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My town (December, 2007)


For 5 � years I have lived in a Connecticut town on the Long Island Sound a bit up the coast from New Haven.  The town is 36 square miles with a population in 2006 a tad under 20,000, 91% of whom were white (as opposed to 68% county-wide and 71% state-wide) with 400 residents (plus or minus) who were black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific.  The poverty rate for the town was 1.3%, as opposed to 9.5% for the county overall and 7.9% for the entire state.  Walking around town, it is hard to notice any non-white pedestrians.  You never encounter a panhandler, and if you did you would probably see a police officer seconds later.

The town has its own sandy beach (the only one of significance for many miles, and which non-town residents pay a hefty fee to use), a charming shopping street maybe 100 yards long, a little light industry, an excellent bagel store, a book store famous far beyond the town limits, a two-screen art cinema, and numerous country-like back roads.  The town sponsors a collection of modern sculptures, changing from time to time, focused on the town center and scattered over a mile.  A large green just off the shopping area hosts concerts, antique fairs, a farmers’ market (new this year) and frisbee players.  A State park with beach anchors one end of town.  US Route 1 runs through the town center, and Interstate 95 has three exits for the town.  Train tracks run near the center, though the only trains that stop are several local, rush hour-only trains (inbound mornings, outbound evenings) that link the town with the New Haven line to New York City; the commute to the City takes two-plus hours, and, judging by the weekday fullness of the station’s parking lot, many residents are willing to endure that time in order to live here.

The town includes a spacious gym, softball fields, tennis courts and nature parks.  I arrived long after my son was grown, but I hear the schools are quite good, albeit often the focus of political wrangles.  Parades take over the main streets on patriotic holidays, and July 4th has a fireworks show. The library is typical of upscale small towns, with a fair collection, a pleasant reading area, and always helpful staff who will go out of their way to find odd books on interlibrary loan for oddball readers like me.

The political culture is middle-of-the-road conservative.  Republicans usually have a majority of town offices, though
in the most recent election several weeks ago, a Democrat defeated a multi-term First Selectman to give his party a 3-2 majority (and therefore majorities on appointed committees) for at least the next two years. The truth is that at each local election it's hard to tell the difference between the two party platforms.  Symbolic of this is that when the parties have their annual softball game, players from one side may shift to the other to even out team numbers. 

A Congregationalist church behind the green supports at least some progressive causes: it has had a banner in support of Darfur victims, and I attended a showing of an anti-Walmart video there.  My wife and I also went to a dance there without being asked about our religious orientation.
While I wish my town were much more diverse, politically progressive, and included a good bakery and a supermarket with better culinary standards than the local Stop and Shop (a 2nd market, a bit better, is at the other end of town, but who wants to commute 10 minutes to pick up dessert?), I greatly enjoy living here.  I arrived a few weeks after turning 60, the starting age as it turned out for town senior discounts and athletic programs, and although not an athlete have played softball, basketball and tennis with other senior guys, largely older than I, in generally congenial, supportive atmospheres.  I have more male buddies now than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.  I expect I'll also always be viewed as a newcomer, no matter how long I live here.

The dark side of this movie-set New England town is the rancor that quickly develops when residents perceive threats to the life style (as they like to call it) with which they are familiar and content.  Suddenly, neighbors who disagree are conniving agents of wickedness, and the “life style” you want to preserve is intrinsically the right one which only a knave or fool would resist.  I’ll give three recent examples.

