Woog's World: #Lives Matter, a challenging subject in Westport for diverse reasons
Published 6:43 am, Friday, May 15, 2015
Black lives matter. White lives matter too. All lives, in fact, matter -- brown, yellow, young, old, straight, gay, rich poor.
But is there a difference between "Black lives matter" and "White lives matter?"
There is if one of those messages is delivered in broad daylight, on placards held by black and white protesters. And if the other is delivered in the dead of night, on flyers stuck in plastic bags and hurled onto the front lawns and driveways of unsuspecting Westporters.
By now, most people in town have heard of those anonymous flyers. They were a response to the nationwide outcry that arose in the wake of brutal treatment of black Americans by police officers, in various parts of the country. Some call the offenders "rogue cops." Others see them as symbols of institutional racism.
That's not the point. The beatings -- and deaths -- of black people are happening. They're real. While bringing attention to them with the slogan "Black lives matter" will not bring those lives back, it has ignited a national debate on important issues like housing policies, educational opportunities and our nation's continuing struggle with black-white relations.
Westport is not immune from that struggle. We are far less racially diverse than many places -- and even less so economically -- but we pride ourselves on not being like so many other affluent, almost-all-white suburban towns.
A few people may have moved here to get away from some type of population they did not care for wherever they lived. Many more though seem to have chosen Westport over other places specifically because it offers -- in addition to excellent schools, nice homes and abundant recreation -- a social and cultural milieu that is broad-minded and accepting.
While some suburban towns turned inward during the 1960s civil rights movement, Westport looked outside. The Intercommunity Camp brought Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport youngsters together in a child-centered way that impacted all who were involved. (Teenagers too. Counselors from all four towns formed friendships that lasted long after the camp ended.)
During the academic year, Project Concern was a meaningful, well-supported program. Bridgeport students entered Westport elementary schools, and stayed through Staples graduation. Everyone benefited: Westport students and teachers, as well as Bridgeport youngsters. Some of those friendships remain to this day.
Project Concern ended when funding was cut. A current program (Open Choice) is lottery-based. And A Better Chance of Westport -- part of a national organization, but locally run and supported -- has enriched the lives of ABC scholars, as well as many more Staples students and their families.
Illustrator Tracy Sugarman was one of several Westporters who spent Freedom Summers in Mississippi. His experiences there influenced the rest of his life's work. (And brought civil rights leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer to his Westport home.)
Temple Israel's role is noteworthy because, during the early 20th Century, Westport was not always welcoming to Jews. There are stories about restrictive policies at places like the Fairfield County Hunt Club, and the summer cottages by Compo Beach. But the "gentleman's agreement" eroded much earlier here than it did in similar Fairfield County towns.
One area of diversity in which Westport has made little progress is economic. Compared with 50 years ago, this is no longer a place where many "middle class" people can afford to live. Teachers, firefighters, police officers -- they're gone. It costs a ton to buy (or even rent) in Westport, whatever your color. The ramifications are huge (and the subject of another column.)
That's not to say we've turned our back completely on housing options. Homes With Hope has done a superb job providing houses for people with limited means, including victims of domestic abuse. Hales Road and Sasco Creek Village are two other sites of affordable housing.
Still, a couple of recent proposals met with resistance. While the issues are complex -- and hardly "black and white"-- there were whiffs of concern by some Westporters about what would happen if "they" came to town.
The plan to replace the Westport Inn with 200 apartments -- some deemed "affordable," to help reach the state-mandated 8-30g minimum -- would have increased density (and traffic) on an already dangerous stretch of the Post Road. Senior housing at Baron's South raised numerous environmental and land-use issues. However, in both cases, a few Westporters worried that "affordable" might be a code word for "people unlike us."
America is a complex place. Our country grapples with issues of race, income inequality and much more. Westport is not immune to those discussions. Unfortunately, we are also not immune to anonymous flyers tossed, under cover of darkness, onto our suburban lawns.