Woog's World: A community amid coronavirus

None of us is yet sure of the full impact the coronavirus will have on our community, country, the world or our psyches.

Schools may close. Public gathering places like churches, temples, the library and the Y may become ghost towns. Restaurants may suffer grievously.

Or maybe not. We may disinfect enough surfaces, shake few enough hands and touch our faces so rarely that we can skate through this health crisis relatively unscathed. Hopefully, we will learn our lessons and be better prepared for the next superbug, or (it too may come) biological weapon.

But whatever happens, we will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as different people. After all the talk of quarantine and isolation, of working from home and schooling remotely, of seeing empty trains and planes, we will begin to think of “community” in a different way. After decades of expanding our horizons — of seeing the world as an exciting, inviting place to enjoy, explore and exploit — we will of necessity narrow our focus to our home town. As we rely on our nearby neighbors more (and become much more worried when one of them coughs), we will realize that, for better or worse, there is no place like home.

Westporters have been through this before. In the beginning, we had no choice. As the first settlers cleared land and planted crops, they needed each other — for shared labor, for advice, for friendship, for protection against the natives whose land they were seizing.

As their numbers grew, they formed small communities based around churches. Meetinghouses like the one in Greens Farms (near the site of today’s Sherwood Island Connector commuter parking lot) were much than places to worship. They were where you saw friends, exchanged news and gossip, found the spiritual and emotional sustenance to get through another fairly solitary week. They were community centers in every sense of the word.

But even before there was a Westport, “Westporters” were not always united. The Revolutionary War posed an enormous test. Though today we revere our Minutemen — the farmers who fired upon British soldiers as they returned from their arsenal-burning assault on Danbury — we forget that a good number of their neighbors supported the crown. Patriots and Tories lived side by side.

I can’t imagine what those opposing political ideas must have done to the sense of community. But there were fields to plow, crops to plant and harvest, barns to be raised. Somehow, it all got done.

The Saugatuck Church meetinghouse was where the feeling of community was translated into reality. In 1835, as commerce that began in the village of Saugatuck advanced north to what we now call downtown, the town of Westport was born. Suddenly, disparate neighborhoods had one identity. What a powerful force that must have been.

Community spirit was undoubtedly strong over 100 years later, when the nation was plunged into World War II. High school students did their part; every Tuesday, the boys headed to the YMCA to learn how to jump off a burning submarine and into the water. On graduation day in 1943, 10 chairs sat empty. A full one-fifth of graduating seniors had already joined the military.

Throughout towns, women planted victory gardens. It was a terrible time, one I can’t imagine. But from everything I’ve heard and read, the town and country stood united in a common cause.

“Community” was a defining characteristic of Saugatuck. More than in any other area of town, the families who lived, worked, played, were born, grew up and died in the compact riverside district felt connected to each other. Shops, restaurants, churches, doctors, schools, factories — all were there, closeby.

In Saugatuck, people knew each other’s business in a good way. They looked out for each other’s kids and grandparents. They celebrated and grieved together. They were one another’s eyes, ears and hearts.

Interstate 95 ripped the heart out of Saugatuck. The neighborhood is still lively, still walkable and enjoyable, but it has not been the community it was since the highway came in.

Sharing the threat of the coronavirus will not bring such a sense of togetherness back to Westport. We will not know our neighbors as well as the Saugatuck families once did. We will not have a common, let’s-win-this-fight-whatever-it-takes spirit as so many did in WWII. We will not share the excitement of creating a new town or gather together with excitement each week in a meetinghouse.

But perhaps we will think a bit more than we have about our neighbors who may be sick or vulnerable. Perhaps we will go out of our way to help people we know and strangers next door. Perhaps we will not wash our hands so easily of other folks in town.

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 danwoog06880.com.