Brad Schide, of the Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation, explained how other state communities had utilized grants to redesign their community gathering spots.
Story and Photographs By John Murray
If last night’s meeting at the Mattatuck Museum is an indication, the Green in downtown Waterbury is going to be modernized to better reflect the needs and desires of the community in the new millennium.
Change is the one true constant in life, and in the past three centuries the Green has repeatedly morphed to reflect the vibrancy and identity of the city.
Originally, village greens were established throughout New England as a common open area at the center of a settlement where villagers could graze their livestock, catch up on the news and attend public gatherings. As Waterbury evolved from agriculture to industry, the need for grazing diminished, but Waterburians continued to congregate in the heart of the city to honor it’s fallen soldiers, hold celebrations, conduct business, and catch up on gossip.
During the past 80 years the Green has endured withering change – first, the extraordinary elm trees that formed an exquisite canopy of shade were devastated and wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease. Second, as the economic fortune of the city spiraled downward, the clientele of the Green began to reflect that shift. Businessmen discussing potential transactions were replaced by vagrants swilling Thunderbird and Night Train out of brown paper bags.
For most of the past 30 years the Green continued to be a gathering place, but the scope of users narrowed to bus commuters, the homeless, the jobless, panhandlers and thugs. Real or not, the perception was that the Green had become unsafe – another “bad neighborhood” in Waterbury.
There were exceptions, like when the city sponsored Veteran’s Day ceremonies, and the annual tree lighting and community sing-a-long; but things began to change in the past decade with the emergence of Main Street Waterbury, the seasonal Farmer’s Market, and a summer concert series.
Efforts to move the public buses off the Green stalled a few years ago when the North East Transportation Company said it was economically unfeasible. Many community leaders believe the move has to happen.
Waterbury Police Chief Michael Gugliotti has publically stated that “the centralized busing hub must be moved off the Green and into a central station nearby. Buses coming and going from the Green does not promote the tranquility of an open space in an urban environment.”
A diverse group of Waterburians showed up at the Mattatuck Museum to listen to the presentation and participate in the breakout session.
Through the years the community has spent considerable energy venting over what it doesn’t want the Green to be, but now, thanks to a $50,000 Vibrant Communities Initiative Grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, Waterbury can turn it’s energy into a collective vision of what the Green should be.
The first step was to form a diverse core of stakeholders in a Green Redesign Steering Committee, and to begin to cobble ideas together into a master plan. The committee hired To Design of New Britain as lead consultant in forming the master plan, and a public meeting was held last night, January 25th, at the Mattatuck Museum to solicit input from the community.
Waterbury grant’s writer, Kathleen McNamara, told the gathering – a mix of 70 community leaders and residents – to “dare to dream. What would make you and your family come down to the Green and make it come to life?”
Suggestions were written on sticky pads and affixed to maps of the Green.
The consultants then talked of “placemaking” and “sustainability”. An internet search of “placemaking” revealed a speech architect Bernard Hunt made in London several years ago about placemaking. Hunt said…..
“When I think about the the 20th century, the first thing that strikes me is how successful it was in producing a wealth of great architecture – for me some of the most thrilling and enjoyable buildings of all time. But places? I struggle to find a single place built in the 20th century which is as enjoyable and as successful as the humblest street or square, village or urban neighbourhood built in earlier centuries. Is this just nostalgia? Is there a law of nature which says a place must be old to be enjoyed? Surely not. But what seems to have happened is that we have simply lost the art of placemaking; or, put another way, we have lost the simple art of placemaking. We are good at putting up buildings but we are bad at making places.”
Hunt said successful placemaking is “about the people who live in a place, and about their individual and collective needs and wants. You might say that the fuel that energises placemaking is each individual’s selfish wish to have the best possible life for himself and his family. But pursuit of one person’s self interest leads to conflict with someone else’s – so community is about reconciling clashes whether by informal negotiation or by regulation and imposed authority.
But there is much more to community than this. Many of the things individuals want can only be provided collectively. So community is also about these communal facilities, the local shops, the church, postman, the local bobby; and it about the way people organise themselves whether formally or informally to agree on their common requirements and on how to procure them.
I am not just talking about what places look like, because there are two sides to the place coin. The physical form of a place is only one side. The way life is lived in it, and the common purpose around which that life revolves, is the other. And from cave dwellers to loft livers human beings have always used places to achieve their common purpose.”
Lively debates occurred at Table #6 about maintenance and safety issues.
And the process of trying to find that common purpose began with a breakout session where participants interacted with maps of the Green to debate monuments, history, design, landscaping, lighting, trash receptacles, bike racks, wi-fi zones, park benches, events, maintenance and safety.
There is keen interest in the community about redefining the Green. The process will take time, but the passion to forge change was on display during the gathering at the Mattatuck Museum.
Getting 70 passionate individuals in a room to brainstorm change is an unusual and historic event.
The results of the collective brainstorming will be reflected back to the community at a second meeting March 6th at the Mattatuck Museum. Anyone unable to attend the meeting and wishing to submit ideas to the consultant team can e-mail their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org