Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Blue, Baby and Otherwise....

I was tempted to call this "Stopping by the Reid and Hughes Building on a Snowy Evening" but feared my attempt at an homage to Robert Frost would be unhappily received. Point in fact, I don't care but should really try to be nicer, so I shall.

In a downtown Norwich filled with broken promises and missed opportunities, the Reid and Hughes Building is neither. It's a piece of the city's past we've passed out of. I appreciate the hard work the volunteers on the Reid and Hughes Committee invested in their efforts with Becker and Becker to develop a plan to repurpose the building, but there comes a time when there is no longer time.  

The warmth of memories about this building's past which seem to be a primary component of the remarks offered to the City Council last Tuesday evening for redevelopment consideration simply don't survive the light of a new day when framing an argument for resuscitating another ruin. I wasn't here when Reid and Hughes was a landmark and a destination for downtown Norwich-from the photos I've seen, it must have been something. I arrived here quite some time ago, twenty years, and the building was broken, empty (and broke-ass) then. Time does NOT heal all wounds and the years haven't been kind to that building at all.

It's not just I who cannot recall Reid and Hughes being anything other than skeleton framework, empty and alone. Looking at the U. S. Census 2010 figures for Norwich, nearly 40% of all residents are 30 years old and younger, and have no memories of this building as a department store or anything else because it has been empty all of their lives.

We have confused cause and effect, yet again. Because we want 'something' to happen, we draw on misty-colored memories of glory days and suggest vaguely that history could repeat itself. We're all too polite to point out it never happens.

Try as we might to be 'data-driven' in our development decisions, we can't help ourselves when it comes to that old school tie. The difference between a rut and grave remains the depth of the habit. And when it comes to Reid and Hughes, old habits are hard to break. Just because a developer (on a grassy knoll?) hasn't shown up at City Hall in a pumpkin coach pulled by six mice transformed into horses, doesn't mean it won't happen today, or tomorrow at the latest. Will it help if we click our heels three times?

I applaud the optimism of the reclamation proposal but seriously, more ground floor retail space with high end apartments above street level at a cost no one can accurately forecast because the plan to make all of it happen is not much more than a conceptual framework?

At the risk of being called unfair let me point out we have (practically) an entire Chelsea downtown district in the same sad state with funding already in place for a voter-approved, professionally managed development program we hope will succeed but whose results are yet to be visible.

Norwich has more than enough buildings, once built and/or refurbished, that were going to 'turn downtown around'. We've turned around so much, I'm dizzy, and not with glee. There's Artspace, the Wauregan and the Mercantile Exchange, to name three; they're all lovely and, quite frankly, they're all islands, isolated and alone, not connected to a unified development program or to one another. Who among us wants to do the math on the total public dollars invested and the return on that investment? I don't have the heart for it.

I'm sorry Dwight Eisenhower's not the President anymore and, if it helps, I'll apologize for how cheap cars and even cheaper gas seduced us into moving farther and farther away from traditional city centers, basically abandoning them to those who made empty promises backed with empty pockets.

We have spent too much to continue to live in the past--too many dollars and far too many days. We like the past best when we can use it to hold our own future hostage. We do that too often and too well and the time for that to stop has arrived. We know how this story ends-it's time to turn the page and write not just a new chapter, but a new book.
-bill kenny            

No comments: