Woog's World / 'Slice' put people and smiles on the street
This month's "Slice of Saugatuck" festival was a welcome -- and surprise -- success. Matt Mandell and a few helpers organized an afternoon of food, wine, music and -- this was crucial -- mingling. Thousands of Westporters came together in a down-home, leisurely way no one had really expected.
Great weather helped. So did the price (free). But just as important, perhaps, was the fact that -- when you get right down to it -- most of us would rather be out and about, mixing in crowds, than sitting in our Range Rovers listening to iPods. Or staying home, every family member in a different room, each watching a different streaming video on a laptop or TV.
Though we cherish our homes -- and build high fences and faux stone walls to keep to ourselves -- we cherish even more the chance to be part of a community.
How else to explain the fact that one of Westport's favorite days of the year is the fireworks? One day in early July, we swarm Compo Beach. We lug tables, chairs and coolers from the parking lot to the sand. There's not much room -- no staking out personal space here -- but that's part of the appeal. Strangers share appetizers. Kids make new friends. A community springs up, drawn by nothing more than bombs bursting in air.
Memorial Day is like that too. Sitting on a curb watching endless legions of Little Leaguers, Cub Scouts and fifers and drummers straggle by does not sound like fun -- but it is. Like the 1st of July beach party, it's a community event. We smile, laugh -- and, if just for an hour or two, slow down.
What all three events have in common is a sense of place. We're outdoors. We're free to sit in one spot or move around, but there's both open space and crowds. There's energy in the air; a sense that something's happening; a feeling of excitement and anticipation. There is life.
You can't force that environment to happen, or will it into being. Memorial Day and fireworks are traditions that have grown organically. They work because of a confluence of factors.
The parade succeeds because it involves every segment of Westport; because the route takes it down main roads, over a bridge and onto a green, all places where folks can stand and sit and relax; because it's a holiday. It also succeeds because people want to be there.
The fireworks work thanks to a magical combination of sun, sand, food, entertainment, daytime, dusk and night. Because it's a holiday. And because people want to be there.
And Slice of Saugatuck was a smash because there was plenty to do; because it took place in a walkable, explorable neighborhood that is both old and new. And because people want to be there.
Amid all the talk of changes to Westport -- making downtown more attractive; revising zoning regulations to allow sidewalk dining or movie theaters or whatever; redesigning Parker Harder Plaza -- one element is crucial: people.
Westport is a suburb -- and we like our privacy -- but we are also a small town. We don't have two-acre zoning, like Weston, lack a culture of seclusion, like back country Greenwich. We really do want to mix and mingle, meet neighbors and make new friends.
We just don't always make it easy to do so.
The redevelopment of Saugatuck is a step in the right direction. That section of town -- Westport's original commercial hub-- has always been people-friendly. Streets are short. Sidewalks are wide. Storefronts offer both merchandise and services. Restaurants and bars are plentiful and varied.
Now -- thanks some long-time residents who combine vision for the future with respect for the past -- Saugatuck is enjoying a revitalization. Retail, residential and office property combine in a tantalizing mix. Families that poured in for Slice of Saugatuck liked what they saw. They'll be back -- each time generating even more energy.
I'm not as sure about downtown Westport. New businesses seem to be the same ol' same ol' -- high-end soap stores, expensive apparel, blah blah blah. The park at the corner of the Post Road and Main Street has been remodeled into a concrete plaza. Gray Goose may add some zest to Church Lane -- but one restaurant alone can't turn a tired area into a hot spot.
The good news is: Westporters care. The throngs who turned out earlier this month to protest a proposed change that would allow a 60-foot-high movie theater signaled hope for the future.
A theater is great -- but it has to fit in with everything else. You can't dump it in the middle of everything, nor can you force people to go there.
It's a lesson we can all learn from Saugatuck, and its very successful Slice.