Focus On: Michael Friedman, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel

Michael Friedman is originally from Great Neck, NY.  He attended Yale University as an undergraduate where he studied history. After school Rabbi Friedman, spent fifteen years in Israel and New York before coming back to Connecticut to take a position six years ago at Westport/Weston’s Reformed Jewish Temple, Temple Israel.  He and wife, costume designer, Hayley Lieberman are parents to 2-year-old twins George and Goldie. 

“Our community is based around face to face interaction and because of COVID so much of our world these days is digital, interacting through screens. We view our role as providing an antidote to that because that’s what people crave. If you ask our congregation  what’s most important, “community” is the term you hear most often. When something comes along that limits that interaction, it’s difficult. 

As public institutions, we’re already used to being charge of people’s health and safety. Safety is particularly important especially in this day and age in in the Jewish community. We are used putting that first so in that first week of March when it became clear we couldn’t do biz as usual and make sure people are safe, we had to start limiting programming.  

This year, the Purim carnival was scheduled for march 8—the  2nd Sunday in march,. It’s our largest event of the year, other than the high holidays. The largest number of people gather for Purim. At first, we scheduled a delay but then it became clear to us early on that it was just not a responsible thing to go forward with the event and we cancelled on the Wednesday prior. At the time a lot of synagogues were talking about limiting their celebrations for the same date and we were among the first to cancel—not just in Westport but throughout the Metro area. People were surprised and called and asked “what are you doing?” To us, it was the obvious decision. To us, it was the right thing to do. As the days passed that week, Wednesday into Thursday Into Friday and Saturday others temples and organizations canceled their events. I’m proud we were ahead of the curve there in a number of ways.  

By the 2nd week of march we seriously limiting a lot of meetings and events. We follow the schedule of the public school so it was a question of watching the schools and seeing what they did. As soon as schools closed, we closed the synagogue. We had a contingency plan to do it. I’m really proud of our community here in that there wasn’t push back because they understood it was for everyone’s safety. 

The first stage in this new situation was triage: Figuring out how to move as much as we could online and pastoring to  everyone’s sense of crisis.. During that first month we were trying to figure to what degree could we run a nursery school online>. How are the schools getting online?  Our religious schools for older kids  started providing a supplement. Our worship services had to get online. Then as I said, there was the dealing with trauma: We quickly set up a system where every member in congregation, got a check in from our board or clergy o ra  volunteer to say “We are here thinking about you.” In that process, we got a lot of good feedback. 

That lasted to Passover, during which a lot of families had ZOOM seders and congregational seders. That was hard because Passover is a big family gathering on Jewish calendar. Then after Passover it was a new state of being, it was no longer about crisis, and it occurred to us all that this will be new normal for long time to come. We shifted from triaging crisis to figuring how to we help congregants deal with long term. 

We know people are yearning to come back to their Jewish home and with respect to reopening,  we have a task force of lay leaders and professionals creating those plans for us. Health and safety is still the top priority that will never change.  

The milestones that people are looking at are beginning of school year for the nursery school and then the high holidays. There’s a range of contingencies we are planning based on this. We have no particular date to open het , we are looking at different factors to guide us including the successes of other businesses, the state guidelines and how similar institutions are proceeding. We are lucky in many respects in that we do not have the same pressure to reopen the building because of the revenue model of synagogues versus many other religious institutions.  

So, our priority lies not in re-opening, our priority lies in how do we serve our congregation in very best way even if we can’t be in the same room. How can we use wisdom of Jewish tradition and ritual to guide people through this unprecedented time? How do we help human beings thrive in a time of unprecedented dislocation and isolation? Our building doesn’t need to be open to give people the things they want from synagogue. 

I often hear people making comparisons to circumstances of isolation or separation in Jewish history but I don’t think it helps others to think, say, “Anne Frank made it through four years in an attic,  so you should tough it out.”  What I’ve learned as a rabbis  that each person’s struggle is their own struggle—it has nothing to do with comparison. The tsouris [trouble]each person has is real and valid. I think, psychologically, it’s not helpful for that person to draw a comparison to others in worse circumstances but I absolutely believe that the resilience and creativity of the Jewish people thorough history in times way, way worse than this is one  is one hundred percent an inspiration. 

