Friday, January 28, 2011

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter Wonderland

As in, I wonder where my fence is?  and, I wonder where I'm going to put all this snow?

Some of the folks across the street started shoveling at 7 a.m. I didn't. I crawled back in bed, read the news about the Governor asking everyone to stay off the roads, and decided I would probably not be able to do everything I had planned for today.

Eventually I tried going outside. The sun was shining, which was great.

By the time I finally got my boots and coat on, the guys next door had shoveled a path to the street along my sidewalk and through my driveway. After I started shoveling, one of the guys came out to help.

This is the path from the driveway to the front porch. Earlier this winter, I tried shoveling all the way down to the dirt. I gave up on that about three storms ago.

The view down Wood Street. The good thing about all this snow is that neighbors are being even more neighborly than usual. There's a "we're all in this together" attitude.

The impressive thing about the snow in my front yard is that it faces south, so you would think the sun would have melted it down a little. Nope.

My driveway. Just barely wide enough to get my car out. Barely.

There was some hostility expressed when the city plow driver refused requests to plow the common area in back of the row houses, which is understandable since our lives are at risk if the fire engines can't get into the common area because there's so much snow, and it's way too big an area to shovel.

Also, quite frankly, there is absolutely nowhere left for us to pile up the snow. We desperately need the city to bring the heavy equipment and haul away some of the snow piles.

This is the moment I've been waiting for all month. The snow in the back yard is now the same height as the fence!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Snow Pig

The latest creation at MD Auto on North Main Street.

Previous snow sculptures included the New Year's monster and an old-fashioned car (which I didn't get a photo of).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The N-Word

The latest controversy in the Waterbury schools (I say "latest" because it seems like there's a new controversy almost every week) involves the use of the n-word in a play which will be performed at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School. The controversy has reached the notice of The New York Times, which wrote about it in the ArtsBeat blog.

The play in question is August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the second installment in The Pittsburgh Cycle, which the Pulitzer Prize winning author wrote to chronicle the African-American experience decade by decade. When it opened at the Yale Repertory in 1987 and again on Broadway in 1988, the cast included Angela Bassett, L. Scott Caldwell and Delroy Lindo (who earned a Tony nomination).

Wilson's play uses the language of the early 20th century, because it is a historical drama. Unlike the pop culture stars of today's world, Wilson uses the n-word to remind us (and for kids, to teach them) why this word is so unpleasant and disturbing. Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh and, according to a short biography, he had full experience of being called a nigger by racists who used the word to intimidate and demean him. That racism led him to drop out of high school, choosing instead to study on his own. His use of the n-word in this play is necessary for both historic accuracy and to convey the racism that was rampant at the time.

The average teenager today hears the n-word constantly, in music and in everyday speech. I have overheard young children calling each other niggers, and referring to themselves as niggers. I have heard it used by adults wanting to sound "cool". This is the youth culture today.

I'd much rather have the kids at the Arts Magnet School learn about the history of the word through this play than to continue to use it blindly in everyday speech.

The controversy that has arisen will potentially have some benefit. The kids performing the play are now acutely aware of what a powerfully negative word it is. And they are probably learning a thing or two about censorship in a country that constitutionally protects freedom of speech.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Tryphena McNeil and Some of Waterbury's Gypsies

I've started watching The Riches on Netflix, and one of my first reactions was surprise at the concept of Irish Travelers (similar to Gypsies) in the United States. Then, by coincidence, I came across a reference to Tryphena McNeil, "Queen of the Gypsies," who died in Waterbury in 1915. Two random pieces of information inspired me to do some research, unveiling an often-overlooked part of Waterbury's history.

Tryphena McNeil's daughter, also named Tryphena, was baptized in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church at South River, near New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1901. Then seven years old, Tryphena was conjectured to be the "first gypsy ever baptized in the Episcopal Church" by The New York Times (18 July 1901). Although referred to historically as gypsies, their surname suggests they were travelers. There seems to be ongoing debate among scholars, Travelers and Gypsies as to whether or not their tribes are interconnected in this country.

Tryphena McNeil died at Waterbury Hospital in late April, 1915. Accounts in several newspapers said the McNeils were camped at the Simonsville section of town, while others said the queen died during or after stomach surgery. The Hartford Courant reported on April 28 that all her belongings, including her wagon and silk dresses, were burned in a traditional ceremony in Waterbury. McNeil was buried in Guttenberg, NJ on Memorial Day. She was survived by her husband, King Samuel McNeil, and four daughters. The election of her successor took place in Waterbury.

