Woog’s World / A celebration of small-town Saugatuck is gone

For more than a quarter century, this was the month when the Italian Festival ruled Saugatuck.

The annual fair drew thousands of people — Italians and every other background. They came from Westport, the rest of Connecticut and as far as Brooklyn. They rode Tilt-a-Whirls and Ferris wheels. They bought knickknacks, and played games of chance no one could ever really win. They enjoyed entertainment — Johnny Maestro was a regular performer — and ate food, food, food. Pizza. Sausage and peppers. Fried dough. (And — this being a carnival — tons of other food too. Jasmine — the Chinese restaurant across the street — was a longtime favorite.)

A short parade started on Riverside Avenue, featuring antique cars and marching bands. John LaBarca — host of radio’s longtime “Italian House Party” — waved to adoring women. Kids actually rode bikes alongside the drum corps. It was hokey. It was also tons of fun.

The parade tootled past what most folks had no idea was once St. Anthony’s Hall. A low-slung building on Franklin Street, for decades — until I-95 came through, signaling the end of Saugatuck as a tight-knit Italian neighborhood — it served as a community center. St. Anthony’s was where everyone gathered for weddings, anniversaries, and any other gathering you didn’t have in Assumption Church, not far away on Riverside.

As big as it was, the Italian Festival was really a celebration of small-town Saugatuck. Without knowing it, fair-goers celebrated the heritage of the Arciolas, the Santellas, the Giuntas — and so many other families that, generation after generation, were born, lived and died on those streets.

For hundreds of volunteers, Festival Italiano was a labor of love. They worked tirelessly all year, in July turning the railroad station parking lot and adjacent small park into a fair that, for over 25 years, defined summer in Westport, just as Compo Beach, the Levitt Pavilion and Westport Country Playhouse do.

Over the years though, the number of volunteers dwindled. The families that created and nurtured Saugatuck moved away. Young people had other priorities. In 2011, organizers announced there would be no more zeppole. John LaBarca had given his last wave. Johnny Maestro’s final song had been sung.

Saugatuck has changed, of course. It’s not the same as it was in the 1880s, when the first immigrants arrived to build the railroad (which itself irrevocably changed the neighborhood, and all of Westport). It’s not the same as it was in the 1930s and ‘40s, when extended families lived and worked and celebrated and mourned together, built businesses, supported Staples High School (also around the corner on Riverside), then traveled far beyond our borders to fight (and die) in World War II.

Saugatuck is not the same as it was in the post-war years, when I-95 sliced viciously through. Homes were demolished, roads re-routed. The highway — a symbol of progress and promise — cast a literal as well as figurative shadow on the vibrant neighborhood.

Yet Saugatuck evolved, and survived. It’s not the same place today it was in the late 20th century — or even 2011, the year that Festival Italiano died.

Of course, nothing is.

The Saugatuck of today is a bustling place. A redevelopment plan — spearheaded by Gault, the company headquartered there since the Civil War (and which itself moved from horse-drawn timber hauling, to coal and oil, and now into 21st-century energy), and Pete Romano’s LandTech company — has created an exciting mix of retail, restaurants and apartments.

With Gault’s oil tanks gone, the Saugatuck River has opened up. The kayak and paddleboard rental DownUnder shop introduced Westporters and guests to new recreational possibilities. Saugatuck Sweets is creating childhood memories for countless kids, just as the Ice Cream Parlor did back in its 1950s and ‘60s heyday. There are more choices for good food per square foot than — I’m sure — any other place in Fairfield County. (And you can taste them all in September, at another street fair: the Slice of Saugatuck.)

Challenges loom, for sure. The state of Connecticut keeps skulking around the train station, with plans to create a “transit-oriented district” that may spell the end of Railroad Place and environs — and exacerbate already veru bad traffic.

The William F. Cribari Bridge — a vital, 133-year-old link between Saugatuck’s narrow streets and the rest of Westport beyond — faces an uncertain future. The old-fashioned swing span might be renovated, and look nearly the same. Or it may be replaced, widened, and invite a flood of new traffic.

The Saugatuck of 2018 is not the Saugatuck of the past. It won’t be the Saugatuck of the future. We’ve lost a lot — including the great Italian Festival.

But Saugatuck has never lost its spirit. All those Arcudis, Renzullis and Nisticos would be proud.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.