Friday, March 28, 2008

A Beautiful City

Contrary to what David Randall wrote in Forbes magazine, Waterbury is far from being a "junk pile." Here is a selection of images I've taken in Waterbury over the past few years--this is an incredibly beautiful city!

The view from Holyland.

Leavenworth Street.

St. John's Episcopal Church

Holiday lights on the Green

Spring flowers at Hamilton Park.

St. Mary's Orthodox Church.

Grand Street.

Silas Bronson Library

Immaculate Conception Church

The art deco Post Office on Grand Street.

Fulton Park

The Waterbury Green

A view of Exchange Place from the Green.

Main Street Waterbury's outdoor dining event at La Cazuela.

Rush hour traffic near St. Mary's Hospital.


I've gotten two parking tickets in the past month. The first, on February 28, was a deserved overtime ticket. The second, two days ago, was at a broken meter (it took my quarter, but didn't give me any time).

The parking ticket has written instructions to file complaints at the Tax Assessor's office. Yesterday I went to the Tax office, stood in line, and was told to fill out the form located on the wall behind me. I tried explaining that there were no forms on that wall, but the woman at the window insisted that the sheet bearing step-by-step instructions (to write down my complaint) was indeed the form to fill out. When I asked if I could write down my complaint and hand it to her, I was told that I had to do exactly what the "form" said, which meant mailing in my complaint to the office I was currently standing in. I think this is an excellent example of bureaucracy making life absurdly complicated.

Today I received a letter from the city Tag Division (which I'd never heard of before) notifying me that I am delinquent in paying my ticket from February 28 and that my fine has doubled. Except that the total amount I now owe is exactly the same as what I owed on February 28. The real kicker, however, is that I mailed in the check for that ticket the same day I received the ticket--February 28. The tax office didn't process the check until March 19, so the city's computer system automatically generated my delinquent notice. So, for a $10 fine that was paid as on-time as possible, the city spent 31 cents on postage, plus the cost of the mailing envelope, plus the cost of the return envelope, plus the cost of the letter, the ink used to print it, and the time it took someone to mail it. Also add a few cents for the time spent answering my phone call! Small amounts, sure, but they eat into overall profits. And, of course, as a routine operation, these delays lead to things like the city losing out on the F&S tax payment of $44,000. (Come to think of it, I bet they get a lot of bounced checks because it takes them so long to make the deposits--a lot of people forget to leave money in their bank accounts for checks written three weeks earlier!)

I think it's time for a complete overhaul of the city's Tax office. Anyone operating a business will process and deposit all incoming checks within three days' time (within 24 hours for a smaller retail business). Can you imagine any successful business waiting three weeks to deposit a check?

Nature's Art

The morning frost on one of my windows this January. Hopefully I won't see anything like that again until next year!

Now if only I could figure out why my YankeeGas bill (I have a gas furnace) is just as high now as it was then...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Creative Sustenance

The University of Connecticut at Waterbury

Creative Sustenance
in support of the
Greater Waterbury Interfaith Ministries


Tom Dulack Professor of English, UConn/Waterbury; a playwright whose works have been performed on Broadway, in London, in Los Angeles, and in too many other venues to mention; when the New York Philharmonic wanted to revive the Young Peoples’ Concerts that had been so successful when led by Leonard Bernstein, they selected Tom to write and direct each performance. He is now filling a similar role for the Los Angeles Philharmonic while still masterminding the concerts for New York.

Ira Joe Fisher Poet, actor, educator, and perhaps best known as a Weatherman and features reporter on WNBC/Channel 4 and later WCBS/Channel 2 in New York City. Ira Joe now teaches Creative Writing, Introduction to Poetry, and other English courses at UConn/Stamford. He is a recent winner of a Governor’s Award, given to those who volunteer their time to support Culture and Tourism in CT.

Davyne Verstandig Director of the Litchfield County Writers and Artists Project and Lecturer in English at UConn/Torrington. Davyne, who is an accomplished poet and essayist, also serves as the Director of the Creative Writing Program at UConn/Torrington.

Creative Sustenance began at UConn/Storrs in 2003 to help the Windham Interfaith Ministry feed the hungry in Willimantic, CT. People come to hear readings by poets, playwrights, novelists, and other talented writers. They bring donations of non-perishable food, checks, or both, in support of the chosen local charity. This event at Waterbury means that we have now had Creative Sustenance events on each of the six UConn campuses.

