The New and the Old of It

Excerpted from the New York Times, Jul 20, 1974


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If you read the newspapers in America in 1780 or so – just as the modern familiar incarnation of the Christmas holiday is taking shape – you might be surprised to find that already critics and observers are fretting the loss of the true meaning, the spirit, of Christmas, much as they do today – because loss is not a defect or corruption of the winter holiday, but instead has always been a defining feature of modern Christmas feeling and expression.

And it is much the same, the historian Peter Fritzsche explained, with New England. “It is New England and particularly New England households that were visualized as the sites of historical transformation. Although the ‘westward progress’ of the nation is told and retold in triumphalist fashion, the counterpoint to this movement, which was northeastern stagnation, is rarely related. Since the landing at Plymouth Rock, New England had been the founding place for newcomers, but by the end of the Civil War, at the very latest, it was a place from which people departed. New-growth forests won back the stonewalled pastures, and wildlife returned as small towns lost one-half or more of their inhabitants. New Hampshire won back its 1840 population only in the 1980s.”

The gloomy, near-constant refrain these days (with little or no supporting evidence) of mass migration from Connecticut is itself a historical artifact that can be traced back through the decades.

If you have a subscription to the New York Times, you really should read how Old Lyme was described in the mid-1970s… “Residents, Scorning Developers, Seek to Keep the Old in Old Lyme” reads one headline, as though it was torn from the pages of accounts of the last election.

Lawrence Fellows, the reporter for the Times, writes that “The people of the gracious old town like it more or less the way it is,” even if by 1974 they were already fretting the need to install sewers at Point O’ Woods — a project, by the way, that would not get started for another 30 years.

For all the urgency of the last election in Old Lyme, the highest turnout anywhere in Connecticut, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how far back these conversations go…

“Trolley Traverses Streets of the Artist Colony – Protests Unavailing to Keep Out The Modern Mode of Suburban Traffic – President Wilson Was On The Petition,” a Norwich Bulletin declared in 1913.

Since 1989, the population of Old Lyme has grown from about 6,490 to 7,366. Median household income has grown (in inflation-adjusted dollars) from $83,177 to $92,383.  The median price for a single-family home (in inflation-adjusted dollars) was $421,074 dollars in 1989 and is $368,317 now.

None of that is to suggest that the threat of high-speed rail, or poorly-conceived development of Old Lyme, should be disregarded – it’s possible to read the historical record as a near-heroic triumph of preservationism and environmentalism, an unending struggle to save Old Lyme. From this perspective, why not stop now.

Or instead you may prefer to read the record as an eye-rolling generation-upon-generation inability to change. But keep in mind, like Christmas and loss, keeping the ‘old in Old Lyme’ has been for well over a century a defining feature of the town.

In either case, given that history – and after reading Tim Griswold’s cautious approach to change – rather than appealing to the moral and emotional satisfaction of extraordinary transformation that will likely never happen (and more than likely never happen well), may I counsel the newly-formed Affordable Housing Committee, and reformed Halls Road Improvements Committee, to target substantial immediate benefits to the people of Old Lyme.

Legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units would accomplish nothing if the goal is to qualify for the state’s definition of affordable housing under 8-30g, but it is sensible, immediate, low-impact reform that could actually help lower-income residents find housing, and elderly fixed-income homeowners find income and age in place.

Lyme-Old Lyme should also consider a scholarship program for disadvantaged students to attend our schools – adding needed students, at little or no actual cost to the town, and fulfilling part of the underlying motivation for development.

Add sidewalks, at town expense if necessary, to connect Lyme street to Route 156.

Make small, incremental, change a point of emphasis on the way toward larger solutions.