NORWALK, Conn. – First they came for the bluestone curbs.
Norwalk is a city of a hundred neighborhoods, so sometimes we forget that for more than 350 years Norwalk has carved out its story of America from the fertile lands along a river valley through the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars and now the Digital Age. We forget these things because the shape of where we live loses its ties to history when we that last bit of old stuff makes way for the new.
Last summer, despite being designated as a historic district, the Camp Street repaving project undertaken by Norwalk's Department of Public Works ripped out perfectly serviceable bluestone curbs to replace them with preformed concrete curbs. Mayor Richard Moccia refused to save the curbs, citing cost and time. Of course, no cost study was ever provided, and the time issue was moot. The concrete curbs took quite a while to be installed. The residents who have carefully cultivated restorations of Victorian homes, proudly designated by historic plaques, were astounded that a mayor could be so short-sighted as to not value the long-term effect of preserving the historic look of the streetscape at a time when every city in America is burnishing their historic assets in hopes of generating tourist dollars. Should it even be a surprise then to note that the work of Richard Booth, who wrote the walking tour of Camp Street, has long been missing from the city of Norwalk's website?
Nothing to see here, please move along.
Norwalk owns many historic properties, including the Lockwood Mathews Mansion, the Mill Hill Historic Park and the Norwalk Museum. Except that in the case of the Norwalk Museum, the building built for its collections is not used by the museum. Mayor Moccia chose to use it for the fire department's temporary headquarters, while the new fire station is built. The city has not allocated any of its triple-A bond rating to fund the capital outlays to restore any of the properties it owns, choosing instead to use its low credit rates to fund the First Taxing District's infrastructure debt. But hey, we can think of that as heritage support, since the water mains were installed not that far from being called 19th century. So no opportunities for increased tourism at our heritage sites.
Then they came to put the art and artifacts in storage.
The proposal to close the Norwalk Museum and place its collections in storage comes on the heels of many years of not funding the curatorial systems to document and catalog the collection items. It comes with many years with no marketing budget, no development budget and no way to even attempt to increase the visitation to the museum. The Norwalk finance director, whose expertise apparently includes cost estimation of preservation and storage of antique artifacts, claims a cost savings can be achieved by closing the museum and placing the collections in storage. I'm sure he forgot to calculate the added savings to the Board of Education, which can now eliminate field trips to the museum as well.
The mayor claims that the city budget is forcing the issue. Yet this is the same mayor who can't seem to understand that an investment in a pedestrian-friendly, culturally accessible city contributes to the property tax revenue growth. In fact, this mayor is so revenue generation adverse, he's overseen the loss of grant monies used to fund cultural organizations and projects. Chronic violations of city laws regarding obstructed sidewalks and garbage disposal remain unfined and unenforced. When the tax assessor fails to realize a newly built building has been untaxed for years because there is no system to consolidate zoning and building permits with tax records, he must channel Rick Perry and say, "Oops." When the city pays out millions more in insurance premiums because the city doesn't employ its own risk assessor, he looks to outsource garbage collection. And while other cities hire the expertise to write grants and seek funding to keep the level of services and programs active and accessible to Norwalk taxpayers, he relies on volunteers to get around to it.
While the mayor has made an effort to support arts and culture in Norwalk in the past, he has clearly changed directions. Where he has cultivated the arts and cultural community in the past, he has withdrawn to his office lair and allowed City Hall staff to lead policy while ignoring the very community he had once so vocally supported.
The economy is tough enough to deal with. Do we really need an assault on Norwalk's cultural heritage from the political leaders who ran on a campaign supporting the arts and culture? The recent budget plans from the governor's office to defund line item earmarks to our major attractions are equally alarming. Is this time to double down on abandoning our cultural attractions?
I strongly oppose the plans to defund the Norwalk Museum, and call on the mayor to engage the arts and cultural community on policy decisions. Further, I urge the mayor to call together the legislative delegation to plan a strategic policy presentation to the governor and the legislative branch is needed. Let's stop the "mailing it in" reactive responses and work to preserve not only what we have, but build on what we could be.
Jackie Lightfield, author of Discover Norwalk, a travel guide, is former chair of the Norwalk Arts Commission and the Zoning Commission and co-founded the nonprofit Norwalk 2.0, a community development agency.