Norwalk needs to preserve its diversity

By Robert Burgess

Chair, District B Democratic Committee

NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Preservation Trust sponsored the screening of the 58-minute documentary “Survival of a Small City” by Norwalk natives Pablo Frasconi and Nancy Salzer on Sunday, May 5, at the South Norwalk Branch Library. The documentary was created in 1980 and featured the preservation of the 19th century buildings during the 1980’s gentrification of Washington Street.

Included on the panel with me and many others were Bill Collins, mayor of Norwalk during that time, and Frank Fay, whose wife, the late Valle Weber Fay, founded The Norwalk Preservation Trust in 1977 with the late Marguerite H. Rooney and friends. The film juxtaposed the beauty being created on Washington Street with the lack of inclusion of the poor people, who were displaced during the project.  The reason given was that the majority ofpeople involved thought that poor and middle class people could not mix and that the developers would not agree to a project that included the mix.   

The similar concern of not displacing the current residents arose during the Choice Neighborhood Initiative planning for Washington Village Housing Project on Water Street, and we can only hope that the city of Norwalk and the Norwalk Housing Authority can do now what politicians and developers feared back in the 1980’s and turn a distressed neighborhood into a socially diverse, mixed-income community, like the HOPE VI program, that does not leave out the poor or solely abandon them to other areas.

During the discussion that ensued after the screening, Sherelle Harris, assistant director of the Norwalk Public Library System, said she arrived in Norwalk around 1996 and loved Washington Street. It included a shoe store owed by African Americans, two hair salons that served different populations, a Dutch store, an African novelty shop, a Mexican restaurant, a mix of shops and cultures. She said that, while her family can still enjoy the area, it no longer feels inclusive and doesn’t seem to represent Norwalk’s true diversity. Some people commented that the Washington Street plan was successful. Others said it has become nothing more than restaurant row.  Some non-native Norwalkers mentioned what the plan could and should be. Marilyn Atkins said that developers should listen to what the older generation has to say. Another person felt that it is the native Norwalkers who should give input and that many natives don’t want change.

I continue to be appreciative that Bill Collins made sure to get my input as a community leader and head of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) during the process of improving Washington Street. I stressed to him that while the area needed to be redeveloped, the business owners, poor people and other residents needed to have some say in what was going to happen. After all, it was their home, their neighborhood. Many of them had their say in the documentary.

As we move forward and consider Norwalk’s future, we must remain cognizant of the thing that makes Norwalk so great — it’s diversity.  We cannot tout diversity on the one hand and disregard some of the voices that make up the city we all share. The film is a fascinating part of Norwalk’s history and it is a good way to learn from past rights and wrongs.  It is a film we think all residents should see.

We have decided to host a second showing at the South Norwalk Branch Library and we will invite all mayoral candidates to view this important documentary.  It should prove to be food for thought for future projects. We will announce the date and time soon.

Robert Burgess

Chair, District B Democratic Committee

City of Norwalk


2 responses to “Norwalk needs to preserve its diversity”

  1. Peter I Berman

    Yes our diversity is a great feature of our City. But let’s encourage our diverse community to vigorously and energetically participate in the City’s political activities by running for office and assisting those representing the diverse City communities. Including active involvement in PTOs. We need the very best members of the diverse community to more actively participate in the City’s affairs. Even when the welcome is just lukewarm.
    No shortage of available positions on the BOE and Common Council.

  2. Molly

    The days of Bobby Burgess are over. No matter how much Rilling wants them to continue.

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