Just over a hundred miles northeast of Manhattan, the Connecticut River cleaves New England’s southernmost state, named for it, in two—literally, economically, and politically. The contrasts between the two southern corners of Connecticut could not be more stark. In fact, they are more like different worlds than two parts of the same whole.
West of the river, close to the New York line, Hollywood stars, hedge fund billionaires, and the cream of corporate America retreat to their designer-decorated manses amid the leafy hills and coastal inlets of Fairfield County, Connecticut’s Gold Coast. East of the river, in “the other” Connecticut, Revolutionary War heroes and Indian chiefs are celebrated, ruins of long-silent mills blight the riverways, and colonial-era farmhouses stand as reminders of the area’s long agricultural history.
In Greenwich, the southwesternmost town in Fairfield County, closest to New York, the median home price is $1,221,400, according to the Zillow Home Value Index. Connecticut has the most multi-million-dollar homes in the northeast, second in the nation only to California, and most of them are in Fairfield County.
In Norwich, the largest municipality in Southeastern Connecticut—where members of my family have lived since my great-grandparents emigrated from Greece around 1920—your $1,221,400 would buy eight-and-a-half homes given the median price of $143,500.
“Gambling is not Connecticut. We have people who are qualified to perform much higher skill jobs than serving drinks in short skirts or serving as security guards in a casino.”
Despite the much lower cost of living in Southeastern Connecticut compared to the tony western suburbs—Zillow’s Rent Index says the median rent in Greenwich is $5,529; in Norwich it’s $1,228—residents complain bitterly about what they consider their high cost of living.
Of course, it’s all relative. Relative to Greenwich’s per capita income of $88,519, Norwich’s $25,512 can only be stretched so far. The city’s recent high unemployment rate—7.3 percent compared to Greenwich’s 4.3 percent—isn’t only due to the still-struggling economy, but reflects the over-supply of low-skill workers and state policies that seem meant to keep the region isolated.
In Greenwich, you can leave your imported automobile in the park-and-ride lot, and for a $10.75 one-way peak fare ($76 a week for commuters) a Metro-North express train whisks you to Grand Central Station in less than 40 minutes from any of the town’s four stops. In Norwich, many residents don’t even own a car. Their only real alternative is the bus. A one-hour Southeast Area Transit (SEAT) bus ride trundles you 15 miles to New London, connecting to the only Amtrak station and ferry services in New London County’s entire 772 square miles. SEAT fares range from $1.50 to $2.50, though SEAT’s website doesn’t define the zones. The paucity of public transportation that effectively isolates the eastern region from the well-linked western half isn’t the only striking difference between the two Connecticuts.
Consider this: While Greenwich had four registered sex offenders living among its 62,256 residents as of January 2014, Norwich had 84 dispersed among its own, smaller population of 40,502. The Democrat-controlled state government—which finds homes for registered sex offenders after they serve their prison sentence—apparently believes NIMBY-ism is a perfectly acceptable policy. Why else would it burden a city only two-thirds the size of, and far poorer than, Greenwich with 21 times the number of offenders?
JOHN AND MARY FARNAN, my maternal grandfather and grandmother, shivered from the winter chill on Thursday, January 21, 1954. After 18 months of construction, they were attending the launch of Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, broke the traditional bottle of champagne across the sub’s bow as the 319-foot-long, 3,400-ton vessel slid into the Thames River.
My grandfather helped build Nautilus for the Electric Boat Company, the huge submarine company based in Groton, where the Thames meets Long Island Sound on Southeastern Connecticut’s coast. For more than a hundred years, Electric Boat—now General Dynamics Electric Boat; still ”E.B.” to locals—has been the leading builder of submarines for the U.S. Navy, and is still the largest employer in the region. Today “The Boat” employs some 11,000 men and women. Just before the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had a workforce of 25,000 and a backlog of 17 subs.
For generations, E.B. employed more than one member of many area families. A pipefitter or welder with a high-school education or less could own a modest house and support a family—including, as in my grandfather’s case, a stay-at-home wife.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, and again after the Soviet collapse, defense cutbacks took a terrible economic toll on Southeastern Connecticut as tens of thousands of working men and women were laid off. But even as the region’s economy contracted in agony, a newly resurrected Mashantucket Pequot tribe in Ledyard—once known as North Groton—succeeded in spinning white guilt; lawyerly shrewdness; and large, well-aimed political contributions into a fortune that King Croesus himself would envy. Unfortunately for Southeastern Connecticut, the tribe’s fortune grew in proportion to the toll its money-making enterprise exacted on one of the most rural areas in America.
