Editor’s note: Students in Mark Jackson’s Roton Middle School seventh-grade social studies class researched Norwalk’s Heritage Wall. Here is what they learned.
In the early summer of 1983, former Norwalk teacher and future mayor Thomas C. O’Connor dedicated Norwalk’s Heritage Wall, which is located on West Avenue, across the street from Stepping Stones and Lockwood-Mathews Mansion. The wall project began under then-Mayor Frank Zullo and was implemented by a team which included O’Connor. Today the wall and its plaques stand as a testament to O’Connor’s planning and vision, and showcase Norwalk’s many ethnicities.
The language on the plaques includes poetic representations of each culture. For example, the plaque honoring Italians in Norwalk states: “Strong through the teaching of our forefathers. Lovers of work and freedom. Humble we came honoring the laws. We pursued our dreams, achieved our goals, strengthened our beliefs, and proudly we are Americans.”
The plaque honoring people of Irish descent states: “From the four provinces they came Irish men and women who gave of themselves their cultures their labors their lives the precious freedom from want for freedom to worship and for the enrichment of their adopted country we too are Americans proud of our ancient heritage.”
The wall’s first plaque, acknowledging Hungarians in Norwalk, went up on June 27, 1983. Seventeen plaques in total were added that year, including the French-Canadian, Italian, and Polish plaques. In the center of the wall, a plaque honors the United States of America. The remaining plaques represent the cultures of Greece, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, England, Native Americans, Haiti, Portugal, Italy, China, and Norwalk’s Black Community. The history behind these plaques is unknown and information about who sponsored them is limited, but we do know that many cultural groups in Norwalk and surrounding areas have paid to put up plaques honoring their heritage.
Data from the 1980 U.S. Census show that around the time the Heritage Wall was erected, Norwalk’s population was 80% Caucasian, 14% African-American, and 6% Hispanic. The census from 2010 says that the percentage of Hispanic or Latino citizens grew to 26.9%, and according to a recent article published on January 18, 2019 in the Norwalk Hour, titled “ELL, Hispanic populations on the rise,” Hispanics are 40% of Norwalk’s population. According to an article published in NancyOnNorwalk on the same day, titled “NPS demographic study shows big hike in Hispanic students,” Hispanic and Latino students are now 49.4% of the Norwalk Public School student population, and represent the cultures of more than 16 different countries. Yet only three plaques on the Heritage Wall reflect Latino cultures: Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica. Therefore, the Heritage Wall does not currently reflect Norwalk’s population. Other cultures missing include Eastern-European, Middle Eastern, as well as various Asian and African regions.
Adding a plaque to the Heritage Wall requires filling out a “City of Norwalk Public Art, Gifts and Donations and Loans Form,” available in the Parks and Recreation Department at City Hall. The application includes the following information:
- Artist’s resume
- Digital images of previous work
- Description of proposed concept in response to the published call for proposals
- Drawings, photographs, or digital simulations that demonstrate the relationship and scale of the artwork to the site
- Material samples for the artwork and any relevant construction materials (if applicable)
- Installation details and requirements
- Timeline for the project
- Detailed budget including artist fees
- Installation cost estimates, including identifying markers or plaques consistent with current signage on existing city public artworks
- Documentation during creation and proof of public liability insurance
- Description of fabrication materials, maintenance requirements and an estimate of annual maintenance costs
The typical cost for a three- to four-foot tall bronze plaque ranges from $8,000 to $10,000, and is paid by the applicant. The amount varies depending on decorations or extra wording. Religious groups or nationalities can combine to share a plaque. All groups are welcome in hopes that the wall will reflect a more accurate depiction of Norwalk’s diversity.
O’Connor was a state representative for the City of Norwalk in 1978 and served on Norwalk’s Common Council from 1982 to 1983. He also worked for the City of Norwalk as an educator for 35 years, and did two tours of service in the US Navy Air Force during World War II and the Korean War. Perhaps because of his exposure to many ethnicities and cultures as a teacher, serving in the military, and volunteering in Norwalk, he was inspired to honor the cultures and heritages he encountered.
In the years since O’Connor’s death in 2001, Thomas C. O’Connor Park — located across the street from Matthews Park — has gained new monuments, including a statue of Christopher Columbus previously at Columbus Elementary School. The park has also been the site of many parades and cultural festivals. A memorial for Hungarian Freedom Fighters was also rededicated in 2012 after relocation from Freese Park. A plaque in memory of Thomas C. O’Connor was placed at the park in 2001 to pay tribute to a man who helped create a monument showcasing Norwalk’s diversity.