Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ice Climbers

This one falls into the category of Things I Would Never Think To Do.

Last weekend, I was driving north along the river into Thomaston, when I suddenly spotted three or four dozen people swarming all over the side of an icy cliff wall. My jaw dropped, I slowed down to look closer, wishing I had my camera, then kept going. Today I went back, with my camera, but not until the end of the day, when the sun was getting low in the sky and there were only six climbers doing their thing.

To get there, you take Thomaston Avenue north. It turns into Waterbury Road, and eventually you reach Jackson Street, which is where the climbing happens (at a small and fairly old former quarry). There's a little bit of off-street parking, then you follow a short and very lovely path through the snowy woods.

If you look closely (click on the image to enlarge), you'll see one of the climbers up high to the right:

Here's a closer view of the climber:

And another view. Here you can see that he's using a safety line, so if he falls, he won't fall far (assuming the two guys standing on the ground holding the other end of the rope do their job!).

Here are the guys holding the safety line. Ice climbing looks like a fairly slow process. The guy on the wall (see him way up there?) didn't get very far while I was there. At one point, he stopped to rest on a ledge and chatted with his friends about how there were a couple times he thought the ice was going to break off.

There were three other climbers present, but they weren't actually climbing. Two of them were being taught how to climb ice by the third one. Given how low the sun was, it seemed a little late in the day for a lesson, but I suppose they might have had another hour before dark.

When I look at the cascading wall of ice, it really just doesn't occur to me that I should climb it. It's beautiful and impressive, but climbing it is just not an instinct I have.

I've been rock climbing a few times, at least twice at this quarry. It was an interesting challenge and an interesting experience, but I still can't imagine why anyone would look at a wall of ice and feel inspired to climb up it.

If you want to see more ice climbing in Thomaston, here's a link to a video on YouTube:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tax Address

I just wrote a check to the city tax collector for the second payment on my motor vehicle tax bill. I don't have time or patience to pay in person (the last time I had to stand in that line, I was there for 40 minutes), so I'm paying by mail. The mailing address is a post office box in Hartford. I'm really not sure what to make of that. I'm going to swing by Grand Street, put the check in the mailbox located at the post office, two blocks away from the tax collector's office, and my letter is going to be sent all the way to Hartford before it finally returns to the office two blocks away from the post office I mailed it from.

I'd like to believe there is something logical about this system, but I can't imagine what it might be.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Dragging Us All Down With Them

I was horrified and appalled by what I read in today's newspaper. Out of the $125,000 of state campaign fund money received by Waterbury's Independent party, more than $17,000 was pocketed by the Independents and their extended families. Waterbury's Independents have used their political position for personal financial gain. While they may not have done anything illegal, it certainly seems unethical. At the very least, it is self-serving and sets a terrible example.

The Independents have spent years insisting that they are Waterbury's watchdogs, always looking for political corruption on the part of the Democrats (they even requested that the FBI investigate Mayor Jarjura's activities), and insisting that they are the only ones who care about saving money for the city's taxpayers.

In 2007, they finally were able to get five members of their party elected to the Board of Aldermen. A short time later, they started campaigning for every state legislative office they could, which struck me as a disservice to the city residents who voted for them as Aldermen--shouldn't they have been focused on their municipal responsibilities, rather than immediately reaching for something else? Their campaign seemed particularly questionable considering that their chances of winning were incredibly low--it seemed like they were campaigning just for the sake of campaigning.

Now we learn that the campaign was an opportunity for them to take taxpayers' money for themselves. Again, while apparently not illegal, it was a really bad decision. Waterbury has an ugly reputation for political corruption. The last thing we need are politicians profiting from their campaigns.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats pay to have supporters stand outside the polling locations, but the Independents paid their families to do so, using taxpayers' money. Mike Telesca gave himself $6,000 of taxpayers' money as compensation for filming his fellow Independent's commercials--this might actually be okay, assuming that the money simply covered his costs and didn't involve a significant profit (but if he didn't have to buy new equipment, then that's pretty much all profit).

The worst expenditure was $11,000 paid to Larry DePillo for "consulting" as the campaign treasurer. He claims this was acceptable, as the work involved made it a full-time task. This is just plain repugnant. There are hundreds of Waterbury residents who volunteer thousands of hours of their time without ever expecting financial compensation, who work more than full time on charity events because they want to make a difference. DePillo is a founder of Waterbury's Independent Party, this is what he supposedly believes in, why is he entitled to profit financially when no one else does?

Their actions and decisions have further tarnished Waterbury's reputation. Their profit makes us all look bad.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope, Not Fear

I went to the Mattatuck Museum for their inauguration festivities--the photograph was taken early, before it started and before about two-thirds of the attendees arrived. It was an incredibly powerful and inspirational event. There were many local representatives who spoke, some scheduled, some impromptu, and of course everyone in the audience was speaking amongst themselves. I was struck by how much joy, pride, optimism, awe and excitement were being shared by everyone present.

