Woog's World / The curious evolution of Jesup Green
Updated 11:45 am, Monday, March 11, 2013
Once upon a time, Jesup Green was a dump.
Take that literally. Jesup Green -- that patch of gently sloping grass and trees, bordered now by the Westport Library, police station, Matsu Sushi and a parking lot --once sat next to the town dump.
It was not too long ago, really. The library -- and Levitt Pavilion, behind it -- is built on landfill. But through the 1950s, that area served as Westport's garbage pit.
I guess it was convenient. I'm assuming we didn't care too much about the environment. (We sure did when the library was planning its move, back in the 1980s. Critics contended that a buildup of methane gas would cause the building to explode.)
Seagulls loved the dump. They flew north from Compo Beach, feasted on whatever they love in dumps, then headed back to the sound.
Next to the dump was a Little League field. Whatever qualms our parents might have had about young kids playing baseball next to garbage were eased by the fact that they could dump us at our games -- this was before parents attended every athletic contest and practice of every child -- and shop downtown. (Main Street's three hardware stores were perfect for fathers on Saturday mornings.)
After our games we walked -- unsupervised! -- half a block to a drug store. An actual soda fountain served drinks that tasted a lot better than Gatorade. The drug store has morphed into Tiffany's, which says as much about yesterday and today as a dump turning into a library does.
Jesup Green was, for many years, where the Memorial Day parade ended. Chaos ensued as floats, bands and Indian Guides made their way out of the crowded parking lot, drowning out speeches of town officials and World War I veterans, but for generations of Westporters, Jesup Green symbolized Memorial Day.
It was the perfect site for concerts, too. Andrew Loog Oldham -- the Rolling Stones' manager -- supposedly discovered the Repairs there one summer day.
At night, Jesup Green belonged to the riff-raff. Though within sniffing distance of the police station, it earned a reputation as the best place in Westport to sell or buy drugs. I don't know why, other than it was centrally located, looked mellow, and offered nice benches to sit on while dealing (or trying out the weed).
The benches were there because Jesup Green was also the Minnybus transfer point. They were innovative, red and white diesel-belching Mercedes buses -- hey, it's Westport -- that chugged through town. They'd pick you up and bring you to Jesup Green, where (if you were not staying downtown for the movies or Y, or to buy drugs) you would board a second Minnybus for your "final destination." It was cumbersome and lengthy, but the system gave plenty of Westporters -- most of them younger than 16 -- an enormous sense of independence.
You can still see remnants of the Minnybuses in the vestigial sign in the Taylor parking lot near the library. "Buses Only" it says, though it's been decades since we needed to keep that lane clear.
Jesup Green of old was bisected by a street. It ran from the police station parking lot down the middle of the grass, to the lower lot. When the library came in and the green was reconfigured, eliminating the street made the area far friendlier. Contrary to popular fears, it did not increase traffic on the adjacent road, running past what is now Crumbs.
The library brought other changes. Over the years they've beautified the area. There are benches, sculptures, chess tables, and a riverwalk masterminded by Betty Lou Cummings.
In return, the library uses Jesup Green every July for their humongous fundraiser. Big white tents hold hundreds of thousands of books, DVDs and whatnot. For a week, folks flock to the green. The grass gets trampled, but it grows back. It's a shot of life for downtown, and there's no better place for bargain-hunting book-lovers of all ages.
Jesup Green is the site of other community events. There's the cocktail reception before the Levitt Pavilion feature concert -- one year Willie Nelson, the next Buckwheat Zydeco, Smokey Robinson or the Beach Boys. There's the Maker's Faire and a Japanese festival in the spring. On New Year's Eve, it's a First Night bonfire.
Over the years, Jesup Green has evolved. Once, it sat next to the town dump. Now it nestles comfortably near the library.
The biggest change ever may lie ahead. The Westport Arts Center wants to build a 10,000-square-foot building on Jesup Green. The "greenery" would move to the current Taylor lot; parking would "burrow into" the hill.
A new Arts Center is better than a dump. Whether it's better than a gentle hill remains to be seen.