Richard “Skip” Hayward was the grandson of the last remaining woman of uncertain Pequot provenance on the small reservation in Ledyard. He could more clearly trace his ancestry back to the Mayflower Haywards than to actual Pequots, who had been effectively obliterated as a tribe by the region’s English colonists as far back as 1637.
Hayward, a hard-drinking former E.B. pipefitter who couldn’t make a clam shack profitable even in maritime Mystic, succeeded wildly in making his family extremely rich by way of the tribe he was able to form from extended family members. In Hitting the Jackpot: The Inside Story of the Richest Indian Tribe in History, former Washington Post business reporter Brett D. Fromson says, “This is a tribe where most members, by ancestry, are at least 63/64ths something other than Pequot.”
Reconstituted by one family practically from thin air after existing for hundreds of years only in history books, the tribe was able to win federal recognition and state approval for what became the largest casino in the world, literally rising up out of the rocky forests and swamps of little Ledyard.
By the time Foxwoods Resort Casino opened in 1992, Connecticut’s defense industry had eliminated more than 150,000 jobs. E.B. planned to hand out pink slips to another 15,000 because of cutbacks in the sub-building program. The financial losses to the area’s families as thousands of breadwinners lost their jobs were Foxwoods’ gain.
Kim Isaac Eisler notes in Revenge of the Pequots: How a Small Native American Tribe Created the World’s Most Profitable Casino that 30,000 people at one point applied for the 2,300 jobs available at Foxwoods for dealers, food service personnel, and hotel maids–workers who had made far better union wages building subs.
Unlike Atlantic City’s casinos, Foxwoods didn’t have to pay union wages. Neither did Mohegan Sun, a second Indian-owned casino, hotel, and entertainment complex that opened in 1996 only 10 miles away. The Mohegans and Mashantuckets were each considered a “sovereign nation,” and therefore exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which gives workers the right to collective bargaining.
Before Foxwoods opened, Eisler says then-Governor Lowell Weicker, formerly a Republican U.S. Senator but by then an Independent and a staunch opponent of casino gambling, called it the state’s “single biggest threat,” a “near-sighted solution with damaging long-term consequences for the state’s quality of life.”
Fromson quotes the governor as saying: “Gambling is not Connecticut. We have people who are qualified to perform much higher skill jobs than serving drinks in short skirts or serving as security guards in a casino.” But that was before the Pequots’ big political contributions began rolling in.
Federal records show that by 1994, the Mashantucket Pequots were the largest contributors of soft money to the Democratic Party. To hedge their bets, they also made significant contributions to the Republican National Committee. Skip Hayward was on personal terms with President Bill Clinton. He even got to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom, like other major donors.
By 1998, Foxwoods was annually hauling in $1 billion with $152 million in net income for a tribe that had swelled to 600 members. Most of the tribe’s members were uneducated and lacked skills. Many had relocated from America’s urban slums after finding out about the money to be made from their dubious Pequot ancestry—and were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from casino revenues simply for being there. As Associated Press reporter Bill Dermody put it in a 1994 article about the tribe and its casino after their first two years, “Pequots have been popping up all over to claim their share.”
BMWs, Mercedes, and shiny new SUVs rolled along the country roads of Southeastern Connecticut as newly minted, nouveau riche Pequots flashed their bling at area residents who mostly had far, far less. But along with the money being sloshed around came big problems—for tribal members as well as longtime locals.
Car accidents, drug arrests, and DUIs shot up. By 2000, more than 200 tribal members had been arrested—an extraordinarily high percentage of the entire tribe. Fromson says that child neglect, child abuse, and child sexual abuse “were rife in the tribe.” Personal bankruptcies quadrupled in New London County as the area’s working-class residents took their chances and squandered their hard-earned dollars on the rigged games at the casino, joking about “helping to pay the Indians’ mortgage.”
The Pequots’ disdainful treatment toward Southeastern Connecticut residents was evident as early as 1993, when Skip Hayward decided the tribe was entitled to expand its 2,200-acre reservation by annexing many thousands of adjacent acres.
He expected his big political contributions meant the federal government would simply allow the tribe to buy up and remove vast tracts of land from the tax rolls of the already-struggling towns surrounding the casino. This would have amounted to the tiny tribe taking more than 12 percent of Ledyard, five percent of Preston, and 15 percent of North Stonington. That there were about 700 privately owned houses and farms on the land didn’t phase them.