      Town squabbles 1: development

Several months ago, a private real estate development company went before the town zoning commission to request permission to build a shopping center at the easternmost I-95 exit, currently an undeveloped area.  Personally, I was opposed to the plan for environmental reasons and a belief that we shouldn't be encouraging aesthetic blight just, as some supporters argued, to increase the tax base and maybe lower property taxes.   I attended a zoning commission meeting to hear what people had to say, and especially to learn whether any support for the plan wasn’t about money.  The meeting overflowed, and many townspeople, including myself, were crammed together standing up.  The meeting went on for maybe 15 minutes.  During a presentation by a lawyer for the development company, a booming voice interrupted from the entranceway to announce, “This meeting is over.  Everyone clear the room.”  Turned out this was the fire marshal.  I don’t remember if his announcement noted up front that his order reflected a public danger because of the crowding, though this did become clear, but the military-like order and threatening tone inevitably raised many hackles, including my own before I understood what was happening, and prompted scattered attendees to shout out in protest and challenge whether the order was a result of town officials not wanting the meeting to proceed because it was clear the audience was overwhelmingly against the proposal.

The meeting was re-scheduled at a former high-school auditorium that had enough seats, though not by much.  After the real estate lawyer delivered his full talk, audience members were given a chance to speak.  Many did, too often repeating what someone else said.  Many speakers argued that the town life style (and environment) would be abysmally altered.  There were claims that rather than help the town economically, the center would require more town costs in maintenance and police needs.  A former cop contended that all sorts of undesirable types  would be attracted to the center, some of them as workers, and crime would increase. 

What I found as I listened was that I had little in common with speakers who opposed the center.  I detected the odor of racism in the fear of who might work at and visit the development.  Opposition to an added tax burden was clearly a general resistance to taxes for any purpose at all, including social do-gooding expenditures for which I would personally be willing to pay higher taxes.  The only audience member who spoke for the proposal, and did so in a mild-mannered way, was hissed at.  (Does our town life style include shouting down those who don’t agree with us, I wondered?)  I did get up and a bit clumsily challenge the tone of those with whom I agreed.

There was no way, so far as I could see, that the zoning commission would have the temerity to fly in the face of the audience’s overwhelming opposition to the proposal (though I had no idea how representative we were of the town overall), and it didn’t.  But I was more ashamed than happy after the meeting.  Indeed, I realized that no matter how opposed I was to the proposal, its approval would not have been the Armageddon of town culture that so many angry voices trumpeted.

      Town squabbles 2: school bus depot

A couple of years ago, the town decided it needed an expanded school bus terminal.  Every potential site, including one behind the condo community where I live, was protested by nearby residents.  (Readers may be familiar with the NIMBY—not in my back yard—concept, which together with concerns about cost seem to dominate support and opposition to local initiatives .)  When the town finally narrowed to the site that was ultimately used, local residents came to the next town meeting with arguments blazing.  (I imagine the spirit, though not all the specifics, would have been the same from nearby residents of whatever site was chosen.)  Children would be endangered by the proximity of US Route 1, noise would be intolerable, other locations made more sense, property values would suffer….  The tone behind the presentations was that the town council (technically, Board of Selectmen, albeit women have served on it) and the zoning commission and anyone else involved in the decision had cynically and nefariously chosen this site.

      Town squabbles 3: senior center, ambulance, library

In the past year, the town prepared a funding referendum to revamp an existing senior center to serve as a small ambulance office while building a new senior center.  The referendum was defeated.  So far as I can tell, it was all about reluctance to spend town funds (and possibly raise taxes for the construction).  Charges and counter-charges were made that an existing building could be converted to one of the structures.  (I never could tell who was right on this last point, though it appeared that there were some valid reasons for NOT converting the building in question.) 

The issue will probably come up again on another ballot.  Linked with it initially was a major library expansion.  The town library was last expanded about 15 years ago, and current employees say they have significant overcrowding.  To an average occasional user, the library can seem quite adequate, but I do have the feeling that expansion would significantly improve library use and expand its facilities.  Here I think we run into an extra complication about spending money and raising taxes.  Many people, I gather, rarely or never use the library, while all my life libraries have been sanctuaries to me.  I think there is some image that libraries are more for school kids at all levels, and adults with grown kids may not see the point in serving the next generation.  There may also be some association of libraries and excessive education (cf. eggheads like me) or even “liberal” politics.  (Why does it seem that the less educated a person, the higher the likelihood he or she will fear change?)