This is the first time in my life (close to four decades) that I have ever witnessed unchecked faith in the Presidency. I am accustomed to the average person feeling very cynical about the President (whichever one it might be) and politicians in general. I am also accustomed to most people in my generation being apathetic about politics. The excitement over Obama has been endlessly compared to that over JFK, but I think it's more accurate to say that there hasn't been this much excitement over a President since Nixon disgraced the office and disillusioned the country. Pre-Nixon, national fervor over a new President was not at all unusual.

We've spent eight years listening to Bush tell us to be fearful. Even in his farewell speech last week, he stated "the gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack." Be afraid. Live in terror. Bad things are going to happen.

Today, listening to Obama tell us that we have "chosen hope over fear" was refreshing, reinvigorating. If he can continue to inspire young people to be involved, to make a difference, to strive for a brighter future, he will have done a great thing.

The audience at the Mattatuck Museum included young children who will no doubt embrace the slogan "Yes, we can" and see their President as a role model of what can be achieved. This is something all of Waterbury should take to heart. I've met so many people here who have given up hope. Who shrug their shoulders and say that life in Waterbury will never get better, there's no point trying to improve things, might as well settle for the bottom of the barrel. It's a self-defeating attitude.

Our new President has inspired enthusiasm and optimism at a time when the nation has been increasingly terrified about the economic, environmental and international future. I hope he continues to do so.

To everyone who has ever said or thought that Waterbury will never again flourish, never again enjoy prosperity, never again be admired, I say: Can we make Waterbury better? Yes, we can!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Snow Removal

Late yesterday (Sunday) morning, I finally went outside to shovel the snow from my driveway, sidewalks, and the stretch of road in front of my driveway. This is my second winter on this narrow one-way street, and my experience so far has led me to expect very little from the city plows. The road is usually heavily sanded, and the plows will come through a few times (depending on how much snow there is) removing only a straight one-lane swath of snow (leaving, of course, about a one-inch thick layer of snow/salt/sand that eventually melts). Typically the city assigns the larger plows to my street, so there really is a limit to what the driver can do. Last winter, there was one snowstorm in which a smaller plow did my street, including the sides where there weren't parked cars, greatly reducing the amount of shoveling I had to do.

Yesterday I had just about finished all my shoveling when the snow plow started back down my street. I stopped shoveling to wait for the plow to pass by, since I knew it would push more snow my way. To my surprise, the plow parked on the side of the street and the driver got out and started chatting with me. Since he'd been plowing for about 20 hours at that point, I'm sure he needed to get out and stretch while he smoked a cigarette.

The plow driver (I can't remember his name; I'm terrible at remembering names, even when I try) was preparing to plow the side of the street, from the corner to my driveway, and wanted my input on where to put the pile. There already was a mountain of snow just past my driveway and a little snow hill just before my driveway. We agreed that there really wasn't enough room to make the mountain bigger, so the little would get to grow instead. He then regaled me with tales of all the angry people he encounters while plowing, including one who was so hostile the police had to get involved. We also chatted about the overall logistical problems of plowing such a narrow street, and I confirmed for him that most of the parked cars are gone during the week. I had the general impression that maybe a smaller plow might swing by today.

Today I was distracted from my computer by the repeated beeping sound of a truck backing up. I looked out the window and was astonished to see a giant city wheel loader REALLY removing the snow from my street! Fantastic! It made a little more shoveling work for me and my neighbor across the street, but the snow mountains are gone and everyone is going to have a much easier time parking their cars.

Thank you public works department!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Watch This Space!

Lately this blog has been getting a couple dozen visitors daily looking for information about the mall closing down, going bankrupt, etc. I'm fascinated by how widespread this concern is, with the visitor IP addresses coming from all over the state, the region and even some from around this country and others. The comments under the Mall Future? post cover the issue pretty well (and no, the mall isn't shutting down--note that our Macy's is not even one of the underperforming stores being closed).

I'm not aware of any mall closing down except when the retail businesses all close or move out. Then you have a "dead" mall that can linger on for a couple of years before being demolished (think of the old Naugatuck Valley Mall). The function-specific design of a mall, and the "cheap" modern construction materials used to build them really does doom them to demolition once the shops are all gone.

The predecessor of the mall is the downtown. When malls were being built in the 1950s and '60s, the retail businesses and customers flocked to the new location, leaving the downtown storefronts empty. In Waterbury, many of the gorgeous downtown buildings were demolished, but many others were "upgraded" with relatively cheap new facades. While those facades might have appealed to the sensibilities of the '60s and '70s, today they show their age and are widely considered a defacement of beautiful architecture.

It would be wonderful if all the money that has been spent since the 1990s to construct new malls and big box retail stores were instead spent on rehabbing the downtown buildings, but that obviously wasn't meant to be. The good news, however, is that there are private developers working on rehabbing the buildings and there is now grant money available to restore the building facades to their early glory.

Main Street Waterbury has created a Facade Improvement Program, administered by the Waterbury Development Corporation, that has begun making grant money available to downtown building owners. The first round of grant recipients was announced recently, and it's very exciting news. Some of the oldest buildings downtown that were most defaced during Urban Renewal will be brought back to life later this year.

