm turning 40 next year and no longer live in C.T. My favorite place is the 90degree angle ancient stairway leading from across the street from the library, behind the church, down the slope of the hill to whatever that street is. I loved how you explained how Ansonia is not your typical C.T. town; not what an outsider would think of as C.T. I lived on Lester St. from 1979-1984. I'm caucasian. That was fun walking to and from Willis School every day. Not. Lol! I lived on Beaver St. across the street from the little rez from 76 till 79. I adored the Ansonia Mall. The pizza and soda for 60 cents. Klanko's; Crickets; Nolan field. Thanks for bringing it all back to me. I feel the same as you do.

 
At Wednesday, December 03, 2008 5:43:00 PM, Blogger niche said...

I know I'm chiming in 5 years later but......
I don't know much about fires and floods but I do know about ATown!!

I remember you Shawn G. You were the cutiest little peanut that trailed behind your brother back in the day!!!!!!!!

I grew up in Ansonia many moons ago and escaped about 20 years ago. I ran for my life. I was so glad to be gone from the small town and the small mind to start a whole new life in the city. For the first ten years, I would say I was from anywhere in CT except ATown. If I even heard the word Ansonia, I would say... I don't have an Aunt Sonia!!!

I would bring friends home and they would say... "This is your Main Street?! I feel like a piece of tumble weed is going to blow by us any minute now....."

Then I finally grew up, or maybe I was humbled through travel and life experiences, and embraced where I was from. I realized from seeing other small towns in the states that ATown is no different than any other industrial defunct small town. We grew up safe and we had fun. There are some kick ass cool people from here. There still are some amazing people living in this area. These people are no different than people any place else. The common thread to all humanity is a desire to just be happy.

One my greatest lesson... It's not where you're at in the world.... IT"S WHO YOU ARE!

Once I started to openly admit and enjoy where I was from, I received some interesting reactions. Such as the time that I was out in NYC one night. I was talking to a group of people and someone asked where I was from. A guy from the next table over heard me say Ansonia CT. I was basically attacked.... "You're from that football town in CT." I was like huh... I had forgotten all about the football crazies. He had never even been to CT and was telling me about football charts and statistics and blah blah. Through the years the same situation has occurred.

I remember saying that I would never, ever, I mean ever live in the area again. Unfortunately older people get sick and babies are born. So, over the past year, I have returned to the area (only part time). To my shock and surprise... I have been having such a great time.

Rediscovering my youth... I just love to stroll around and take pictures. I have gotten some brilliant shots. Would love to share... llehcin@me.com

One of my favorite spots of all time is the reservoir in back of the water company. I can't even tell you the amount of time that I used to spend there as a teen... writing, thinking, meditating, being. No one would ever come around. Pure silence. It would amaze me that this gorgeous beautiful spot has always gone unnoticed. It has always been my on the low spot even though the years when I would come back to visit. Up until this summer, I would spend hours sunbathing and not a soul would be around. Oh but its been sold now ... so much for that.

Main Street is interesting. Not much going on but there's alot to be said for businesses such as Seccombe's and Lewis Jewelers who have stayed in business through the years. This woman Libby has opened up a cute shop Only For Her - very cool as well as the yummiest restaurant... Crave. When you eat there you keep asking yourself if you're really in ATown.

My uncle and cousins said that there are prostitutes on Main Street but I was ready with my camera all summer along when I was in town and saw no 'Hoes!!!!

The Stairs by the Library is my very favorite. Always hang out there when I'm passing through.

Love to hang out at Holy Rosary as well. First thing on a beautiful morning with a cup of tea... Nice!!

I do find that the people here are sleepwalking though. Some parts of town truly MYSTIFY ME. Walking down Lester Street/Grove Street and over by the old high school was sad... really sad. What happened. It makes me so mad that I want to knock on their door and poke their eyes out.

Wakelee Ave is even drab. I have been going to Nolan Field to walk the track and the stairs. I remember back in the day my Dad used to play baseball there and he would leave me, my sisters and my cousins by the swings and say "If you leave here, I will skin your ass!" The swings are my favorite. And those stairs/bleachers, if you are ever in town, one and a half to two hours is the very best workout... You will feel like you climbed a mountain. But then there is the trash and liter and I don't get it. It makes me so mad...

I feel that there needs to be a community movement in this town. No town can maintain itself without the backbone of the community. The community has to be part of the clean up. The people whose homes look like a third world country should be given a summons. My mother always told me ... "Just because you're poor does not mean you have to be dirty!"