Where: The Multi-Purpose Room at UConn/Waterbury
When: Monday, March 31, 2008, 7:00-9:00PM

Eat Your Art Out

Eat Your Art Out is a week away! Buy your tickets online through the Palace Theater at

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter Flowers

Last fall I bought many bags of bulbs at PriceChopper (2 for 1 sale) and planted them in my front yard. This handful of crocuses started blooming over the weekend.

Forbes on Rowland

Back in January, I wrote a blog post reacting to the news that ex-Governor Rowland had been given a high-paying job as Economic Developer for the city. My primary initial reaction is that this was a bad idea, and that it was presented in a manner that can easily be described as arrogant. My impression of this being a bad idea has been reinforced by David Randall's article in Forbes Magazine and the commentary on the article in today's Republican-American.

Rowland's supporters (Jarjura, Sasala, et. al.) insist that he can do a great job of luring new businesses into Waterbury. This, in fact, seems to be his job description--to bring in new businesses... but ignore the fact that half the state has a passionate hatred of Rowland. When asked about negative comments towards him and his new job, Rowland claimed that his detractors all lived outside of Waterbury, so their opinions don't count. But isn't his mission to bring outsiders into Waterbury? Surely we could have hired a qualified economic developer who isn't hated by half the state and ridiculed by anyone outside the state who knows who he is. Maybe if the Chamber had advertised for the position, they would have found someone better than Rowland.

The article in Forbes pretty much declares Waterbury to be a bad place for businesses. If Jarjura and Sasala had not given Rowland his new job, the article would never have been written. The adage that any publicity is good publicity might not hold true in this case. The article creates a painful image of Waterbury as a cesspool of corruption, poverty and abandoned factories. This is an image that will stick in the minds of many business people, and it will not help Waterbury.

The worst part of the Forbes articles comes at the end, when we read that Rowland was offered a special discount on a suit and a free lunch. We aren't told how Rowland responded to these offers--maybe he politely turned them down--but for these offers to have been made at all just confirms Waterbury's image of corruption.

[Update, 12:45 pm -- I love some of the comments that are appearing on the Forbes website! There are so many wonderful things about this beautiful city that get overlooked far too often. The article in Forbes certainly was written with an agenda. I had the impression from the journalist and their fact-checker that the emphasis would be political corruption, although they were also interested in the Hillside neighborhood and finding out the name of the train station architects. The brief mention of the clock tower made it into the final article, but the rest over-emphasizes the negative.

A better article on Waterbury for a national audience would highlight the city as one of hundreds around the country that are struggling to improve themselves in an era when the cities are continually abandoned for the suburbs. Waterbury is one of many small cities making progress while facing difficult challenges. The article in Forbes was just a quick slam, taking advantage of one small piece of trivia. I imagine their editors assume that most readers will find it a moderately amusing sidebar.]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Political Corruption

The Rowland/Waterbury debacle is back in the news and, thanks to a bout of insomnia, I’ve spent the past half hour reading through more-or-less anonymous comments posted to the Hartford Courant’s website on the topic. Most of the comments seem either ill-informed or just plain psychotic (I think some of the comment-writers have some serious personal issues that are inspiring them to express some very disturbing levels of hatred towards Rowland). Overall, however, there seems to be a general theme: Waterbury is closely associated with political corruption. This got me thinking—there really is a sort of general public concept that Waterbury is plagued by political corruption, but why is this the case? I don’t know that anyone has fully explored the topic. An upcoming issue of Forbes magazine will include an article about Waterbury and our more recent corruption scandals (Santopietro, Giordano, and the 1986 Moffett-O’Neill primary mess), but I have the impression that the article is just a survey piece, not a really in-depth examination.

Waterbury’s first major political scandal occurred in the 1930s, when Mayor T. Frank Hayes and many other people were charged and eventually convicted with defrauding the city of more than a million dollars. (My apologies in advance—it’s late, I’ve got insomnia, and I’m being loose with the facts—I hope to eventually do some more solid research on this topic.)

