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You’ve Come A Long Way Baby

When my family uprooted and landed in Westport it was the late sixties, I was about one year old. I was ten when my mother got a job reporting for the local Gannett affiliate Fairpress–a Fairfeild County Weekly newspaper based in Westport. She hadn’t previously been a writer but her extensive background as an orphan helped her relate to people and she was able to tell true stories that read like excerpts from a novel.

At first downtown was her beat. She set up the little spare bedroom next to mine as her makeshift office. I could hear her typing away every night. Her first typewriter wasn’t electric, I remember her joy when she got her first IBM. The coffee pot was brewing, the white-out was flying. While she was writing her first story she exclaimed, “I could never do this for a living.” But they hired her on the next day.

It wasn’t long before she befriended a little old lady who was bedridden. Sigrid Schultz’s’s house was downtown in the back of the Baldwin parking lot, next to the church. She had cut a deal with the town that upon her death they would demolish the house for parking spaces. Which they did.

Schultz had been the Bureau Chief of Eastern Europe for the Chicago Tribune in Berlin during World War 2. With me and mom she discussed her multiple interviews with Hitler. How she developed ongoing meetings with Goring and how he had called her the Dragon Lady from Chicago because she smoked cigars. How she sneaked across the border to Denmark and filed her reports under the name ‘John Dickson’. How she had been with the U.S. Army when they landed at Normandy. She was first into Hitler’s house at Berchtesgaden. Sigrid Schultz’ was first to report at Buchenwald and she covered the trials at Nuremberg.

I was only ten so it was hard for me to put all their discussions about being a woman reporter into perspective. Sometimes while they were talking I would go play pinball at the smoke-shop about 200 feet away as the crow flies. I knew all the characters downtown. And they were characters, like out of a novel. I would browse in all the little shops getting to know the store keepers. My mother would zoom up in her car calling out to me, “get in” and drag me off to some murder scene or some such.

Mom was tapped by Gannett to interview and travel exclusively with Ronald Reagan for two weeks in his private jet. She explained to me that it was a big deal for a local reporter as she had only been writing for two years. I was more into music but when she came back from Washington I helped her transcribe the tapes. The story ran on the front page of the local paper and in hundreds of publications nation-wide.

In 81 she got an offer from the Hartford Courant(the oldest paper in the U.S.). She didn’t want to leave Westport because I still needed to be raised. They created the Fairfield County Bureau of the Courant just for her so she could run it out of our home. The men came and installed a computer and a modem link to the Hartford newsroom in the spare bedroom. Back then this was hi-tech.

That lasted for about a year. Me and mom moved to Hartford. Everyday after school I went to the newsroom to get money for food. She was friends with the Governor and the Senators. She had some big national stories. At the time the Courant was owned by the Los Angeles Times. I was very interested in her trade-craft but I was more interested in taking the train back to Westport three times a week for band practice. I was missing Westport so much that she agreed to move us back. She drove so-fast, back and fourth, to Hartford, the State cops would just wave-her-by at 90 or a 100 miles an hour. She had won multiple awards for investigative reporting–the FBI would shadow her in hopes of getting a lead. But still, her greatest craft was telling people’s stories. Mom was nominated for a Pulitzer for feature writing in 84.

All this time, when I wasn’t practicing music I was hanging out downtown. At 14 I had this Townhall Library YMCA shit down so cold you couldn’t cut it. I was on a first name basis with every homeless person within a ten mile vicinity. By 15 I could give you the lead story in every paper daily going back five years. To make matters worse my mom’s boyfriend was an editor at the Wall Street journal. Just taking messages at home I became friends with the editor at New York Magazine.

And of course all this time whenever mom was interviewing someone she insisted they live with us; Hells Angels, priests from South America, people with deformities or mental illness. Everything was a story, an interview or a confidential source. We would regularly start a fire and burn cassettes by the dozen lest anyone get hold of personal or background information not suitable for public consumption.

Oh, and election night, we just had to have a sit down with the Mayor of Bridgeport. He said to me, “Todd, whatever you do—don’t get involved with hard drugs.” His emphasis was on “hard” drugs as if soft drug use was OK. Then back to town hall(the old town hall) to count every last little vote until 4 in the morning.

These are some of the reasons I can come off as flippant while discussing downtown issues. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for 35 years. Every little political nuance in every campaign. I am a professional musician, whatever that means. But it was my mother’s dream to be a writer. I am so grateful to Hearst and the Westport News for the opportunity to blog and the freelance work that I have done this year.

But ooh, I can smell it a mile away. Downtown issues…… After moving back from Hollywood I went to work for Drew Friedman, principal land owner downtown. He founded the DMA way back when. His wife Bobbie started the downtown art-show. Drew’s story is among the most fascinating—downtown. His only ambition at this point being the creation of a community center–he proceeded to teach me about the history of all the issues; parking, mix of stores, rents, construction, politics……

I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but I can tell you, this whole ‘green necklace’ thing and the hiring of the consultant for a new downtown plan is about Parker Harding and Jesup Green. They say they want to create more open space. I know exactly what that means; a little green walkway along the river and then new buildings where we park.

I can see the gleam in the eye. Develop, develop, develop. Embracing the river….First of all Bedford Square is going up, done deal, Dave Waldman owns Church Lane, he wants to brick that over too. The Levitt has raised all the money they need- so that open space is bricked over also. The Baron’s South is heading to being bricked over. They want to brick over Main Street so you wont be able to park in front of the stores. The new theater will be bricking over that space if they can raise the money. The Baldwin lot is the only logical place for a parking garage so that will be bricked over.

That just leaves little Parker Harding and Jesup Green with it’s Taylor lot for the ‘green necklace’. But here is the rub: If they put another parking garage in the hill at Jesup Green then they can put a little park along the river and then brownstones wall-to-wall straight across to Gorham Island. But not brownstones like NY, no, brownstones like California or Florida, fake brownstones.

I tell you what, I’ll draw the map up–exactly what they want to do, then when we get the report back from the consultant we can compare.

And one more thing: Winslow Park: The Police, Fire and EMS need more space. They go into Winslow, and that leaves the new brownstones climbing up Jesup Green over the Police Station to complete the final strangulation by the ‘green necklace’ of downtown.

They say the river is wasted on parking. But that’s the one thing we all have in common, we drive to downtown. We get real close to the river every time we park. It’s an unintended consequence of going downtown, you drive along the river for hundreds of feet, rain or shine, rich or poor. You choose a spot near the store you’re shopping at. Get out of your car, glance over at the river right before you. Then when shopping is done you walk back a few feet over to the river, take it all in and go home. That is why Westport is a great shopping destination.