In a breathtaking display of bought-and-paid-for politicians, then-U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd and Second District Congressman Sam Gejdenson—both Democrats—assured the Pequots they wouldn’t oppose their effort to annex the thousands upon thousands of acres of land. Gejdenson went so far as to dismiss local residents, his constituents—who were understandably up in arms—as “settlers.”
Neither politician mentioned the tens of thousands of dollars each had accepted in campaign contributions from the Pequots. Senator Dodd was certainly happy about the minor-league baseball stadium they promised to build in Norwich and name after his father, former U.S. Senator Thomas J. Dodd.
It wasn’t until 2002, nine years after stirring up a hornet’s nest of ill will, that the Pequots notified the Bureau of Indian Affairs they were withdrawing their request to annex the neighboring lands.
Long before then, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun had become two of the largest employers in Southeastern Connecticut, and in the entire state. Today, Foxwoods employs about 8,000 local people, and Mohegan Sun employs another 8,400—mostly in low-paying jobs. Steady declines in their revenues the last few years have forced reductions in their workforces, which at their peak numbered more than 10,000 each.
Under the terms of a 1993 compact with the Mashantucket Pequots and, later, the Mohegans, Connecticut guarantees the Indian-owned casinos a monopoly on gambling in the state. In exchange, and in lieu of paying taxes, the casinos pay the state 25 percent of their net slot revenues. The original compact guaranteed the state $100 million or 25 percent of the gross slot revenues, whichever was greatest.
Declining revenues during recent years have chipped away at the casinos’ payments to the state. In November 2013, for example, Mohegan Sun visitors pumped $627.55 million into the casino’s nearly 5,500 slot machines. The Sun’s “win,” or revenue, of $49.3 million marked a drop of $680,817 from its November 2012 revenue of $49.98 million. Of this, the casino gave $12.33 million to the state, a 1.4 percent decrease from the previous November. The drop in revenues meant the state would get a $296 million cut from the two casinos for 2013—quite a plunge from the peak of $430 million it collected in 2007, just as the recession was beginning.
In its first 20 years, the Pequot-Mohegan Fund has larded Connecticut’s coffers with well over $6 billion. The state originally promised to pass along those funds to its 169 cities and towns, based on a complex formula that considers “numerous factors including, but not limited to, the value of state-owned property, private college and general hospitals, population, equalized net grand list, and per capita income,” as the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management describes it.
But over the years, the state has reneged on the promise and simply kept most of the money in its general fund. In 1994, a year after the Fund was created, 85 percent of slot funds went to cities and towns. In 2013, only $61,779,907—20 percent—of the $296 million paid to the state was divided among municipalities. Of that amount, less than $6 million total—two percent of the funds generated for the state from within their towns—went to the casinos’ five host communities.
As if to underscore their disregard for “the other” Connecticut, politicians in Hartford from the western half of the state have been more than happy to redistribute the Indians’ money to the general fund and to their own constituencies. Because compensation from the Fund is based on population, the bigger cities west of the Connecticut River—Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury—naturally get more money. Meanwhile the casinos’ host towns bear the costs of providing municipal services for millions of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun visitors and thousands of employees and their families, a great many of them non-English-speakers recruited in Asia and Latin America.
State law requires schools to provide teachers who speak students’ native languages. In Norwich, more than 30 different languages are spoken at home by the city’s students. It’s exceedingly expensive to pay for all these linguistically qualified teachers. Then there are the costs of the police and social services required to mop up after the crime and poverty that have increased exponentially in the casinos’ shadows.
Imagine the panic that ensued in the region when Governor Dannel P. Malloy in 2011 proposed a “Plan B” budget that included eliminating municipal payments to Connecticut towns out of the Pequot-Mohegan Fund. That year the five host communities stood to receive a grand total of $5.7 million. Under the plan, Ledyard would have lost the $984,357 from the fund it expected to fold into its $18.87 million budget; Preston anticipated that $1.17 million would vanish; Norwich would kiss goodbye to $1.9 million; Montville, home of Mohegan Sun, would lose $800,000 to $1 million; and North Stonington, which would have had 15 percent of its land taken off the tax rolls if the Pequots had gotten their way, would have to make due without the $888,708 it expected for the year.
North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane told The Day newspaper: “We use that money for added cost for the highway, an extra state trooper; it’s spread throughout everything. That’s a big number, that’s huge. We’d have to cut everything to make up for it.”
As it weighs the prospect of allowing casinos, next-door Massachusetts is looking at the experience of Southeastern Connecticut as a cautionary tale. Instead of the state taking a cut of the proceeds and redistributing what it chooses back to the host communities, as in Connecticut, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is giving affected towns as much leverage as possible. The towns will be able to negotiate directly with the casinos for appropriate compensation to cover the costs they incur because of the casinos’ presence.
Just before Milford, Massachusetts, voters rejected a plan by Foxwoods to construct a $1 billion, 980,000-square-foot casino there, Norwich City Manager Alan Bergren met with an anti-gaming coalition from Massachusetts to describe what Eastern Connecticut has experienced and offer advice for the potential host communities in that state. “It will change the dynamics of how you operate and deliver services,” he said. “I think they need to be vigilant about understanding whatever is built, it will have an impact on their communities, and that they need to be treated fairly and get appropriate compensation for that.”
Unfortunately, the former “back roads” of Southeastern Connecticut, now traversed by literally millions of visitors each year driving into the area from neighboring casino-free states, aren’t the only thing that has been worn down in the two decades since the casinos have been in operation.
In the place of a city that had once pulsed with the energy of its dozens of mills, whose natural harbor teemed with ships and trains moving Norwich-made goods to a world in which it was vitally engaged, I found a city that had turned in upon itself.
“COMING SOON!” SHOUTS THE inch-high headline. “Announcing a special hardcover book from The Bulletin,” says the advertisement that follows. “Quiet Corner Memories: A Pictorial History.”
The Bulletin is Norwich’s daily newspaper that, in one guise or another, has published since 1791. Like most newspapers, it has shrunken dramatically in size, scope, and staff. Even more painful to witness, its very purpose as a newspaper has been diluted from keeping readers abreast of local, national, and global news, and holding elected officials accountable.
Today, The Bulletin provides its mostly older readership with a steady drip of nostalgia with articles, columns, and a growing library of books that look back at “how great we used to be” rather than looking ahead to what we could become.
Even the paper’s one-year-old Norwich magazine reflects a city stuck in a time warp and a newspaper happy to profit by keeping it there. The January issue’s cover story was about Thermos, the company that makes insulated food and beverage containers. For decades, Thermos was Norwich’s largest employer, and by all accounts generous to its 2,000 employees. My father worked there for a while in the early 1970s. But Thermos closed the Norwich factory in 1988.
The old Thermos factory was converted into loft-style apartments, one of only a few repurposed industrial buildings in the city. The banks of the Thames, Shetucket, and Yantic rivers that converge at Norwich’s harbor on the edge of the downtown, are pocked with dozens of long-abandoned mill buildings slowly collapsing upon themselves. What would be prime riverfront property in a thriving city is now brownfields of old chemical spills and blight. Norwich, like nearly every town in Eastern Connecticut, and the rest of New England, still bears the jagged scars of America’s Industrial Revolution. Laced as the region is with rivers that powered corn, grist, and saw mills in the 1700s, and cotton, textile, and paper mills in the 1800s and 1900s, the vacant mills crumble, perhaps in silent shame, for their leading role in transforming the nature of work itself as American citizens, once free agents managing themselves in home-based spinning and weaving operations, became, simply, “labor.”
The magazine’s December cover was about once-bustling, long-blighted downtown Norwich—the setting for a 2011 zombie movie because its many vacant, boarded-up buildings offered a ready-made apocalyptic setting. “When you look beyond the vacancies and sometimes rough street scene,” wrote Zachary Lamothe in the article, “downtown provides the perfect backdrop for work and play.”
I returned to Norwich in 2007 precisely because, having lived in major cities for decades, I did look beyond the disgrace that is Norwich’s downtown and saw an opportunity to contribute to my hometown’s renaissance by opening a unique, well-marketed coffeehouse in the “new” downtown, exactly the kind of magnet business that can entice people back into an old neighborhood.
But no sooner did I return than the Great Recession hit Norwich, and Southeastern Connecticut hard—their latest blow. Unemployment reached 9.8 percent in the Norwich-New London area in January 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead of investors for a business that bankers predicted could quickly grow into a regional chain, I found risk-aversion. Instead of a renaissance, I found retrenchment.
I found a city once known as “the shopping center of Eastern Connecticut,” where the specialty shops once lining downtown’s streets and the low-cost but appealing department stores favored by working people like my own family—W.T. Grant, Barkers, Zayre—have all been replaced by a Walmart, T.J. Maxx, and a Goodwill. Even the nearly vacant shopping mall where I worked as a teen during its heyday in the ’70s, was finally sold to a Massachusetts developer, given a face lift, and occupied by low-budget stores like Big Lots and Dollar Tree.