The city had a real reprieve with John S. Monagan became Mayor in the 1940s. Although he was young and somewhat inexperienced, Monagan was a genuinely honest and principled man who did his best for the city. Under his tenure, the city adopted a five year plan for improvement that included a comprehensive study and implementation of infrastructure needs.

Waterbury seems to have enjoyed several decades untroubled by political scandal after Hayes, although I do still need to do real research on this. Even decades after Hayes’ conviction, he still had many fervent supporters in Waterbury. This seems to be a typical feature of Waterbury politics, and is perhaps an important ingredient to our history of corruption. Former Mayor Santopietro was convicted in 1992 for taking bribes and kickbacks, but many people in Waterbury insisted that he was innocent, that he was “a good boy” and had taken the fall for some bad friends. (He has since been convicted of doing more or less the same thing again.)

The most hideous political scandal is that of former Mayor Giordano, who was being investigated by the FBI for financial fraud (including the notorious million-dollar dog pound) before being swiftly arrested and convicted of sexually assaulting children. Giordano is the worst that Waterbury has produced. Long before we knew he was a child molester, it was clear to many people that he was a crook. In fact, Giordano is one of the reasons why I moved into Waterbury—I wanted to be able to vote against him. I could not believe it when he was re-elected. It seemed like everyone knew he was up to no good, but he was still winning elections.

So why does Waterbury suffer under the stigma of political corruption? I feel certain there’s an answer to the question, but I don’t yet know what it is. I think it is interesting to look at who our mayors have been since 1976—Mike Bergin was Mayor from 1976 until 1986 (he was arrested and then acquitted of taking bribes, but there are plenty of people in Waterbury who are confident that he was guilty); Bergin was replaced by Santopietro, until Santopietro was arrested and eventually convicted; Bergin had by then been acquitted of his corruption charges, and he was voted back into office (which suggests a lot about the Waterbury electorate!). Bergin was replaced in 1996 by Giordano, whose term in office ended with his arrest in 2001. Over the course of 25 years, Waterbury had three mayors, all of whom have been investigated and arrested for corruption (I think that’s correct, although I’m not positive that Giordano has yet been charged with political corruption).

The emergence of political corruption in Waterbury seems to coincide with the death of the brass industry in this city. Are they related? I don’t know. I think the small size of the city is part of the problem, for a number of reasons. I think, perhaps, the structure of the political parties in Waterbury is also part of the problem (seriously, HOW did Giordano end up as his party’s candidate for mayor??? I met the man once, briefly, and could tell immediately that he was slimy. Wasn’t there anyone else who was willing to run for office?).

Someday I hope to do more on this topic. I think there’s a very interesting story to tell, but it’s going to take a lot of unraveling of history and opinion.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Digging the Library

Today’s Republican-American included an article about the Silas Bronson Library’s efforts to received state funds for building improvement and expansion. As the article said, given the size of the region the library serves, it is surprising that they’ve had trouble getting state assistance. What the article did not address is the physical problem the library will face with an expansion.

Before 1894, the land surrounding the library was a cemetery. The “Old Burying Ground”, also known as the Grand Street Cemetery, had fallen into disrepair by the 1890s. After a very emotional public debate, city officials finally decided to convert the cemetery into a park, with a library in the middle. The graves located within the footprint of the library were dug up and relocated. A small number of other graves were also dug up and relocated, primarily to other cemeteries in Waterbury. The vast majority of the graves in the cemetery were, however, left in place and are still there today. This includes the beautiful parking lot behind the library—all those wonderful tall old trees make it one of my favorite spots in Waterbury, but I imagine the roots are entangled with the human remains buried there.....

Three of the oldest headstones were donated to the Mattatuck Historical Society (and are still in their collection). The grave markers from within the library footprint were stored in the library basement until the 1920s, when the park was expanded to Meadow Street. The more interesting stones were placed in the wall along Meadow Street. The other grave markers throughout the cemetery were buried, lying flat, roughly 2-3 feet underground.

When the library was redesigned by architect Joseph Stein in the 1960s, he re-used the original library footprint, so as to avoid disturbing any graves. Something as simple as laying down new utility lines to the building has, in recent decades, resulted in the unearthing of headstones.

According to today’s newspaper, the library plans to expand the current building back 50 feet. There was no information about how they intend to do this. Any excavation work is guaranteed to disturb graves (including that of Dr. Jesse Porter, an early downtown developer, whose portrait can be seen at the Mattatuck Museum).

