The first wave of the pandemic hit Connecticut hard, but lately things have gotten better. Thanks to emigration from New York, real estate is warmer than at any time since before the Great Recession. The reasons New Yorkers move to suburban Connecticut vary. Many have felt that a trip of an hour or more is more tolerable if you only go five days a month instead of five days a week. Others felt they might as well not have to regularly see empty-eyed homeless people fondling each other. Some had planned to come here anyway, and the prospect of another six months stuck in a two-bedroom apartment with loved ones made the schedule quicker.
Old wisdom is that New York’s suburbs, no matter how attractive they are in terms of schools or other “low-but-solid” attractions, cannot compete with the city culturally. I wonder if this is still true. Many of us left the suburbs years ago because of our indifference to literature, live music, theater and independent cinemas. We might not have gone to shows every week, but we liked the idea of being around people who were going. Now, however, the choice between suburban and urban life, as far as high culture is concerned, looks less like indifference against reverence than indifference against hostility. Urban movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have put high culture on the defensive. You don’t find literal attacks on the City Beautiful movement’s legacy of greatness in public art in the suburbs. It is also less painful when a museum or community library operates in apology tour mode than when a world-class cultural institution does. These acts of high culture hostility appear to be micro-versions of the 1963 demolition of the former Fine Arts Penn Station relived over and over again. Suburbs can be boring, but they’re also relatively vandalism-free, literally and figuratively.
Not all suburbs are created equal. In their demographic profile, the Connecticut suburbs resemble an expansive exurb of Sunbelt; but in terms of design, they resemble old towns like Boston, which was laid out before the advent of the automobile. Architecturally, the suburbs don’t offer much in terms of train stations and flagship skyscrapers. At their best, however, they feature the charms of the vernacular in abundance.
The stone walls are a glory of New England vernacular design. I am talking about dry-laid walls (without mortar) of weathered field stone. They frame old homes and meander through the forested areas of suburban Connecticut – in fact, D-wooded areas, old agricultural properties bounded by stone walls that have since been absorbed by nature. Necessity motivated their construction, but they value the landscape just as much as the walls built for aesthetic purposes.
In spring and summer, the stone walls blend into the greenery. In autumn, they make the falling leaves shine. In winter, they match the color of leafless tree trunks. The stone walls express the spirit of localism by reflecting the trust of the community. They are fragile, but delinquent adolescents do not rush them.
In 1871, according to a federal government study, the northeastern United States was home to more than 250,000 miles of stone walls. The walls are an extraordinary achievement, given the severe shortage of labor and machinery in colonial times, when most of them were built. Incidentally, newcomers to the recent out-migration might be interested to know that Connecticut built New York City, or much of it. The brownstone quarry in Portland, just south of Hartford, has produced thousands of townhouses. Closed for a long time, the quarry is now a water park.
Low-key good taste is another virtue, along with hard work and Yankee ingenuity (spurred on by the urge to find a way around hard work) evoked by the New England Stone Wall. One way or another, a beautiful stone wall, with its lichen patina and the boulders arranged as if they were stacked almost at random, is reminiscent of the WASP culture of old money.
Current Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont is a blue-blooded descendant of one of JP Morgan Jr.’s close associates Politically, of course, the WASPs are not what they used to be, but their cultural legacy no longer persists. than we generally imagine. In 21st century Connecticut, antique is still a verb.
Photo: KenWiedemann / iStock