[A grey summer's day on the blustery coast, and two women walk down the wide sidewalk, through the mzaze of forgotten buildings. Do they know where they are?]
New London today has a lot of the same thrills and disappointments of many of the cities I visited on my eastern Amtrak tour: It has the history of Savannah, without any of the historical tourism. It has the old industrial stock of Durham, without much of its gentrification and re-use. It has the maritime feel of Babylon, without stores selling WASP'y boat shoes. New London's sidewalks wind through narrow streets, surrounded by old Victorian warehouses, and lead down a rather steep hill to the wide mouth of the Thames River, which opens onto the Long Island Sound, which opens onto the Atlantic. The riverfront forms a broad harbor that was for a long time the lifeblood of this town, as ships rolled in and out like rabid clockwork. Like most of these places built on past technologies, there's a lot of nostalgia surrounding the river... nostlagia, shipyards, ferries, and docks. And unless you brought your nostalgia machete, its fairly difficult to reach the river on foot, these days. You have to cross the railroad tracks, the busy stretch of iron between Boston and New York.
I wasn't the only one walking around New London that cloudy summer weekday. I found a coffee shop overlooking the harborline, and it was the kind of place I enjoy, where all ages of people gather, students to retirees, all coming to have conversations about religion or book clubs or weather or nothing. Of course, it was probably the only coffee shop in New London, so maybe nobody had a choice...
The other citizens of New London that I encountered on the sidewalks were locals, people who lived in the deserted downtown where nine out of ten stores were shuttered and dark. For example, I came across a friendly man with few teeth who told me that he walked from New London to Niantic each day, a distance of 5 miles, simply because he liked to walk. I walked with him along the street for a block or two while he told out of the side of his mouth how nice it was to walk and live downtown. There's an old downtown hotel that he told me about, a massive twenty story brick building, which is apparently now subsidized housing. New London had a few little art galleries, including one next to what looked like a porn shop, but most of gorgeous downtown buildings were pretty empty and unused.
[Kind of pretty, in a way.]
To my midwestern eyes, it certainly seemed like New London could become a beautiful place, filled with pottery shops and yarn stores. But I guess tourists prefer the pastoral landscapes of Westchester and the Berkshires. And I suppose nobody would commute the hour and a half (two hours?) it takes to reach either Boston or New York, though if the US had a faster train system New London might become a nice little retirement community.
The sidewalks are just about perfect, though, wide and interesting, or potentially interesting if the shops weren't nearly all closed... like Mallovers Jewelry shop, which declares on a sign in the window both their pride in their longstanding history as part of the downtown, and that they've recently moved to the nearest mall. There's not much down here, save for the aforementioned art hangouts, porn purveoyors, the threadbare corner stores, and a single hot dog vendor cart, staffed by a women with a folding chair. In fact, after my walking friend, I came across a pair of industrial gentlemen hunched over a sidewalk bench. They looked municipal, and quite pleased, I went up to them and asked, "So, you're putting in new benches, eh?" (... knowing as I did and do that benches, places to sit, are one of the premier sidewalk amenities that no small city should be without...). "Nope, we're taking this one away," the burlier of the two men said. "Apparently someone doesn't like who's sitting on it," said the other guy.
I had nothing to say about that. You can't make people go away by removing benches, any more than you can make people come by adding them. No, these New London sidewalks lack luster, but have spades full of history and potential.
[Hey, I was going to sit there...]