The Superbus's Thoughtpad

Telegraph Road, Derby CT

Posted by Chris Bowen on November 1, 2013

Spot of the former Derby Billiards

Spot of the former Derby Billiards

The elections are coming back to Derby, as they do every two years. Two years is an infinitesimal amount of time in politics, so it’s easy to become weary at the kabuki theatre we’re subjected to every other year. This side did this, and because they’re fundamentally bad people, be sure to vote for my side on election day. It’s honestly wearying – I’m shocked at how jaded I am to my local political scene, considering I’ve lived in Derby for five years now – but despite what makes sense to anyone, the people who can seemingly do nothing but bicker and make excuses are still in charge of my city. In Derby, stasis is the order of the day, as many of the people on the ballot have been on the ballot, or in power, for a very long time, bickering and arguing and fighting the same battles over and over, many of those battles dating back to their high school days.

When you have so many other distractions that don’t involve getting into, and staying in, a political office, it’s easy to lose track of things. It’s much easier to demonize your opponents and say they’re why everything’s jacked up, and you’ll fix it, than it is to actually fix it. Sometimes, people just need a reminder.

Derby political candidates, consider yourselves reminded.

The Ghosts of Yesteryear

For a brief time in my youth, I lived at 185 Main Street in Derby. It was a second floor apartment above what used to be Club Soda, a low-rent bar. It wasn’t the greatest place to live, but it was home, before I moved to Seymour. Today, that building is largely empty; I’ve heard a rumor that there’s an office on the second floor where we lived, but as far as I know, everything’s empty, including Mario’s Cafe, which seems to have been out of business for years.

Of course, when I was living there in the 80s, there were businesses all up and down the road. They weren’t exactly top-flight retail – the kind of retail we know of now just didn’t exist back then – but they were the kind of small businesses one could expect in a factory town. Next door was a small pizza place, farther down were the usual package and other smaller stores, and Derby Billiards, where I would often be taken to play video games. Just off Main Street was a little grocer called Valero’s. I don’t remember many of the specifics, but could point out areas that I knew about if shown in pictures. The stalwart was Hubbell Brothers shoes, just before the curve that takes drivers to the four-way intersection.

Housatonic Lumber.

Housatonic Lumber.

Main Street is now unrecognizable, and not because the businesses have changed. They have changed, in that they’ve largely disappeared. My old building is empty, and while the pizza place to my left is now a dance studio, to my right looks like a disaster area. Milardo’s, a place that handled floor coverings, is long gone. Across the street, another business that handled home decor is gone, and has become the headquarters for Derby Republicans trying to reelect Mayor Anthony Staffieri to his fifth term. Most telling is that the buildings that used to house Derby Billiards and Hubbell Brothers don’t even exist anymore; they were condemned and taken down as the first step in Derby’s downtown revitalization project, which is now a bipartisan laughing stock. Derby Billiards lives on in spirit next to Nuts ‘n Bolts in the form of Breaktime at Jak’s, which is every bit as shady as the old place was; Hubbell Brothers, after trying things out in the old Valley Bowl parking lot, finally closed down for good in 2010. Looking to the left, one could be forgiven for thinking they walked into downtown Detroit for a minute. A package store is still open, but barely; on it, rests a sign talking about a future auction of the building. Next to it are dead business after dead business, some of which I can’t place without relying on old Google Maps images. Just before getting on Rt. 8 lie the corpses of both Rio Grande and Lifetouch, the latter of which was used as the campaign headquarters for Derby Republicans in 2009.

There’s a poetic statement to be made there: political head butting caused a lot of this mess, so why not have politicians lie in the mess they created?

None of this takes into account the businesses that aren’t on just this stretch of road – Housatonic Lumber is a statement in and of itself on just what Derby used to be and what it isn’t now – and are off of the side roads, or past Main St. and onto Roosevelt, like Derby Cellular. It also doesn’t take into account the businesses that have died but been replaced by others, such as 500 Degrees, and the never-ending turnover in the restaurant space next to the Nutty Company. The fact is that this stretch of road is indicative of the problems that have hit both Derby, and the Valley in general.

Mario's Cafe. Before, this was known as Club Soda.

