New London's staying power

Hartford Courant Staff Writer

When he fishes, Joseph Ibrahim usually just drops a line in or around Groton, Conn., his shoreline hometown.

But on this blustery spring day, he's come with his family -- daughter Arianna, 5, and her mother, Crissy Rousey -- to try his luck off New London's city pier, with its impressively wide promenade. The three are shivering in the chill wind that blasts up from Long Island Sound, but they're looking for stripers, and they say they'll stay until they hook something.

That's as good a metaphor as any for New London and its people. This old whaling city has plenty to offer, but sometimes you have to wait. What you see from your perch is only part of what you could be getting.

Unlike people in so many other New England towns, New London residents didn't automatically level historic buildings to make room for modernity. It's not the same city it was 50 years ago, but visitors can still find vestiges of every era during which the town has proudly held ground on the shore of the Thames River. It has survived colonial fire from the British, economic downturns, brain drain and urban renewal.

What's left is a nuanced, multilayered city proud of its past. Walk along historic Bank Street -- or State or Huntington -- and look down. Embedded in the sidewalks are 30-some bronze plaques, courtesy of a number of downtown organizations, that mark what once stood at the sites -- an old grocery store, a hotel and a former cigar and tobacco company along the do-it-yourself heritage trail.

Look up, and enjoy a blocklong mural of undersea life, a fanciful rendition of a sculpture park, or filigrees on old buildings that include three female figureheads, painted to enhance their anatomical correctness.

The city's six square miles pack a wallop for any visitor -- diverse restaurants, entertainment, history and a waterfront that is accessible and much used.

New London's most recent resurrection came after the late '80s and early '90s, when the town's fortunes were irrevocably tied to the fate of Electric Boat shipyard across the river in Groton. In one report, the U.S. Department of Labor said southeastern Connecticut was more dependent on defense than any area in the entire country. When defense contracts started drying up, so did New London. At one point, unemployment in the area ran 7 percent, and notions such as historic preservation could have taken a back seat to economic survival.

The opening of the area's two huge casinos helped the financial picture a little, but when Pfizer began building a giant global research facility on the waterfront, things started to look up. The plant changed forever the face of New London's shoreline, and development -- what to save, what to bulldoze -- is still a hot issue here. Two years ago, a New London case involving eminent domain -- the right of the government to seize private property for public use -- made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The city was founded in 1646 by John Winthrop the Younger, a former governor of Connecticut, and it first went by the name of Pequot, after the local tribe. An exclusive enclave at the city's southern tip retained the name for years. That neighborhood -- where stately mansions still dot the blocks -- drew swells like the family of Eugene O'Neill, who won the Nobel Prize and four Pulitzers for his plays (and who was, for a time, employed at the old New London Telegraph). Named for his actor father's most popular role in the play, "The Count of Monte Cristo," the family's sea-facing cottage has been painstakingly restored and is open for tours. New Londoners are proud of their award-winning son: A larger-than-life bronze statue of O'Neill as a little boy sits at the City Pier. He's scribbling on a pad, drawing the distant lighthouse, which is all but obscured by new buildings.

The pier, just off busy Bank Street, is a frequent gathering place for fishers like Ibrahim and for tall ships, music and festivals. Scattered around town -- though mostly within walking distance -- are the historic Hempsted Houses, the Shaw-Perkins Museum (yes, George Washington most likely slept there) and the U.S. Custom House, near where the historic ship Amistad once docked.

But New London isn't all about the past. Cultural gems include a diverse choice of restaurants (Northern Indian, anyone? Bulgarian soup? Brie? Chocolate?) and a healthy schedule at the restored Garde Arts Center, a 1920s-era movie palace with an ornate Moroccan interior, now home of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and a host of upcoming national acts such as the Neville Brothers and Keb'Mo'.

Parking is ample (and a lot of it's free), and you get the sense that just beneath the surface are people who love their city and work hard to make it interesting. All summer and into the fall, look for art, music, and poetry readings at the lovely Hygienic Art Park, with its statuary, and restrooms marked "Gods" and "Goddesses."

Which brings us to yet another reason to love New London: Hygienic Art Inc.

During the Revolutionary War, the British set fire to New London (for which we can thank traitor Benedict Arnold). The building that would later house Hygienic was built in 1844 atop one of the old colonial foundations as part storehouse for ships' provisions and part crews' quarters. It later became a hotel, and, in 1919, a restaurant. The 24-hour eatery was named the Hygienic in the '30s and attracted all kinds of diners, including Al Capone and President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- though not at the same time.

Later, as the town's fortunes began to fade, the restaurant's clientele grew notably long of tooth. In the late '70s, such artists as photographer A. Vincent Scarano began showing their work in gatherings modeled after Paris art shows, where artists, eschewing the upper class, set up in the seamier neighborhoods.

The restaurant closed in '85, and developers bought the building to tear it down and make room for a parking lot. But the artists who'd been showing their work there for nearly two decades stepped in and, with the help of other concerned citizens, saved the building.

The building is now Hygienic Art Inc., marked by a fanciful neon sign that would say, if all the letters worked, "HYGIENIC RESTAURANT" but instead says "HYGIENIC ART." It includes indoor galleries, a whimsical garden out back, a sculpture garden and outdoor theater next door and a huge outdoor mural of Greek statues. Along with Hygienic, the neighborhood has undergone an economic rejuvenation with new restaurants, specialty shops and a sprawling antique store.

"Economic development wasn't our goal," says Scarano, Hygienic Art's president. "Our goal was to provide great gallery space and venues for all artists." He says 450 artists hang work in their space.

At Hygienic -- as in the rest of New London -- you just need to wait a moment for the next event.

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