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A Changing Town Center
The disastrous fire that burned at the heart of Branford Center on January 28th, 1998 damaged far more than the three buildings it consumed. It destroyed 12 businesses and 3 apartments while its flames tore into the hopes and dreams of the people who lived and worked there. Fortunately, no lives were lost.
Funds were immediately created to help the victims of the fire. The Branford Community Foundation helped the individuals who lost their homes and possessions to find new and comfortable places to stay. Several civic organizations provided funds, clothing and food to ease the transition to new homes. Aid for the business and property owners and the the devastated community came when the Branford Center Merchants and the Branford Chamber of Commerce joined hands to form the Branford Fire Recovery Council.
Throughout the night and the morning after hundreds of people watched fire fighters and the clean up crews. Many individuals felt a deep sense of personal loss and watched in disbelief. This was a disaster that like a flood, hurricane or tornado strongly effected the entire community; not just those who suffered property losses.
The fire generated tremendous coverage by the press for over a year. Politicians quickly hopped on the disaster bandwagon with the state governor visiting the day after the fire. Others told fond stories of campaigning in pre-fire downtown Branford and reminisced about the businesses that no longer existed. The fire story dominated the front pages of Branford newspapers for many weeks. The public grew to know the members of the Branford Fire Recovery council and the local Chamber of Commerce. Governor Roland personally congratulated the Branford Fire Recovery Council in his State Capitol offices. The Council was publicly commended for its actions at the annual Chamber of Commerce Awards dinner. On the one year anniversary of the fire the Branford Fire Recovery Council held an awards ceremony in the First Baptist church and publicly thanked the firefighters from Branford and surrounding towns that fought the downtown fire. A bronze plaque was presented to the First Selectman that commemorated the fire. Eventually it will be placed on one of the new buildings so all passersby in the years and decades ahead, will understand how the kind and thoughtful citizens of Branford came to the aid of those in need, after the fire of January 1998.
The Branford Center Fire Recovery Council listened to the business and property owners and the community. They helped with individual rebuilding efforts and store grand openings. The Fire Council also built a fence that helped to restore and strengthen the bonds that held the community together. Attitudes changed from shock and disbelief to, how can we help as the recovery effort progressed. Hard work, much of it by volunteers, soon followed. Stores started to reopen and people soon came back to downtown Branford for their leisure activities. Over the next year, eleven of the twelve businesses destroyed by the fire reopened. The hopes and dreams of the business owners and their employees were restored. Normal lives resumed as individuals and the community came to terms with their sense of loss. They realized that the past cannot be replaced but the future may be created anew. As of June 24th, 2006 one of the three destroyed buildings was finished while the other two were nearing completion. The community was well on the way to recovery. Through the strength of its individual members and community organizations it pulled together in a time of need and the entire town benefited.
Shortly after the cleanup was finished a durable, 167 foot long, plywood fence was constructed on the Main street side of the fire site. Guilford Fence built the wall with donations of materials from Branford Building Supplies and Sherwin-Williams paint store. Branford residents and school children decorated the community wall with scenes of what Branford meant to them. The wall of hope helped to unite townsfolk and allowed them to work through their shared sense of loss.
The resulting 167 foot long series of murals serves as a wonderful introduction to Branford and what is most important to the people who call this town their home.
Branford, Connecticut, the town I grew up in, was a mainly a blue collar and racially mixed community in the 1960's. We had three factories in town, a few farms and downtown was were we shopped for the necessities of life; groceries, clothing, shoes, hardware and household appliances. Taxes were low, property was affordable and many new families were calling Branford their home. In the early 1980's residents started to look at the center of town differently when the Post Office announced that it was moving a few blocks north to a bigger and more efficient building in a residential area. The Post Office was a daily downtown destination for many residents and they feared that the vitality of downtown Branford was threatened by its impending move. A great hue and cry rose from the masses. Public meetings were held and committees formed. Eventually 5 million taxpayer dollars were raised and an official downtown revitalization plan was announced.
