Woog’s World / What does the future hold for Westport?
It’s called the Westport Historical Society. Housed in an absolutely appropriate 18th-century Victorian home, the organization honors our town’s heritage with exhibits and programs on historically relevant topics like the growth of Saugatuck, education through the ages, and the Revolutionary War-era Battle of Compo Hill.
It’s a lot like any other New England town’s, though ours is (of course) better organized, more professionally run and definitely more interesting than anyone else’s.
But why look backward, when you can look ahead?
That’s what WHS officials asked. The result - which opened last Friday, and runs through the end of the year - may be a first for any historical society, anywhere. “06880 Plus 50” is a clever, creative and multi-faceted examination of what Westport may look, feel and act like in the year 2067.
For a historical society more familiar with featuring 1867 or 1767, it’s great leap forward. For anyone interested in figuring out where we’re going, it’s a fascinating concept.
The walls of the Sheffer Gallery are filled with the visions of more than a dozen architects. All either live or work in town. They’re men and women who have designed homes, offices and municipal buildings. They know what works here, what does not - and just as importantly, why. They understand Westport, and Westport.
Architects love to use their imagination to construct new things. In this exhibit they’re not building a new town. But by thinking about this place as it exists in a far-off, but quite tangible, future, they’re asking us to think about every aspect of our lives today.
Some of the architects have taken small elements of Westport life - the look and feel of downtown lights, for example. Others have focused on transportation (a high-speed ferry from Saugatuck to New York). One particularly fascinating contribution envisions the creation of clustered neighborhoods, complete with community centers, sustainable farms, and walking and bike paths - not much different, really, from the way things looked when the first settlers arrived (minus the bikes).
So what do I think Westport will look like in 2067? I’m no architect, so I’ll leave the buildings to others. But there are some big questions to consider.
What’s the future of education? Will we still need schools? If students learn completely online - or whatever the successor to the internet is - what will happen to those buildings? And if so, from a human standpoint: How and where will children and teenagers interact and socialize? Schools serve many important roles besides pure “education,” of course.
How about our beaches? Right now, Westport is engaged in intense discussions about crowds, access, fees and the proliferation of big tents. But what happens if - due to climate change, or a storm that makes Sandy look like a brief drizzle -- Compo is no longer sandy? We’ve all seen the damage that floods can do. Fifty years from now, will Soundview still be Sound-front property?
Let’s look at Longshore too. A little more than 50 years ago, the town bought that prime property, snatching it away from a real estate developer who had his eye on 200 or so homes. If our municipally owned club is still there (see paragraph above), will it remain the Longshore we know? Any golf course requires enormous resources - water, pesticides, manpower and more. Can we afford those in years to come? If not, what happens to all that land?
Similarly, we’ve spent decades debating the future of two large parks just steps from downtown. Like Longshore, Winslow was saved from development - in this case, as a department store - and is now beautiful open space. Dog lovers (and their dogs) love it. Others wonder if that’s the best use. Those issues are certain to be raised, again and again.
Baron’s South - Winslow’s across-the-Post Road neighbor - will almost certainly look different half a century from now. Whether that look includes an arts center, some form of elderly or affordable housing or more active recreation opportunities - all of which have been proposed - is unclear. But it is clear that after decades of ownership, Westporters want to do something with their land.
Perhaps that something will involve downtown, just steps away. Main Street and environs change slowly - they do evolve. The Y is gone; a new retail/residential complex has taken its place. Mom-and-pop shops have disappeared. Will chains follow? If so, what replaces them? We might have a chance to reclaim our river - if, like our beaches, it does not change itself.
When you see the Historical Society exhibit, you’ll come up with your own questions. As you do, consider this: Fifty years ago, it was 1967. Back then, when we thought about the Westport of today, would we have imagined the town we live in today.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com