A funeral service was conducted for Queen Tryphena in Waterbury by Rev. J. N. Lewis, Jr., rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, with about 150 people in attendance. At the close of the service, the "representatives of the different tribes placed beads, combs, brushes, hair pins, jewels, etc. in the coffin" along with two hats.  The Hartford Courant (29 April 1915) described this as a "Romany gypsy" custom allowing the deceased to travel the river Styx in comfort.

The Courant ran a photograph of the funeral, with the coffin open, on May 3. In attendance was Nellie Palmer, aspiring to be the next queen; Sister We-Ha-Ka, representing a tribe of Cherokee affiliated with the McNeil tribe; Tryphena's sons John and Samuel, daughter Tryphena, husband King Samuel McNeil; and chief John Buckland.

On May 9, the Hartford Courant reported that the McNeils spent a lot of time in Waterbury. Their camp "was pitched on the old rye lots in the southern section" of Waterbury. Despite their nomadic life, the McNeils were not poor. Tryphena's estate was said to be valued at $50,000 and included a tract of land in Providence, Rhode Island. She had an estimated $30,000 in cash, which she kept in a guarded chest, not trusting banks (according to the newspaper article). After her death, King Samuel deposited a valise of money at the Waterbury Trust Company (the article claims the bills were so old and worn they had to be exchanged by the U.S. Treasury).

The McNeils were not the only travelers or gypsies to spend time in Waterbury and surrounding towns. Dan DeLuca's book about The Old Leather Man has a great photograph of a "gypsy camp" in Thomaston as well as an excerpt from the Waterbury Daily American (1 March 1877) reporting that "there are gypsies camped in a bend below us" in Woodbury.

The New York Times reported on May 31, 1879 that "For several weeks past a band of gypsies have been hanging about Ansonia, doing an apparently thriving business in horse-trading, fortune-telling, &c." After a complaint was made about a theft that was cleverly woven into a fortune-telling, the goods stolen were returned and "the chief of the gypsy gang paid a round sum to have legal proceedings stopped." The group decamped and set up a new camp a little further south.

In 1922, a gypsy named Mrs. Annie Marino, a resident of Waterbury formerly of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was reportedly robbed of cash, jewelry and gold coins by three men, one of whom, John Arestos, was the godfather of her youngest child (Hartford Courant, 4 Aug 1922). Marino lived at 10 Chatfield Avenue and may have originally come from Portugal (Hartford Courant, 6 Aug 1922).

Also in 1922, on August 5, Waterbury's Health Officer Thomas J. Kilmartin and the Superintendent of Police George M. Beach launched a campaign to ban nomadic gypsies from Waterbury (Hartford Courant, 6 August 1922). Kilmartin and Beach were responding to "numerous complaints" of thefts related to caravans passing through and cited "unsanitary conditions" of stores rented as fortune-telling parlors, the tendency of "ten or fifteen gypsies crowding into one small tenement" and the "lack of proper facilities." Health officials appear to have issued repeated appeals to property owners, asking them to refuse to rent storefronts for use by fortune tellers. The article went on to detail some of the thefts. Frank Denners of New Haven "was stopped on the Middletown road and robbed of $5" by a young woman. James Hanlon, a local grocer, complained that gypsies stole $15 cash from his register and $20 in groceries, canned goods and jellies. The gypsies disappeared into the woods toward Southington. (The Waterbury city directory for 1922 lists a James Hanlan who owned a delicatessen at 370 West Main Street.)

The city's crusade against gypsies continued into November. Frank Martinoff, said to be the "presiding chief" (Hartford Courant, 6 Nov 1922), was given nine hours to leave Waterbury or spend 30 days in jail. Martinoff was "found guilty" of renting a store at 654 South Main Street under false pretenses, claiming that he was going to open a tinware and crockery shop. The landlord paid a visit and "found it swarming with gypsies. Mattresses, blankets, cook stoves, clothing and various other equipment littered the floor." An estimated four families were living in the store. The article quoted Judge William J. Larkin, Jr. as declaring "There'll be no fortune telling in Waterbury. The city has enough detectives to go out and get the necessary evidence and if any complaints are made the entire band will be compelled to leave the city." The Courant estimated that at least 100 gypsies were camping out in stores throughout Waterbury.

Another band of gypsies were warned out of Waterbury in 1923 (Hartford Courant, 19 September 1923). The group numbered about 95 people, traveling in seven cars and two trucks. They were ordered to leave town by Superintendent of Police George Beach after a steward at the Waterbury Country Club complained that he had "almost" lost money to one of the women of the group.