If there is so much pride here over a football team then there should be pride in the town as well. There are ways that you can clean up a town like this with little to no money. But who is open to the ideas and suggestions???? We are not talking about rebuilding. That would take a while and money. Just clean the town up. Pokers and garbage bags and some volunteers. I'll be one!!! Be the change you want to see in the world.

Filthy or not... I'll always have a fondness for Ansonia AKA ATOWN STAY DOWN AKA THE A AKA THE DIRTY DIRTY.

 
At Wednesday, December 03, 2008 6:48:00 PM, Blogger adventure! said...

thanks, niche! (though your comment is only 3 years late.) though I'm a bit confused about this:
"You were the cutiest little peanut that trailed behind your brother back in the day!"
I don't have a brother, so I don't know if you are confusing me with someone else? Anyways, if you want to email me,
urbanadventureleague------[ at ]-----scribble-----[ dawt ]-----com

 
At Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:04:00 AM, Blogger K_Duff said...

Wow! I was born in Ansonia in 1973. I went to St. Peter and Paul's School for Kindergarten and Peck School from 1st through 4th grade.
Here are some of my memories in a brainstorm;
-Rollerskating around the block.
-My address- 13 Franklin St. It was my Grandma's house and it was built in 1880.
-Choosing colored rocks from the rock garden in front of Ree Ree's Salon.
-Marching in the parade with my school t-shirt on.
-Being pulled downtown to the ansonia Mall in a wagon by my mom.
-Meeting santa Claus in the ansonia Mall
-Riding the mechanical Horses in front of K-mart
-Having a Fribble and a grilled cheese at Friendly's
-My dad bringing home donuts from Dunkin Donuts on a sunday Morning.
-Playing with the neighborhood kids
-The animal swings at the park at Nolan Field and the skreaching noise they made.
-The slide at the aforementioned park with the wooden part at the top.
-snow... sometimes lots of it
-Choosing an ice cream cake for my birthday at Baskin Robbins
- Bradlees and Woolworth
-The dog statues in the windows of the furniture store on Main St.
-The smell of the bakery on Main St.
-Going to the Ansonia Methodist Church on sundays
-The Air Raid Sirens
-What is the name of the pizza parlor that was in the Ansonia Mall... I recall spinning on the stools. Weren't they red and green?
-Watching all the Christmas specials on TV, like Twas the Night Before Christmas(the one with albert the mouse that writes Santa the mean letter and they have to make the clock to call him on Christmas Eve), and feeling like it as happening in my town.
-Jump rope and kick ball on the play groud at Peck School.
-Nickel and dime candy at Klankos, the store with the heavy doors.
-Going for new shoes at the Little Red shoe House and getting that piece of Bazooka gum at check out.
I ended up moving to Newtown, CT in the middle of 4th grade. I was about 9 or 10. Then, at 16, we moved to Virginia.
I currently live in, of all places, Florence, Oregon!

Thank you for your page. I was taking a trip down memory lane and came across this blog. I would love pictures if you have any from your trip. Mail to kari0422 at yahoo dot com.
Feel free to write as well.

Regards,

Kari Duff (used to be Kari Pearce)

 
At Sunday, December 14, 2008 5:10:00 PM, Blogger adventure! said...

Thanks, Kari! Florence, huh? Rode through there on my bike 2 years ago! Wondering if you're getting any snow out on the Coast. It's a mess here in Portland right now. It's one thing that reminds me of how much better prepared Connecticut was for snow. I think the entire City of Portland has about 3 snow plows. Ansonia probably had a dozen, and is a city of 20,000! (then again, it only snows like this once every 3-5 years.)

Anyways, a quick answer to a question of yours: the pizzeria in the Mall was Italian Pavillion. I do fondly remember their slices. They moved to Derby in the '90s, on Pershing Drive across from the now defunct Bradlees/Woolworth/Stop 'n' Shop plaza and near where the bowling alley/movie theater used to be.

 
At Tuesday, July 19, 2011 8:42:00 PM, Blogger Sean said...

Stumbled upon this searching for info on Woolworth. Kinda funny how thriving this "dead factory town" has become since this was posted.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 9:58:00 AM, Blogger adventure! said...

Sean, how thriving has Ansonia become? Haven't visited in four years (though I'm supposed to head back this fall as part of the Cross-Con bike tour detailed on my other blog: http://urbanadventureleague.blogspot.com/ Have they finally gotten around to gentrifying the place? All that old cheap property must be tempting...

 
At Thursday, July 12, 2012 9:29:00 AM, Anonymous Julie said...

Great article which 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. Thanks a lot for posting.

 

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