In the mid-1980's Branford's downtown underwent a radical facelift. Brick sidewalks and crosswalks replaced old and crumbling concrete walkways. Telephone poles were removed; electrical and phone lines were rerouted into the backs of storefronts. New parking areas were created in back of the Main street buildings. Storefronts were painted green and several sported new awnings and signage. Victorian style gas lights in bright green with gold trim replaced old fashioned and unsightly street lights. Matching park benches and trash receptacles were placed at convenient locations along the new brick sidewalks. A green and gold, carnival looking bus shelter was built on the town green. Flowering trees that were especially bred for streetscapes replaced the dead or dying tall elms of Branford's past. Several small and meticulously landscaped gardens dotted the public open spaces of downtown Branford and were carefully maintained by the Garden Club and other volunteers. The new town center looked nothing like the old one. Some residents complained that it erased our history and looked like the Main Street in Disney World. Most agreed that Revitalization was a bold move that redefined downtown Branford and by implication, what it meant to be a resident of Branford.
When the town center revitalization work was completed, Branford held a celebration. They called it "The Branford Festival" and it was such a success that it almost immediately became a yearly tradition held in mid-June on Father's Day weekend. Every year a stage was constructed on the steps of the Town Hall and advertising banners were hung between the Greek Ionic columns. Local bands entertained throngs of visitors. For 2008 children's entertainment activities will include Moonwalk, Bumper Boats, Climbing Wall, Fun House Playscape, Tubs of Fun, Dunk Tank, Dragon Trail, Beepe the Ball Pond, Sand Art, Candle Art, Face Painting, and Nail Art. Adults can delight in tasty treats at the Food Booth Area sponsored by: The Rotary Club, the Italian American Club, the Branford Exchange Club and the Lions Club. A cruising car parade and social/political justice road race, where you can chose your favorite social or political cause to raise money for, will provide more entertainment in 2008. On a more serious note, an plaque and a prize will be awarded to a Branford schoolchild who writes the best essay about their dad.
The Town Hall is a backdrop for advertising
Photo courtesy of http://www.branfordfestival.com
An award and prize is given to the child
who writes the best essay about their father.
Photo courtesy of http://www.branfordfestival.com
Entertainment opportunities abound - you will
never be bored at the Branford Festival.
Photo courtesy of http://www.branfordfestival.com
A large selection of souvenirs ensures
a memorable experience for all.
Photo courtesy of http://www.branfordfestival.com
The Branford Festival proved that the center of Branford was not in danger of becoming obsolete. Along with Revitalization, the Festival presented Branford with a new and exciting post modern future marked by entertainment and leisure time activities. Not surprisingly Branford's teenagers were the first to embrace the future. Branford High School soon moved their graduating ceremony from the drab school to the exciting and grand Town Hall stage. Not long after the stage was built on the steps of the Town Hall older people started to realize that public service and volunteer work could be a path to celebrity status. Soon the local papers were full of stories complete with pictures of smiling folks who previously toiled in obscurity. We read about politicians helping third graders collect money for UNICEF, environmentalists encouraging fifth graders to save whales and teachers urging high school students to raise funds for incurable diseases by walking or running. Volunteerism proliferated and every week the papers were full of stories about charitable acts performed by the good citizens of Branford. One paper went so far as to name a Citizen of the Week and profiled that persons photo and outstanding deeds on the front page.
Rapid economic growth started in the 1980's for Branford. Many people simply feel in love with the newly revitalized Branford center and moved to the town. Condominium and houses sales soared to record highs; both in volume and price. Like many suburban Connecticut towns median family income doubled and even tripled over the last few decades. In the year 2000 the median family income in Branford was $69,510.00; well above the national average. Out of a community of 28,683 people only 145 married couples lived below the poverty line. 94% of the people were white; just 1.3% were African-Americans. Blacks have their own traditional section of town in between the railroad tracks and a swampy salt marsh. Locals often offer praise by stating "how nice those people keep their houses and yards".
Amidst the beginning of economic prosperity an unusual opportunity arose for volunteers; a soup kitchen was organized in the basement of the First Baptist Church. Twenty years later, the soup kitchen still endures. It changed its name to the Community Dining Room and moved to larger quarters at the government owned Volunteer Services Center on Harrison Avenue near the the center of town.
The Community Dining Room presently serves over 3,500 free meals a month and also offers a home delivery program. They host special holiday dinners at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas and offer community service opportunities to youth. One volunteer described working at a soup kitchen as "an act of social justice" which made her feel good about herself.
