Posted on September 26, 2015
By John McDonald, Extension Intern
Hugh Bailey, urban planner, columnist for the Connecticut Post, and member of UConn class of 1999, will be speaking on the issue of the post-industrial challenges posed by the numerous abandoned buildings in Connecticut’s urban areas. His presentation, “Ruins Reborn: Revitalizing Post-industrial Cities”, was in October at the Waterbury campus of the University of Connecticut, tackled this issue in a fashion which would integrate historical preservation and community economic development. The harsh realities of the post-industrial decline hit Connecticut’s cities in the 1970s. Many communities have never fully recovered. The legacies of our reliance on heavy industry have included fiscal insolvency and environmental degradation. While underutilized, polluted buildings and land abound, it is important to remember that the scale of the problems we currently face are lesser than they once were.
I was born in Waterbury in 1973. My first inkling of the post-industrial decline came with my father’s layoff in 1980. Food stamps soon supplemented our meager income. We bounced back somewhat during the Reagan years, but another recession was around the corner. I left high school in the thick of it, with no concrete plans for my future. I became a college student only recently, after a lengthy odyssey that included Job Corps, an apprenticeship, and many low-paying service jobs. My memories of post-industrial Waterbury are vivid and my experiences in this landscape shaped my environmental attitudes, in this case meaning my enduring orientations to the physical environment. I remember riding in my parent’s minivan along Silver Street, en route to the Naugatuck Valley Mall on Wolcott Street. I looked out the window in awe at the derelict Scovill Brass buildings. This massive complex covered nearly 200 acres. I remember some ten years later, walking down East Main Street, still in the shadow of the Scovill buildings.
Waterbury’s landscape has already been greatly altered. The Brass Mill Center currently occupies the former Scovill site. True to my blue-collar roots, I worked as an apprentice electrician, wiring a few of the stores in the new mall which was completed in 1996. Other industrial sites in Waterbury have since been demolished. There are similar instances throughout the Naugatuck Valley. Naugatuck has also been transformed as the former U.S. Rubber complex has largely been razed. Those familiar with the region’s industrial heyday are no doubt surprised to see how much of the built environment has been changed. Mr. Bailey advocates a different sort of approach than widespread demolition, which sometimes results in polluted lots sitting vacant for years, or conversion to retail space, which would further dissipate the area’s limited consumer base. In his article, which has been published in UConn Magazine, Mr. Bailey discusses other ways to deal with the problems posed by abandoned factory buildings.
One of Mr. Bailey’s suggestions is to link the proposed Naugatuck River Greenway with factory complexes restored as industrial heritage sites. As Mr. Bailey reports, this strategy has worked well in the Ruhr Valley of Germany, one of Europe’s most heavily industrialized areas. Mr. Bailey also discusses instances where factory complexes have been converted into successful mixed-use developments. Mr. Bailey believes that these type of developments can help post-industrial cities regain their lost identity by connecting their rich past to their uncertain future. In this sense, these cities can be reborn, as the title of Mr. Bailey’s lecture suggests.
From my experience assisting with the economic impact study of the Naugatuck River Greenway, I understand that these sort of projects can be costly and may not provide the type of economic boost Naugatuck Valley municipalities are looking for. They are long-term solutions to a pervasive problem whose benefits will accrue over time and ultimately create stronger communities. The Naugatuck Valley cities and towns must be made aware of such concepts as amenity value, preservation value, and social capital; intangibles that are often difficult to quantify. That may prove to be as big of a challenge as restoring factory buildings that have been abandoned, in some instances, for nearly 40 years.