Woog's World: Let's reimagine as we reopen Westport

It took six seconds to shut down Westport. It’s taking six centuries to open back up.

OK. I’m exaggerating. But as the cold spring of quarantine gives way to a hot summer unlike any we’ve ever known, we’re taking stock of ourselves — and our town — like never before.

That might not be a bad thing.

The reopening of Westport is welcome, for sure. Merchants we’ve missed have unlocked their doors. Our favorite restaurants are back in business; our barbers, hair stylists and nail salons too. The golf course, athletic fields, beach — all are once again ready for us.

It’s just like old times. Except it’s not. We don’t feel right picking up merchandise, examining it, putting it back. We can’t try on clothes; we take them home, and if they don’t fit we return them (off they go, to quarantine). Waiters wear gloves, like they’re delivering poisoned food. Picnic tables and grills have vanished from Compo, along with lifeguards (and water fountains). We feel like semi-unwanted guests, in a place we used to call home.

But maybe, like someone who has been away for a while and finally returns, we can look at “home” with fresh eyes. A homeowner might realize, with surprise, that the house needs painting. Perhaps it’s time for new carpets, blinds, even a gut renovation to create a different flow inside.

In other words, business as usual may give way to business as unusual. It could be better. All we have to do is figure out how.

Town officials and the Westport Downtown Merchants Association have taken the first steps toward a long-discussed, often-derided plan to make Main Street a “pedestrian mall.” Parking was eliminated from the Post Road to Elm Street; now there’s more room for stores to show wares, and people to move.

Why stop there though? Let’s reimagine all of downtown. Who says all that prime riverfront property should be dedicated to cars? For nearly 70 years, Parker Harding Plaza has been an inefficient eyesore. There is no reason it still must be. Now is the time to reclaim the Saugatuck River. A park, kiosks, food carts — imagine the possibilities.

Imagine the people who could come downtown too, if only there were apartments, stores that sold more than trendy clothes, and offices for doctors, lawyers and nonprofits. Imagine if everyone parked in a semi-underground garage, with an athletic field on top.

Sure, it takes imagination. But it took imagination — right for the 1950s, wrong for the 2020s — to build Parker Harding Plaza in the first place, as landfill replaced the river that lapped up against the backs of Main Street stores. And that reimagining took place without a global pandemic that reordered the way everyone relates to our planet.

During this reopening phase, town officials have reacted quickly to changing circumstances. For years there were strict rules about restaurant outdoor seating. While well-intentioned — balancing safety, parking spaces, neighbors and probably a thousand other things — the regulations hampered both restaurant owners and diners. Now, with the state encouraging outdoor dining, tables, umbrellas and good-looking barriers sprout everywhere. We’re starting to look like Europe, and not just on Main Street. The next step is to make this permanent; encourage owners to install heaters for cooler weather, and watch our restaurant scene flourish.

It’s already happening on Railroad Place. Keep your eye on that spot, and all of Saugatuck. Chances are we will never go back to the number of commuters we once had. The implications are huge, including less traffic (good for quality of life, bad for businesses that depend on it), and more opportunities for smart development. Once again, the river can play an enormous rule — just as when Saugatuck was the original heart of town.

The drop in commuting will mean more people working from home. What does that mean for civic life? With at least two more hours of free time a day, will they be more inclined to participate in local organizations and town affairs? Will their shopping and eating habits change? Will our neighborhoods themselves change during the day?

I have no idea. I also don’t know how our schools will change. Decisions on buses, classroom size, the role of distance learning, even the importance of standardized tests — all will be made in the coming weeks and months. High-quality education has been a hallmark of this town. We’ve always talked about it in the context of the rest of the United States. Now we have a chance to reimagine it.

Reopening Westport is no easy task. But — thanks to some of the questions the coronavirus has forced us to ask — it can also be a wondrous one.

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.