Mario’s Cafe. Before, this was known as Club Soda.

A Tailor-Made Financial Crisis

The financial recession of 2008 affected the whole country, from Wall Street to the proverbial “main street” that politicians refer to when they want to reference so-called middle America. It’s easy to blame what happened in ’08 for the problems that are befalling this area, but that’s missing a large part of the story. What we’re going through has been a long time coming; the financial crisis just brought it to a head faster.

The history of the Lower Naugatuck Valley is one of factories, and the blue collar workers that worked them. During America’s period of industrialization, the Valley was one of the most prosperous areas of Connecticut as factories sprung up around the Housatonic River to manufacture heavy metals. As that industry declined, the fortunes of this area reflected the new reality, but the area was still home to enough blue collar jobs to make living in the area worthwhile.

Since the time of my youth, however, a few things have changed.

– Factory work in the Untied States in general has plummeted. This is due to a few factors, including: automation of many routine tasks, outsourcing of work to third world countries, and decreased demand for American made goods.
– Connecticut’s economics have shifted. The state’s tax burden is among the highest in the country, and while that has shifted the state’s work force into being more white-collar, that’s only good news for Fairfield County and Hartford; it’s very bad news for a very blue-collar, conservative area with no technological footprint to speak of.
– The economic collapse and resulting recession of 2008 wrecked harder havoc on the Valley than most other areas because many of those aforementioned blue collar jobs got slashed all at once, causing drastic ripple effects on the communities.

Miliardos. I don't even remember who the other company was.

Miliardos. I don’t even remember who the other company was.

Derby, and by extension other Valley towns, have been fighting the effects of a shifting workplace – where factory jobs have been gradually replaced to shift with the changing manufacturing and workplace landscape – for a long time, decades, but the financial system crashing upon itself accelerated the decline. Nowadays, Derby, as well as the majority of the Valley, has become a bedroom community; a place for commuters working in Norwalk1, Stamford, and New York City to plop their heads and take their kids to soccer practice before going south or north (to Hartford), where the real action is. My girlfriend is probably the best example of what the Valley has become: she lives in Beacon Falls, in an apartment complex that was converted from an old factory, and works on the Norwalk/Darien border in marketing. This is no fault of her’s, and if you were to ask her it’s not even a “fault”; I’d argue it’s merely circumstance.

Seemingly, the only jobs left in Derby are those in hospitality. Restaurants are plentiful, as are jobs in retail, the latter of which are particularly plentiful on the Orange line, but as Derby Democratic mayoral candidate Dr. Anita Dugatto notes, those aren’t careers; those are transient jobs. Anyone trying to make a living off of the vast majority of the jobs in Derby who doesn’t own their own business is struggling, mightily.

What makes the above that much worse is that at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much hope of that getting better.

Flesh Wounds vs. Crippling Disease

Naturally, with the election less than a week away, the obvious question is: how does someone fix this mess? How does someone not only fix the figurative war zone that is Main Street, or even worse, the (sometimes) actual war zone that is the areas around Olivia and Elizabeth Streets?

The easy answer is the political process. The Democrats will do this thing that the Republicans didn’t do, but the Republicans do that thing better, and whatever side I don’t like, they are fundamentally evil people, whereas I and my people on this side are God’s gift to politics, and in this election–

STOP. It’s not about this election. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. Here’s a dirty secret: the 2013 will not fix what is ailing downtown Derby. The problems in Derby are much deeper than any one election can fix.

To me, the problem breaks down easily into three major points:

This tile business is now the home of Anthony Staffieri's reelection effort.

This tile business is now the home of Anthony Staffieri’s reelection effort.

An Inbred Political Environment That Rewards Certain Connections – Everyone who works with, or close to, City Hall seems to be a friend, ally or husband/wife of someone else in power in Derby. This results in more questions than answers when it comes to former Republican aldermen being given jobs, directly on the Mayor’s order, among other issues. So and so’s wife has this job. Such and such’s friend holds another job. Even if situations like these lead to no problems, the optics are problematic.