United Community Family Services, Norwich’s largest social service agency, bought an entire shopping plaza to better serve its thousands of poor clients. Its administrative offices occupy the beautiful 18th-century homestead of Samuel Huntington, a signer of the Declaration of Independence—a building economic development-minded local history buffs argue should be a museum dedicated to Huntington and America’s other “Forgotten Founders.”
Unfortunately, social services—rather than historic tourism that would capitalize on Norwich’s rich stock of colonial and Victorian-era buildings and sites important to America’s past—are Norwich’s only growth industry as the city continues to warehouse the state’s poor.
In the place of a city that had once pulsed with the energy and prosperity of its dozens of mills, whose natural harbor teemed with ships and trains moving Norwich-made textiles and other manufactured products to a world in which it was vitally engaged, I found a city that had turned in upon itself. Once engaged, even Norwich’s leaders now talk about “the outside world” with defiance edged in fear.
In this Norwich, elected officials freely spend millions of taxpayer dollars to “protect” falling-down old buildings and plots of land from “outsiders.” They borrow and spend millions more to tear down other buildings to “get ready” for the developers who praise Norwich’s “potential”—but never want to spend their own money on its rehabilitation.
Paralyzing nostalgia, incompetent leadership, and negligent state policy have proved a lethal combination in Norwich—as I regularly pointed out in my nearly three years as a weekly columnist for The Bulletin that ended last October.
Case in point: in his January 2013 “state of the city” speech, then-Mayor Peter Nystrom called Norwich’s brand-new, taxpayer-funded $22 million Intermodal Transportation Center a “fitting architectural addition to our downtown.” What else could he say? Even city council members were already joking about the “white elephant.”
At the June 2, 2012, dedication, Nystrom said to the 200 in attendance, “This is the future we are embracing, our revolutionary vision.” For his part, Governor Malloy said: “I’m happy we’re here today, some 17 years after the idea of this building came about, but it shouldn’t have taken so long. We’ve got to be able to turn projects around in 16 months, not 16 years. Linking people to their jobs, to their future, and moving them about the state is what it’s all about.”
Two years after its opening, the ITC is nothing more than another vision of sugarplums dancing in city officials’ heads. Despite its grand name, the Intermodal Transportation Center provides only one mode of transportation: the SEAT buses that swing through to pick up and drop off passengers at the inconvenient location. It’s not even a proper bus terminal. Even the center’s three-level, 162-car parking garage is usually empty. Robert Mills, president of the privately run Norwich Community Development Corporation—the city’s de facto economic development department—said it would be “decades” before the ITC was an actual transportation center in the sense that most people understand the term. By then, of course, millions more dollars will be required for renovations.
It seemed clear to those of us who didn’t make money off the deal that the state had once again thrown a bone to Southeastern Connecticut, knowing it had no further plans to fund the transportation infrastructure that would make the ITC more than a local joke.
After all, 2012 marked 40 years since the state simply suspended construction on Route 11, the expressway first planned in 1953 to provide a major connector linking Route 2 and Routes 95 and 395, the two major interstates in Eastern Connecticut. Nicknamed “Route 5 1/2” because of its half-completed condition, plans to finish the road surface regularly, are discussed and “fast-tracked,” and then set aside once again as the cost of completion escalates—now estimated at more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, the state is pushing, full-steam ahead, on the new $569 million express bus line between New Britain and Hartford. While the line is expected to serve 3,720 riders during peak hours, Route 11 would serve an estimated 18,700 and provide what area residents and businesses agree would be an important catalyst to the region’s economic development.
The 2013 Connecticut Transportation Survey ranked transportation as the state’s third-most important economic issue behind economic development and education. When even business leaders complain about the region’s inadequate transportation, the half-finished expressway and empty Norwich Intermodal Transportation Center stand as fitting symbols of the state’s empty promises and reverse-Robin Hood attitude toward Eastern Connecticut. And they make it all the sadder, and stranger, to hear Bob Mills’ waxing rhapsodies about the high-tech, biopharm, and green industries he believed were panting at Norwich’s portals for the opportunity to locate there.