Those who run the library decided to withdraw the ballot proposal and await the November, 2008, ballot, presumably in the hope that large turnout for a presidential election will help passage.

Aside from my own selfish needs, I like to imagine that book education, whether formal or personal, enhances society and the rationality with which people think about issues public and private.  At any rate, as Lady Brett says at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

    Cops, robbers, and dating transgressions

In the last year, my town has managed to have three cops arrested, one (according to the local weekly paper) for wee-hours theft of food from a fish restaurant, one for using the police database system to vet potential girlfriends, and one for giving legal advice to the first.  I think all of these cases are still pending, but the last one intrigues me.  Supposedly this cop was a union rep and was advising his colleague to use his constitutional rights not to answer questions and to hire a lawyer.  Why this would be illegal or the basis for discipline is beyond me unless the police code itself is constitutionally challenged.  But you have to figure that more is going on here—that this last cop has a history of behavior that his superiors want to get him for but can’t make stick and, for legal or tactical reasons, won’t make public. 

Over the months since the first arrest, new charges have been brought against one or another of these cops.  According to the police department, it is already short-staffed, so the issues among these officers much be pretty grave, at least to the powers-that-be.  One wonders if, for good reasons or bad, other cops will be brought up on charges as time passes.  It is certainly interesting to be an onlooker, sensing that more is going on behind the scenes than is made public but having little idea what that is.  Of if the accusations are all legit, then it’s interesting that they're being handled in a way that unnecessarily makes the authorities look suspicious. 

This is the kind of thing that makes citizens wary of trusting their officials—though admittedly for some citizens little excuse is needed.

Added January, 2008: Since I wrote the above, three more arrests have been made, two new cops plus one of the three previously arrested, for consorting with New Haven prostitutes during the shift that starts at midnight.  I have also heard from someone who probably knows that the cop who seems to have been run in for advising a colleague of his constitutional rights has indeed, in the authorities' eyes, in fact done other things  for which they don't have enough to indict him.  Who knows what is actually going on, but such is the gossipy uncertainty that accompanies veiled malfeasance.

Several days later: It strikes me that the cop busted for using the police computer to check out dates was probably doing something a lot of cops everywhere dousing department information for personal purposes.  My guess is that if so, this is viewed within the culture as a to-be-winked-at perk, behavior probably viewed by peers as akin to the pranks of  Sgt. Bilko, to chuckle indulgently at from a distance but to be enforced with draconian rigor on the infrequent times it comes to the attention of officialdom.  Indeed, skiving off while on duty, especially on the graveyard shift  (though not necessarily with sexual liaisons into the bargain), is probably not unusual in police departments.  How often have we heard sarcastic references to on-duty cops doing things besides patrolling?  (On the other hand, perhaps grown men in responsible positions should be expected to stop behaving like fraternity brats.)  As Captain Renault, as a croupier hands him a bribe, says to Rick in Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Some deity or other knows I have little sympathy for cops when they violate civil liberties or plant evidence or search without warrants, and I dislike TV shows or movies when they ask us to wink at such peccadilloes in cops with otherwise good motivations.  But real-life cops are, after all, human, and perhaps we should at worst be less surprised when they transgress in relatively minor ways and at best be less outraged or punitive.  Some punishment may be in order, but for "lesser" transgressionswhich would NOT include theft--we (or at least my town) should find ways to make the punishment fit the actual crime.

In this repsect, though glad to see him in trouble, I felt similarly about Nixon and Watergatethat he got caught doing a version of what all presidents do in some form.  Far more significant than that, pace Bill Clinton (of whom I'm no fan) getting caught with his pants down, is lying and deception that challenges the constitution and runs roughshod over rights at home and abroad.  To take a random example, oh I don't knowthe current administration's behavior in relation to overseas military action and domestic civil liberties?

Follow-up news reports
January 31, 2008: (from the Madison weekly, The Source)   cop suspended    cop fired (1)   cop fired (2)      new cop hired 
New Haven Register:  Feb. 1, 2008    Feb. 5 
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