Hines Sight / A quarter-century of changes -- and not
Published 7:39 pm, Thursday, January 13, 2011
I was sitting in the Fairfield Citizen offices the other day and spied the dozens of bound books containing years and years of editions of the paper. And I wondered, what happened 25 years ago in Fairfield?
So here it is -- a view of 1986. Why did I choose to do this at all? Not sure, really, but once I started reading, I couldn't stop. Column writing needs to be imaginative, educational and entertaining in order to keep your readers coming back each week. Or maybe I thought, since this is the start of a new year in a new decade that a review of the archives would prove fruitful and interesting. Coincidentally, however, 25 years ago late in the year, I was named editor of the then-called Fairfield Citizen-News. (I retired in 2009.)
Nonetheless, I do think it is fun to take a peek into the past to see how much things have changed -- or maybe they haven't changed at all. Here's what I found:
High school consolidation
What a mess this was and it dominated the pages of the Citizen for a solid year. The Board of Education voted in 1984 to merge Roger Ludlowe and Andrew Warde high schools because of declining enrollment. Serious discussion of which school to close began in February and continued throughout the year, which was filled with ugly and angry debate, confusing and ever-changing enrollment figures and projections, and questions about curriculum offerings, staffing levels and money. Once Warde was chosen over Ludlowe for the consolidated school -- at an estimated cost of $10 million to renovate it to accommodate an influx of students -- parents on the west side of town vehemently objected. On one day, Ludlowe students walked out of class and conducted a daylong protest.
Meetings of the school board, Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting were attended by thousands of people on both sides of the argument, and a large contingent of residents had a "Halt Consolidation" rally at the end of the school year; in July, a pro-merger group formed. One resident at one meeting said the consolidation plan was making Fairfield "a house divided against itself." With its constituents bearing down hard on members, the Board of Education reconsidered its merger vote in May and affirmed it, then in July, the board discussed reversing its decision to close Ludlowe, but maintained its original position.
In the midst of all of this, the RTM mulled over the idea of putting a non-binding referendum question about delaying implementing the merger for one year on the November ballot, which included the race for governor. After much back and forth on the merits and legality of doing so, the secretary of the state and the town attorney ruled that legal obstacles would prevent it from happening. Referendum talk continued by opponents of the merger but this time it would be over the appropriation for the renovations. That approval was not expected until the following January.
Then, some observers, including a minister, said the opposition was motivated by racism, telling the town and school officials that because Warde was on the "Jewish side of town" and was too close to Bridgeport, people objected to the choice. "Over there" was the phrase the minister heard often when people described Warde's location.
The schools merged in 1987. Fairfield High School existed until 2003-04, when Ludlowe was reopened. And that debate to open a second high school because of increasing enrollment is worthy of an entirely different column.
New railroad station
Just when you thought you heard enough of the town's third train station project that is under way off lower Black Rock Turnpike, here's some history on a previous plan wanted by First Selectman Jacky Durrell.
In January, the town wanted to buy for $4.6 million the 15-acre former Bullard Machine Tool site for a new train station, replacing the downtown one. Her proposal made it all the way to the RTM, but was stopped in its tracks in February when Durrell announced that the plan was dead. Although Durrell was not asking the state Department of Transportation to foot the bill for the construction of the station, she needed the DOT's approval for the new station and to build it. But the DOT told her that it feared the estimated price tag was "astronomical." For the town's third station, which is scheduled to open in November to commuters, the DOT not only is building it but has assumed most of the multimillion-dollar cost to do so.
New superintendent of schools
Larry Dougherty, an assistant superintendent of schools in Greenwich, was named the chief of the Fairfield public schools replacing Charles Fowler, who left to take a job in Florida. Some observers considered Fowler the best superintendent ever, while others felt he was the one who wanted high school consolidation, then skipped town.
Since Dougherty, who was paid a starting salary of $72,000, Fairfield has had three successors and a few interim superintendents, including the well-respected educator Geraldine Johnson, who spent most of her career in Bridgeport, where a school there is now named after her. Fairfield was very fortunate to have her leading the schools during a very difficult time.
What do you think of this tidbit? The municipal budget of $102 million for fiscal year 1986-87 was adopted by the RTM in May. That was followed by a half-a-mill increase in the tax rate to 25.7. The path to adoption was not easy as Durrell wanted a 2 percent across-the-board cut in town's operating expenses and a 1 percent cut for the schools. Neither happened, but some minor cuts were made.
The 2010-11 budget is $251,541,113 and the mill rate is 19.27, which is lower because of adjustments made following townwide revaluations over the years.
Zoning and development
Where do I begin? Suffice it to say that most of the headlines over stories about zoning changes and decisions and proposed development projects read "Neighbors oppose." (What's changed?) Numerous projects were considered over the course of the year, but none captured the attention of residents, town officials and other observers more than Albert Garofalo's plans to build a 110-unit condo complex and a 198-room Sheraton Hotel, convention center, 140-seat restaurant and two-story garage on two separate properties in the Mill Hill Terrace area of Southport. In May, the Conservation Commission rejected Garofalo's plans.
As for other projects, some got built, other didn't and some properties have continually come back as sites for potential developments since.
Tragedy and crime
In March, a man was accused of intentionally setting his house on fire while his family was still inside. All of them escaped from the home.
Also in March, a newborn infant's body was found at Lake Mohegan. The male child was suffocated and suffered a broken jaw and head trauma and other injuries the detectives refused to talk about. Rumors circulated that the baby's death was part of a ritualistic ceremony. The case was never solved.
In April, the body of a nude 20-year-old woman from New Haven was found outside a Southport hair salon; she was murdered by strangulation. No other mention of the crime was made in the pages of the Citizen.
In June, a portion of Holy Family Church burned in an arson fire and caused $150,000 in damage.
In September, a 9-year-old boy and his dog died in a house fire.
Robert Penn Warren, who had a home in Fairfield with his wife, Eleanor Clark, was named the U.S. poet laureate at the age of 80.
Thomas Farnham was selected by the Fairfield Historical Society to write the official history of Fairfield for the town's 350th anniversary celebration in 1989. He wrote two editions.
The legendary Larry's Diner was saved and moved from its original location on Post Road to Miller Street, where the 46-foot dining car, circa 1927, was added to a new restaurant. The diner was gutted and revamped many times over the years after various owners took over the restaurant site. It eventually was completely dismantled and discarded.
The Operation Hope homeless shelter took up residence in the former police station on Nichols Street. Since then, the organization has grown to include shelters for men, women and families; a food pantry; a soup kitchen; associated services for clients; and supportive housing.
A new firehouse and owner-built housing on property the town purchased on Hillandale Road was protested by neighbors and town officials. The firehouse was never built and the owner-built housing project was moved to Nordstrand Avenue.
So what do you think? Has anything really changed about Fairfield in two-and-half decades?
Patricia A. Hines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines.