Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Memory and Not a Place

For many years when we'd visit my family in Central New Jersey, I'd get off the New Jersey Turnpike at Exit 9 and drive through downtown New Brunswick where, for better or worse, I did a lot of my growing up and where I attended Rutgers University so long ago the alphabet only had seventeen letters.

I always looked forward to those side-trips even though when I got there I was sometimes a little disappointed with the reality. I think what each of us thinks when we say "my hometown" is sometimes more a memory we have of a point in time rather than a place we can go to.

When I walked through downtown Norwich last weekend I kept a running inventory of how much life and liveliness is on McKinley Avenue where, at the bend near Grove and Pond, it becomes Franklin Street all the way to Franklin Square.

At a pedestrian pace, you can see more than a dozen small businesses, more micro than even mini, none of which were there when I first walked those sidewalks twenty years ago with customers who'd probably never heard of Norwich back then. Not sure who made who, but there they are. And in a generation, their hometown memory will look nothing like now.  

There are more commercial stirrings as you pass Artspace, with the These Guys Brewing Company and just beyond that, in what was the old 'Bulletin building,' newer neighbors, Epicure Brewing still under construction, as well as Foundry 66 , part of the soon-to-be new home of NCDC.

Reid & Hughes Building (left) circa 1956 (photo by David Bishop)
Where Franklin Square meets Main Street among lots of empty and underused buildings is the one our City Council will shortly be turning its attention to, the Reid & Hughes.

I'd claim it reminds me of a seedy adult movie house on a side street in New Brunswick that was reincarnated as the George Street Playhouse but I never saw it as anything other than a broken and forgotten building when we got here in the fall of '91.

For too many of us Reid & Hughes is a symbol of every Norwich failure. I am not a fan of the building but that's too harsh. I see it as a brick and mortar (and tarpaulin) Banquo's Ghost from a Vibrant Communities Initiative of five years ago that signaled we were going to get our feces amalgamated, but instead it just keeps hitting the ventilator.

And now how Reid & Hughes looks out on Main Street
The city took the building for taxes many years ago because that's what always seems to happen across the country. Municipalities rarely have the expertise or ability to develop or revitalize such a property and are not eager to pay in any way for others to do it.

Which brings us to the here and now. We all agree "something needs to be done" but we cannot or will not agree on what that something is or how to do it. Our inability (refusal?) to make a decision, develop and then execute a plan of action, and accept the consequences dooms us to an unending circle of recrimination and second-guessing.

By summer's end, perhaps, we'll all know more because we can't know less. And then, ready or not, we'll have to find the courage to make a decision and own the consequences. Besser ein schreckliches Ende, als Schrecken ohne Ende.
-bill kenny

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