Even beyond that, there’s a dynastic approach to local politics. Ron Sill’s wife worked at City Hall until her recent retirement. Three members of the Szewczyk family are running for various positions. Three incumbent politicians work in City Hall as their day job. Marc Garofalo’s rearing his head around again. It’s the same people, or the same peoples’ friends, and it’s getting ridiculous, especially when so many problems are affecting the City and many of these people were at the helm as things started to turn.

Broken Trust Between City Hall and Derby Citizens

The case of former tax office employee Katherine Kulhawik showed the complete and total lack of transparency in City Hall, and the resulting lack of respect voters feel they’re getting. Tax scandals are nothing new to the Valley – ask Oxford and Shelton – but whereas both Shelton and Oxford were very aggressive in taking care of their internal strife, Derby attempted to sweep everything under the rug, culminating in the Mayor vetoing a party-line request by Derby aldermen to investigate just what happened, and everything else has been handled in an executive session where minutes aren’t recorded. The implication is clear, and occasionally has been stated: if news got out how bad the damage was, residents would be very upset. Frankly, residents should be even more upset now.

The trust issue isn’t limited to Republicans. When transitioning to the Staffieri administration after former mayor Mark Garofalo was voted out of office, the latter’s administration decided to do a full shread – delete everything to the point where forensic software couldn’t recover it – of all hard drives within City Hall. In a hostile relationship that has embarrassed Derby, it was just one of many “fuck you”s between the two.

Derby voters have virtually no reason to trust anyone that they elect to office, and they are consistently given new reasons why.

A Tale of Two Derbys – I got a good earful of something at a recent meeting at Bradley School to determine the temperature for redistricting. Simply put: Derby is completely divided.

At the Bradley School meeting, the cafeteria was standing room only as parents came in to 100% slam the proposal. Good intentions on the part of Superintendent Conway were reacted to with something that was one step below a lynch mob, with many parents concerned that the Irving kids being in the same school as their children would negatively impact their own kids, as well as bring down their property values. The implication was clear: keep those poor people on the west end of town away from us.

Unfortunately, the impression that there are two Derbys was also in effect at the Irving meeting, where it was brought up by parents on both sides, with one Bradley family even noting they were intimidated to come out to Irving, and others from Irving saying the same thing about Bradley. They felt unwelcome.

The two schools are separated by five miles.

We cannot figure out what’s wrong with Derby and how to fix it until these key issues are rectified. Who’s in City Hall is irrelevant. The downtown development will forever be a fantasy. Main Street will continue to look like a shanty town. Everything that residents currently argue about is a distraction; the real issues are deep, and one two-year term before another election will barely scratch that surface.

Rio Grande Restaurant & Bar.

Rio Grande Restaurant & Bar.

Six Lanes of Traffic… Three Lanes Moving Slow

The residents that one sees when they walk on Main Street are the kind that have always lived and worked there. The immigrants who run the convenience store are every bit as hard of workers as the second generation resident who worked at Housatonic Lumber after graduating from high school. The demographics have changed, and the jobs have changed, but the makeup and character of the residents and workers hasn’t.

The major things that have changed is the condition of the remaining buildings. The population is starting to show the effects of the changes. Derby High School graduated just over 60 people in 2013; to put that in perspective, I graduated Emmett O’Brien Tech in 1999 – always smaller than the main high schools – and my class graduated 98. The population is getting progressively older, and the kids are leaving, either before high school or just after it. The thirty somethings – my age bracket – aren’t coming in, either; the ones who grew up in Derby that I know couldn’t be happier that they left, and the ones who have children in elementary school are avoiding one of the lowest scoring school systems in the state of Connecticut like the plague.

Those are the conditions of a ghost town. When the young can’t wait to get out, and the old can’t stay alive, there’s no one left.

Until those trends are reversed, and until the underlying causes for the symptoms are addressed properly, people will continue to flee. Conditions will continue to get worse. Poverty will continue to increase. And there will continue to be more boarded up windows than window shoppers on the modern Telegraph Road.

1 – Despite my extreme distaste for my city being nothing more than a glorified hotel, I’ve become guilty of perpetuating it too; I work in Norwalk.

  • Alec Hidell

    Regarding “Miliardos. I don’t even remember who the other company was.”; I think it was Colonial TV.