In no particular order, here are the grant recipient buildings and a little bit of their history, which I wrote for the press release:

471 West Main Street (Acero Lounge)

Note the hideous ground level siding, complete with decrepit '80s style shingling (completely inappropriate to the elegant and graceful style of the original building design) and the tacky and decaying bay window surrounds. 

At one of the main gateways into downtown Waterbury is the Georgian Revival style 471 West Main Street, constructed in 1908 or 1909 and known for most of the 20th century as Finnan’s Block. It was one of many apartment blocks or buildings that were constructed along West Main Street in the decade leading up to World War I. Waterbury’s population was increasing rapidly during this era, as more and more people came here to work in the factories. Finnan’s Block is a quintessential example of this type of building, originally with grocers, a tobacconist and a saloon on the first floor, providing the basic amenities for the apartment dwellers on the upper floors. The building is currently undergoing extensive interior renovations, improving the apartments and restoring the original hardwood floors.

142 Grand Street (The Turf)

This building has very obvious problems: missing windows, overly layered peeling paint, a cheap and ugly '70s style street level facade that is inappropriate for the rest of the building.

On Grand Street, the Bierce Block at No. 142 was constructed after the devastation of the 1902 Fire. A Georgian Revival style structure, it was built in 1905 for Edward E. Wilson, mill superintendent for the Tracy Brothers construction company, which was responsible for the construction of many homes throughout Waterbury, and sold to Russell Bierce in 1906. The building originally had two finials on top of the cornice. The first floor of the building became a restaurant in 1931 with the opening of the Brass City Grill, modeled after the Brass Rail restaurant on Broadway in New York City and boasting a 42-foot long mahogany bar and murals of the brass factories. In 1946, the restaurant re-opened as the Turf Restaurant. Although the ownership has naturally changed over the years, The Turf is still in operation today and has been recently renovated by its current owner.

77 Bank Street (Russell Building)

The hideous chaos of the storefronts speaks for itself.

77 Bank Street was named the Russell Building after its first owner, attorney James Russell. Russell was the father of actress Rosalind Russell, most famous for her roles in “His Girl Friday” (co-starring Cary Grant) and “Auntie Mame”. The Russell Building was constructed in 1929 in the Art Deco style, and remained in the Russell family until it was purchased by its present owner.

68-70 Bank Street (Warner Block)

On the corner of Center Street, is 68-70 Bank Street, which has already begun the process of renovation, most noticeably removing the concrete panels stuck on the buildings during Urban Renewal. This impressive building was constructed by the Knights of Pythias in 1905, to replace their Hall which had been destroyed, along with many other downtown buildings, in the Fire of 1902. Pythian Hall was relocated to East Main Street in 1913, and the building became known as Warner’s Block, housing an optometrist and retailers on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. As you can see from the banner image, the building is being renovated for luxury apartments--if only they had done this three years ago, when I was looking for a downtown rental!

54, 60, 64 Bank Street (three separate buildings)

The things that have gone wrong with these three buildings are so profound, I've included an 1888 photograph from the Mattatuck Museum. If you look carefully, you'll be able to match up 64 Bank Street in both photos by the triangular pediment that has survived mostly intact to the present day. In the historic photograph, you'll see what looks like one wide building next to it with a matching cornice, but it was in reality two separate buildings with facades designed to blend them together. I didn't crop the historic photo down all the way, because I think it is a treat to see what this stretch of Bank Street once looked like.

Two of the three buildings were constructed for John Milton Burrall, a cabinetmaker who came to Waterbury in 1849. Burrall built 60 Bank Street for his furniture and undertaking business in 1852. At the same time, James Ayers, owner of Waterbury’s leading jewelry store, constructed a matching building alongside Burrall’s at 54 Bank Street. Three years later, Burrall constructed 64 Bank Street.

54 and 60 Bank Street, while separate structures, were designed with an ornate cornice that made the two buildings appear as one. The cornice was similar to the one still visible on 64 Bank Street, but a little lower and without a pediment. All three buildings featured a row of three windows on each of the two upper floors. While none of the remaining visible windows looks exactly as they did originally (double-hung with a “grill pattern” of multiple panes), those at 64 Bank Street are closest.

Many modifications were made to these buildings over the years. By 1914, the second story of 54 Bank Street featured a central projecting bay window, while the windows on the second and third stories of 60 Bank Street were partially covered by signage. 54 Bank Street had become home to Adt Photography Studio during the late 19th century, and the upper floor of that building still boasts a remarkable and magnificent north-facing studio skylight, ideal for any artist. During the era of Urban Renewal in the 1960s and ‘70s, the fa├žade of 60 Bank Street was completely obscured by a concrete facing, while the second story of 64 Bank Street was hidden behind a large signage backing. These modifications were intended to give the buildings a fresh and modern look, but they obscure the true beauty of the buildings, making them look tired and worn.

The grant program requires that the facade improvement projects be completed this year, so check back at the end of the year for the "after" photos, or stroll downtown sooner than that to see the improvements in progress!