Today there is a state law in place that might have prohibited the conversion of the Grand Street Cemetery to a library, had it been in place in the 1890s:

Sec. 19a-315a. Use of ancient burial place. No municipality shall alienate or appropriate any ancient burial place to any use other than that of a burial ground. No portion of any ancient burial place shall be taken for public use without the approval of the General Assembly. If any ancient burial place is appropriated for any other use and the bodies buried therein or the grave markers marking the same are removed, the burial ground authority shall preserve a record of such removal indicating the date of such removal and the site or place to which such removal was made.

Because the Waterbury burial ground has already been appropriated, the library might be able to get permission to dig up more of the cemetery without too much trouble. If so, the process will be a lot slower and messier than they might hope. The state archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni, might very well have to coordinate a careful excavation of the remains (many of which are likely to have decomposed to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from the dirt), which could take a long time and be fairly expensive. It could also be a really interesting and informative project.

For more on the history of the cemetery, visit the Fortune’s Story website.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More Signs of Spring

Winter is officially over. Traditional signs of spring are flowers and robins. Forget them. I just heard an ice cream truck playing its familiar, cheery music as it slowly drives around Waterbury's neighborhoods. The song it's playing is so old I don't know the lyrics, but it sounds like summer!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Where the Art is At

The art world (around here) can be divided into a few parts: "safe" traditional realism that appeals to a general audience; "literati" art (I'm sure there's a better term), in which the artist explores a unique vision, that appeals primarily to art snobs; and "underground" art, which tends to appeal to the Bohemian spirit. Of those three categories, underground art is the least likely to appear in art galleries, but it is also the one that, in my opinion, best represents true artistic vision and energy.

For much of the twentieth century, Waterbury was a great city for artists. The Waterbury Art School brought instructors up from Yale; the School's students regularly exhibited their works at the Mattatuck Museum; and they spent much of their time in studios on Bank Street. The Mattatuck's Juried Show is now held once every other year and is pretty much the only opportunity for local artists to get any exposure in Waterbury. The Mattatuck also has a regular contemporary art show, but the artists are always well-established in the art world. The Silas Bronson Library has a wall for art shows, but it's little more than a hallway, dimly lit, small and often overlooked. John Bale Books has had a couple of great one-night shows, coinciding with their summer open mic nights, where any artist can display artwork (and it would be great if they did more of that!).

The Artwell Gallery in Torrington is the closest art gallery to Waterbury where any artist, no matter what their style or level of experience, can exhibit. Down in Bridgeport, there's a fantastic cooperative art space called The Nest Arts Factory. They've taken over an old factory, using one room for a gallery, another for music and performances, and other spaces for studios.

Increasingly, the place to find great art in the Waterbury area is tattoo parlors. No Regrets in Naugatuck has an art gallery and regular exhibits. On March 22nd, they're holding a benefit art auction to help fund low income classrooms, with "underground" artworks from artists all around the state and region.

MySpace is also a good place to find local artists. The site has a great setup for musicians, less so for artists, but a lot of visual artists are posting their work on their profile pages.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Real Challenge

John Rowland, newly appointed Economic Developer, recently "challenged" Carl Rosa of Main Street Waterbury to help him clean up the litter in the Buckingham ramparage. The purported challenge seems a little silly to me: Main Street has cleaned up that garage before; and a one-time cleanup is not a real solution.

I propose a better challenge. I challenge Rowland, Jim Smith, Steve Sasala, Kevin Taylor, and any other would-be downtown developer who lives in the suburbs to spend one full month living in a downtown apartment, using only public transportation and walking to get around Waterbury during that month.

I lived in downtown Waterbury, walking to work, for two years, and I loved it. If I had been able to find a good apartment that allowed cats, I would still be living downtown.

I think it's great that so many people want to make downtown better, but living in the suburbs (or even the suburb-like neighborhoods of Waterbury) distorts their perspective of what downtown is and can be. The only way to really understand downtown Waterbury is to live there.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Spring is Sprung!

There were tiny little snowdrop flowers basking in the last rays of the sun when I got home today. Daylight Savings Time starts Sunday. As far as I'm concerned, spring is here, and I don't want to hear anything to the contrary!