A new, non-judgmental attitude towards charity was developing in Branford. In our parent's day acts of charity focused on the recipient. They were meant to help a person who was down on their luck to either get back to where they were before, or raise themselves up to a better position in society. It was literally considered a "hand up". It required that the giver understand that the person he was helping was in need of assistance and that the help offered had at least the potential to improve the recipient's life. No one would give a bottle of wine to a drunk in an alley but many would bring him to the nearest Salvation Army for a warm meal and a sermon. Acts of charity came from an inherent sense of duty towards ones fellow human beings. The noblest acts were anonymous. Success was determined by how many people were helped and thus no longer needed assistance. The most successful charities were eventually the ones serving the smallest number of people.
Thus the paradox of a soup kitchen handing out over 40,000 free meals a year in a town where only 145 families live below the poverty line is solved.
The current attitude towards charity in Branford focuses on the giver rather than the recipient. A giver no longer needs to determine whether the recipient is in need of help. It is widely considered excessively "judgmental" if a giver expects the recipient to change their way of living, or lifestyle, as a condition of assistance. Personal success is now determined by how much the giver gives and how they feel about themselves afterwards. The success of the charitable institution is judged by how many givers and recipients it can bring together. Thus the paradox of a soup kitchen handing out over 40,000 free meals a year in a town where only 145 families live below the poverty line is solved. Around 1998 the Soup Kitchen administrators recognized this paradox. They addressed it by moving their burgeoning institution from the small basement of the First Baptist Church to a cavernous, town government building, and changing their name to the more socialist sounding "Community Dining Room".
The economic prosperity enjoyed by Branford and many other suburban Connecticut towns often did not reach as far as the cities. New Haven, which is only 8 miles west of Branford, has a median family income of just $35,950.00, well under the average for Branford and surrounding towns. Only 43.5% of New Haven's 123,626 residents are white according to the 2000 census. 27,613 or almost 25% of the population lives in poverty. Unfortunately the Branford Community Dining Room does not serve the residents of New Haven. They serve East Haven and towns up to 25 miles east of Branford, but draw their line at the New Haven city border.
Some older people who remembered the pre-revitalization Branford town center missed it. The artist who painted the panel to your left was over 80 years old in 1998. She lived in Stony Creek, a recently gentrified section of town, and fondly remembered simpler times and pleasures.
Castellons was the name of the bakery where the 1998 fire started. It was a place that sported the owners last name and accompanying reputation. A place where you could purchase a freshly baked doughnut and a steaming hot cup of coffee for under one dollar. It was destroyed by the fire and did not reopen.
Many other businesses closed their long opened doors after revitalization and before the fire. Horwitz department store was replaced by Curlies, a children's entertainment and play center. Collins and Freeman's hardware store died and a running and kayak business took over the building. The Sherwin Williams paint store made way for a fair trade coffee shop. One by one, family owned and serious downtown businesses that had weathered economic storms for decades, closed their doors in the midst of burgeoning prosperity. They were replaced by stores that were fun to shop at, entertained their visitors with the latest styles or delighted them with tasty treats.
The Branford Town government financed downtown revitalization and the people saw that it was a success. Pressures grew for government to address other social problems. Soon active schools were transformed into day care centers for children with breakfast, lunch and dinner included. Adult day care and senior citizen entertainment centers occupied other government buildings. People looked to town and state government to solve traffic and growth problems as well. 100,000 cars a day were passing through Branford on Interstate 95 and the two lane highway was crumbling. The solution was thought to be a new train station and lower fares. So a multi-million dollar station was built in Branford and the state further increased the taxpayers share of an average train ticket.
Eventually residents tried to slam the door on newcomers by asking government to forbid several planned housing developments. That decision cost town taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and failed to halt people from moving into Branford. Property taxes skyrocketed to pay for the new demands placed upon government. According to Money magazine the average property tax paid by a Branford homeowner in 2006 was $4,750.00. Many homeowners along the waterfront paid $15,000.00 to $30,000.00 or more while a few paid close to one million dollars a year in property taxes. The top individual property taxpayer in 2004 was Christine Svenningsen who paid a little over 18 million dollars! Still the population continued to grow, although at a slowing pace, and was estimated at 29,207 in July of 2006.
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