Mills had announced in 2011 that 70 percent of Norwich’s new $3.2 million Downtown Redevelopment Fund would be set aside for such businesses. Norwich voters approved the fund in 2010 to encourage owners to bring their empty buildings up to code and support new businesses willing to locate in downtown. Bob Santy, CEO of the Connecticut Research Center, Inc., publicly set Mills straight. “The bioscience center is Pfizer,” he said of the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer. “That’s in Groton, not in Norwich.” Before Norwich can become competitive in attracting businesses, Santy said the city must first focus on creating an attractive place to live and work and offering an employable local workforce.
If it has any chance at a better future, Norwich first needs leadership that can make costly decisions based on facts, not wishful thinking.
In his January 2012 state of the city speech, for example, Mayor Nystrom gamely announced that $100 million had been privately invested in Norwich the previous year. A UPS truck driver by day, Nystrom hadn’t brought home much bacon from Hartford in his 18 years as Norwich’s former state representative. In fact, his entire mayoral campaign platform had been simply that he grew up in and “loves” Norwich.
Those of us in the audience familiar with Norwich’s desperate economy were skeptical, since even the sale of the then-nearly vacant shopping mall and of the small marina at the harbor—the city’s two largest economic development projects the previous year—didn’t add up to $20 million.
When pressed, the mayor explained that he and the city planner had decided between them that homeowners had spent $100 million on “household improvements.” This in a city where one in 10 homes is vacant; 30.6 percent of households make less than $35,000 per year; 28.3 percent of households receive Social Security benefits; and one in five residents receives public assistance, food stamps, or both.
With this lack of accountability, it’s probably not surprising that the voting populace of Norwich has largely given up on exercising their most fundamental right as American citizens. Of Norwich’s 19,796 registered voters, a mere 4,573—23 percent—voted in the November 2013 mayoral and City Council election. The new mayor, former alderwoman and social worker Deb Hinchey, was elected by a total of 2,203 votes—just 11 percent of registered voters.
It’s unclear whether apathetic voters are a symptom or the cause of Norwich’s problems. And those problems are legion.
“Norwich, the largest municipality in the region, is coping with a number of problems,” according to a 2009 report prepared for then-Governor Jodi Rell by Spectrum Gaming Group. “It is located within eight miles of both casinos. DUI arrests have more than doubled since [Foxwoods opened in] 1992. Montville and Ledyard have also experienced significant increases. Roughly 20 percent of the motorists in Montville, Ledyard, and North Stonington acknowledged to police that their last drink was at a casino.”
The report also noted a four-fold increase in embezzlements, as well as “fraud, bank robberies, and thefts” committed to feed gambling habits—many of them by people with no previous criminal records.
In 2013, the state’s chief medical examiner reported nine heroin overdose-related deaths in Norwich—exactly the same number as in Bridgeport, the state’s largest city with 146,425 residents.
Norwich has no community or youth center. Young people complain regularly about “nothing to do.” Even the hundred-year-old downtown Southeastern Connecticut YMCA went bankrupt in 2009.
SchoolDigger.com ranks the Norwich School District at 154 out of 164 statewide. Despite the city’s spending more than $17,596 for each of its fewer than 4,000 students—and even though the schools gobble up 60 percent of the city’s $116,306,191 total budget—conversations with local real estate agents invariably include their mention of families with school children that will not consider Norwich because of its poorly performing schools.
This is what things look like close to the bottom in “the other” Connecticut—and in many parts of America. “Out of sight, out of mind” aptly describes state officials’ attitude toward Southeastern Connecticut and its troubled towns.
A beautiful region of coastline, farm land, rolling hills, and deep American history, “the other” Connecticut is treated like the state’s dumping ground—or cash cow that keeps on giving while subsisting on scraps. Yet even here, amid hardship and misery, human kindness abounds, and people with little to spare themselves are incredibly generous to others even worse off.
This past Christmas, for example, about 5,000 Eastern Connecticut children were able to wake up to find that Santa Claus didn’t pass by their house just because their families are poor. Sponsored by The Bulletin, the Tommy Toy Fund has been distributing toys to needy families since 1974, when a little girl wrote to the newspaper concerned that her little brother Tommy would have no presents because their parents had no money.
Every year since, hundreds of volunteers throughout the region organize toy collections and fundraising events in the weeks leading up to the holiday. There is a gala, road races, police departments filling cruisers with toys, and volunteer firemen and women holding up their boots at busy intersections for passing motorists to drop in cash and change.
This little corner of America shaped this country in ways big and small. It shaped my own resilience and understanding of what it means to be an American, this haunting, troubled place “that other” Connecticut prefers not to think about.