NEW LONDON — For Laura Natusch, historic preservation and building community go hand-in-hand.
“It’s very important to me that the history that we are preserving reflects our community – that people who grew up here feel like their lives mattered,” said Natusch.
Natusch is the executive director of New London Landmarks, a non-profit in New London that teaches people about the area’s history through walking tours, narrative projects and the renovation of historic buildings.
Natusch said that preservation creates a kind of “community genealogy.”
Her goal is to highlight a history that reflects the entire community, not just a single group. Stories about New London’s history as a whaling town have to be about more than just the whalers — it has to include mariners, shop owners, and crew members, too — everyone who made their living from the industry.
“It’s not just the moneyed interests, or people with power,” Natusch explained.
It was this same belief of the value of so-called “ordinary” people’s history that inspired her most recent undertaking — the pandemic documentation project. She asked New London residents to submit photos, poetry, videos or short journal entries of life during the pandemic.
Part of the goal of the project is to collect a “time capsule” for future historians and researchers — Natusch said she was frustrated that there was no documentation about how New London dealt with the 1918 flu pandemic.
According to Natusch, the pandemic project is also about drawing people together in the present.
“We’re all isolated right now,” she said. “We don’t exactly know how all the different parts of our community are experiencing the pandemic … this is a way of sharing and learning.”
Some of her favorite submissions are ones that highlight the ways people have tried to help one another during the pandemic, or those that capture the shared vulnerability of people and the loss of the most ordinary parts of everyday life.
Natusch’s belief in communal history has also led her to dig more deeply into the history of African Americans in New London, which she feels has been undertold. She remembered an exchange she had with a man named Willie Jackson, who had grown up in New London.
“When I walked him around town … I pointed out areas of significant Black history, Black local history,” she said. “Like, there’s the home of the woman who wrote the precursor to the Green Book. And here’s where an enslaved person lived. And here’s where civil rights icon Linwood Bland Jr. lived.”
Jackson, she said, told her that he’d always felt disconnected from New London’s history, having never known any of these stories. It was one of the things that made it easy for him to move away from the city as an adult.
Natusch said that New London Landmarks is currently working on developing a walking tour of 15 sites that are connected to Black history in the city. The city has given the organization the task of researching the sites, writing text for the plaques and creating content for an accompanying website.
“We wanted it to span centuries. We want to tell the long story about the earliest black people here who are part of the historical record, right up to and through the civil rights movement,” said Natusch. “We had this long story about resilience – Black strength, resilience, and accomplishment.”
Natusch said that community involvement has always been a central part of her life in New London.
She moved to the city with her husband in 2000. They moved because of the artistic scene. Natusch has a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and her husband is a musician. They quickly felt at home in the city.
“Within two weeks that I felt like I had more friends here than I had had anywhere else,” said Natusch.
Natusch is an amateur playwright and painter, and her husband built harpsichords and plays in a band. She also had a business making and selling soap at local farmers markets and online.
“I wanted to make something … that was useful, affordable and offered some sensory delight,” she said. “I also was a strong believer in local economies.”
She ran for city council in 2013, and although she lost the election by 22 votes, she was appointed Chief Administrative Officer for the City of New London the following year. She worked on growing the city’s fund balance, raising the bond rating and getting a referendum passed to fund school construction.
“[New London] is so small that everybody is accessible,” she said. “Our city councilors are accessible. Our mayor is accessible. And it’s a place where if you put in any effort, you can have an impact. So it’s very rewarding to be involved in politics in any way.”
After becoming executive director of New London Landmarks in April of 2017, one of her first acts was to lobby to save two buildings located on Bank Street, part of New London’s downtown. The two buildings were slated for demolition. Both had their own individual histories — one was a boarding house for sailors during the 19th century — but Natusch was focused on the bigger picture.
“What really matters is not poking a hole in a streetscape because you have these buildings that all relate to each other,” she said.
Natusch credits her experiences as a playwright for attracting her to historic narratives. Storytelling, she said, is a natural part of being human, and can explain why it’s possible to connect so strongly with what happened hundreds of years ago.
“We don’t experience life as a series of unconnected moments. We crave stories. We crave narratives. It’s a hallmark of being human,” she later wrote in an email. “So it’s profoundly comforting to walk through a historic neighborhood and feel layers upon layers of the past mingling with the present.”
A more practical reason to learn about local history is that an area’s past often directly affects the policies that guide the present. One example that Natusch focuses on is housing. New London Landmarks recently worked with Connecticut College to produce a map of the city during the period of urban renewal, which happened between the years 1941 and 1975.
During those years, historic buildings were demolished in order to make way for I-95 and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and to construct lower-income housing. Some of these developments directly affected minority neighborhoods, and Natusch said that this wasn’t a coincidence.
One area that was razed during the urban renewal period was Shapley Street, which Natusch called one of her favorite places in New London. The neighborhood was one of the earliest integrated neighborhoods in the city. By the time it was demolished in the 1960s, it had become a majority Black neighborhood.
Natusch said this history still echoes today in New London.
“When people look at why certain neighborhoods have high and low property values … even if there are laws in place now for equitable housing, the legacy of discriminatory housing practices is still with us,” she said.
Two of her current projects deal with this.
Natusch is working on creating a walking tour of Belden Street, where the New London-based non-profit HOPE Inc. purchased and is renovating more than a dozen historic buildings with the intention of turning them into affordable housing.
“These days, probably the bigger threat to historic buildings and historic streets or neighborhoods is not something like urban renewal,” said Natusch. “It’s usually a building that has fallen into disrepair. It’s been neglected. And eventually somebody realizes that it’s not going to be economically feasible to save it.”
New London Landmarks is also renovating 23 Franklin Street, a $400,000 project being funded through tax credits, funding for affordable housing and a bridge loan and several grants from the City of New London. The site was the home of Lynnwood Bland Jr, president of the New London branch of the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement.
“What I like about this, is it talks about how historic preservation does not have to go hand in hand with gentrification,” she said.
Natusch said that going forward they want to put a greater focus on educational programming, so that everyone is able to feel that they are equally vested in, and equally part of, the community.
“People become connected to a place, and they become connected to their community and it becomes their identity,” said Natusch. “And then it becomes something precious to you that you want to save.”
Photograph of Shapley St., courtesy of New London County Historical Society.