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Woog's World / 'Slice' celebrates Saugatuck's rebound

Updated 5:19 pm, Friday, September 14, 2012
  • The Festival Italiano in Saugatuck packed 'em in on the day this photo was shot in 1984. A shortage of volunteers sounded the death knell for the fest, but Saugatuck now is showing signs of new life. Photo: Contributed Photo, ST / Westport News
    The Festival Italiano in Saugatuck packed 'em in on the day this photo was shot in 1984. A shortage of volunteers sounded the death knell for the fest, but Saugatuck now is showing signs of new life. Photo: Contributed Photo, ST

 

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It's a festival of festivals in Westport these days.

Tomorrow, the second annual "Slice of Saugatuck" returns. It's not Festival Italiano -- no rides, rigged games or Johnny Maestro -- but then again, Saugatuck is not what it once was either.

The Italian Fest was actually a sequel to the Feast of St. Anthony. That long-ago celebration was reimagined as a carnival at Luciano Park. Each July, for over 25 years, it drew families from as far as Brooklyn. Opening day always featured a fun and funky parade, down Riverside Avenue and Franklin Street. It was just like the Saugatuck of old -- except the parade ran directly underneath the hulking I-95 overpass. That's as graphic a reminder as possible of what happened half a century ago, when an interstate highway slashed through a tight-knit, thriving Italian community.

Tucked in between Festival Italiano's fried dough and pizza stalls was a small tent. Inside were photos and mementos, recalling Saugatuck in the days of the Arcudis, Arciolas, Nisticos, and so many other legendary families.

It was a nod to the past. Looking around, outside the tent, festival-goers saw jarring reminders that the Saugatuck of old was gone. Esposito's gas station had become a takeout food place. The Arrow restaurant had morphed into Jasmine -- a Japanese-Chinese restaurant. Multi-family homes were replaced by 21 Charles Street. (If you can find an uglier office building anywhere, I don't want to see it.)

But now -- in just the two years that the Italian Fest has been gone -- Saugatuck is changing once again. The takeout food place is Tarry Lodge. Jasmine will soon become the Blu Parrot, with live music. The office building still stands, but now it's surrounded by street life.

Thanks to the Gault family -- and with help from Saugatuck stalwarts like Pete Romano -- new energy fills the old section of town. The Whelk, Saugatuck Craft Butchery and Down Under kayak store complement the ever-popular Rizzuto's, Viva's, Mansion Clam House, Black Duck and others. Bridge Square boasts a Pilates studio and several new restaurants. Apartments on the river were rented as soon as they went on the market.

And Phase II of the Saugatuck redevelopment -- promising plenty more -- is already under way.

It's all on display tomorrow, from noon to 3 p.m. Riverside Avenue and surrounding streets will pulse with food, wine, paddling and fly fishing demonstrations. It's not the Italian Fest -- but it is a perfect example of what makes Saugatuck so alive today.

Last year's event was free. This year there's a $5 fee. But the money goes to the Gillespie Center's food pantry, so it's all good.

Meanwhile, downtown Westport -- which stole Saugatuck's commercial thunder in the late 1800s, then seemed ready to surrender it back just a year or two ago -- counters with some fun of its own.

The Blues, Views & BBQ Festival over Labor Day weekend drew thousands of people to the Levitt Pavilion and library parking lot. Hard-driving music from folks like Billy Squier and James Montgomery; cooking contests and demonstrations; a Kids' Corral, and more barbecue than in all of Texas made Westport -- if only briefly -- the down-home capital of the country.

Blues, Views & BBQ has grown steadily over its first five years. The sponsoring Downtown Merchants Association has created a special event. When I say "Westport" you may not think "blues" or "barbecue," but it works.

The Labor Day weekend date -- new this year -- works, too. It's a relaxing time -- as relaxing as September can be, anyway. Here's hoping that Blues, Views & BBQ becomes a permanent fixture on the Westport calendar.

It's not as if we lack activities. Every day of the year, stuff goes on here. There are lectures at the library, classes at the Senior Center, charity fundraisers and auctions and whatnot.

But what really makes a community a community are community events. We need opportunities to stroll around, be entertained, meet neighbors and friends, eat, drink, try new things, get down.

A Slice of Saugatuck (brilliantly named, evoking both the area's geography while also honoring Italian pizza) is a true community event. There was as much friend-greeting last year as there was food-munching, which is to say a lot.

Blues, Views & BBQ is not yet a community event. It attracted far more out-of-towners than Westporters. But the word is getting out. Dozens of people have already said they won't miss it next year.

For a while, people here were talking about things we've lost, or will soon lose. Movie theaters, the bowling alley, Festival Italiano, the downtown Y -- we focused on all we are missing.

But we're gaining a lot, too. We've got a new Saugatuck, and a new festival there. We've got a downtown that's fighting back, and a new downtown plan.

Plus all the pizza and barbecue you can eat.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.