In 1925, Nicholas John, king of some 48 gypsy families throughout the United States, died in the phrenologist parlor he operated at 166 South Riverside Street in Waterbury (Hartford Courant, 6 Feb 1925). John left a will bequeathing an estate worth $10,000 to his wife, Queen Rambunkah, with mention made of his sons George, Wallace and Miller (no mention was made of daughter Tina, Eula and Ruby; the New York Times reported that their mother explained at the reading of the will that daughters never inherit). Funeral ceremonies, attended by representatives from around the country, were held in Waterbury before his burial in Yonkers. The New York Times reported that there were two rival successors, both claiming to be his brothers: Frank Josef, John's second-in-command, and Ritasra Jurka of Yonkers (11 Feb 1925). A third contender, Frank Mitchell of Harlem, claimed to have been duly elected as the new king.

The New York Times followed the story with in-depth analysis on March 15, 1925. According to the Times, a "strong faction of the Serbian tribe" backed Frank Josef to be the new king. A group in Yonkers backed Ritasra Jurka, while Frank Mitchell, "an Americanized gypsy," announced that he had been elected at New York's Palace Casino Theatre. The Times saw the feud between the three would-be kings as a battle between the Old World and the New World. Josef and Jurka were both over 60. They and their followers adhered to the tradition of a three month period of mourning before the new king should be elected. The "Americanized" Mitchell declared himself to have been elected king within days of the old king's death. The final outcome of the dispute does not appear to have been reported in the newspapers, but Mitchell seems to have held onto his title with at least some tribes.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

City Hall Re-Dedication

(For photos of what the building looked like before the $32 million restoration and upgrade, see my 2006 blog post. For photos during restoration, see my July 2010 blog post. And if you really have a lot of time to kill, you can click on my City Hall blog label to read all the posts I wrote during the long fight to save this building, and Bryan Baker's blog in November and December 2006 for his efforts during the 2006 struggle.)

Saturday was the re-dedication ceremony and official re-opening of the Municipal Building on Grand Street. Pretty much all the city's political officials attended, including former Mayors Bergin, Santopietro and Caligiuri.

It seemed strange to me for some of the former Mayors, especially Bergin and Santopietro, to be honored at the re-dedication, since it was under their watch that the building was allowed to fall apart. Granted, one cause of the decay was the lack of a proper maintenance plan, which goes back before Bergin. But the building should never have been neglected for so long. I guess it's a symptom of the larger problems. The city suffers from decades of infrastructure neglect, from years of poor management. We're finally moving in the right direction, but I can't help worrying that the building will fall apart again. Waterbury Development Corporation, which did such a magnificent job revitalizing the building, has prepared extensive manuals with instructions on the correct maintenance procedures for the building, but there is no guarantee that future administrations will adhere to the guidelines.

Okay, enough doom and gloom for today. On to the celebration of what has been accomplished!

I missed part of the opening ceremonies, but arrived in time for the flag raising and national anthem.

The ceremony was accompanied by the Fulton American Band.

The crowd filled the entourage (Cass Gilbert's name for the piazza in front of the building), which was created for public gatherings.

The beautiful, painted copper-clad and gilt cupola.

The patriotic and Classical eagles on top of the pilasters on the building's facade.

More of the crowd, listening to the speeches, which included one by Cass Gilbert's great-granddaughter. My favorite part of her speech was her family's motto: "If you're not going to do it right, don't bother."

A few people wandered across the street during the speeches, waiting for their chance to go inside and see the gorgeous building.

Waterbury's visual icon of patriotism, Ziggy, arrived toward the end of the speeches.

It took at least ten minutes for everyone to get through the entrance.

Complimentary cookies, hot cocoa and sandwiches were served by Café B-Muse (open weekdays for lunch at the Mattatuck Museum). The first and second floors were pack with people. It's probably the one time when there will be a line of people eagerly and joyfully waiting to enter the Tax Collectors office.

A few people resting on the railing overlooking the grand staircase.

The Veteran's Memorial Chamber. There is a supply of folding chairs and tables that get set up in this room as needed for various meetings.

The clock and stencils over the entrance to the Veteran's Memorial Chamber.

Mayor Jarjura outside the entrance to the Mayoral suite of offices.

Happy people in the Aldermanic Chamber. Larry Depillo (seen posing with outspoken activist Lisa Lessard) fought the restoration of the building tooth and nail every step of the way. I hope he now puts his energy into ensuring that the building will be properly maintained going forward.

The Chase Building across the street, seen from the original Mayor's Office. It's next in line for a maintenance overhaul, but so far Mayor Jarjura has said its restoration needs to wait indefinitely.

The architecture is so graceful, with so many places that lend themselves to beautiful compositions.

Tom Chute was present, broadcasting the event on WATR 1320.

The entourage without the crowd. The fountain is now, after decades, in working order, but is turned off for the winter.

There is one more celebratory event scheduled, a gala on January 8. You can register for the gala on the special City Hall website, or by calling the Mattatuck Museum (203-753-0381).