It’s helpful to remind ourselves we are strong and we know how to deal and the most difficult situations 

There’s a specificity for Jews that we have a strong connection to our ancestors and our people and we think of the Jewish community through time as our family, our community, our tribe who have done great things in the face of much greater struggles. 

Some small things that we’ve done that I believe fall within that tradition of creativity out of adversity is that  

We’ve been wanting to reshape elementary school age Hebrew learning, when everything was moved online it forced us to experiment with online learning, which were considering but we wouldn’t have been forced to experiment with. Now we are seeing which teachers are effective in this medium and  who it benefits. It was a forced learning lab for us.  

COVID is going to force us to rethink high holidays: When and how we celebrate them. We knew we wanted to live streaming in general but we weren’t ready and didn’t have infrastructure. Now, there’s no going back because we are going to live-stream going forward. This is cutting edge right now for synagogues– the crisis forces us to take steps that we would have taken our time doing. 

We’ve also, traditionally, really thought of our programming in terms of people showing up in person at the synagogue. Who is going to show up when for what? This new-normal helps normalize participating without necessarily being in room, even if others are. We envision a community where some are in room and others aren’t. You don’t have to be in room and you shouldn’t feel “less than” for not being there. In the past, we’d accommodate a couple of people who couldn’t make it using propped up iPhone. It wasn’t a regular accommodation but that will change. 

Right now, all services are on Zoom including Family Shabbat, our Friday evening service. Tora study and Saturday morning services are on zoom as well as Saturday evening service. None of us have been back in building to date. 

I’ve conducted Bar Mitzvah’s and funerals as well as baby naming ceremonies on zoom. I’ve given a lot of thought about how do you conduct life cycle rituals if you cannot be together? Particularly mourning rituals—and I was inspired to write a piece about that for our blog.

I used to assume, that if people wanted to hear what we had to say they’d come Friday night—that’s our primetime. In winter,  we started to podcast our sermons and make available to download and listening to make it available for those who might not be able to come. And I realize in this time, even that’s not enough. I’ve been writing a weekly message to the congregations—lots of rabbis do this—but I realized there is a need for inspiration from Jewish tradition on a weekly basis. We are seeing greater numbers, engaging in this way. Even in the future, many are not going to come, it needs to be a push more than a pull. Getting the message in your inbox is part of that. 

In many ways, people have nothing else to do, so they are coming to more virtual events—, of course, I’m aware that not all this engagement will continue once the world gets back going 

Rahm Emmanuel, the former Mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s chief of staff said  “Never let good crisis go to waste. It provides an opportunity to do things that were not possible before.”  

I love this quote. It describes how we are thinking and planning differently. We are planning multiple high holiday contingencies, different scenarios, because I don’t feel comfortable making decisions for three months out,. But what we start now gives us opportunities to even rethink what does a new schedule of services look like—even if things are re-opened? Not everyone will want to just come back. This part is what’s most exciting. IT forces me to say how would you do a 2 hour Rosh Hashana service in 1 hour? Now I think down the line…maybe next hear if, god willing, we can do in person services maybe we can do an alternative 1 hour service. So if you want to come 1 hour or 2 you have options.  . We’d never have thought that before. 

I think about a traditional Jewish phrase said at Passover “Next year in Jerusalem” Here’s the amazing and crazy thing: Next year in Jerusalem was said by for millennia by people who could never ever hope to ever really go there. It was a statement of hope: Next year, the world will be better, we’ll be able to be home. And then all of a sudden we could go to Jerusalem, it was actually possible. This dream was kept alive until that it became a reality. Whatever your “next year in Jerusalem” i it’s a flame of hope to be kept alive and I think people are tapping into that feeling with respect to a post-COVID future. 

For me, for example,  it’s a devastating possibility that school wont’ be in session because of what that does to the economy and how people are struggling, and balancing childcare and earning a living. So, I need to believe and hope that school will be session. 

Personally, I have realized how much I thrived on the in person and interaction of other human beings and responding with body language and emotion and proximity. I am not as good on zoom, it is not the same. We are doing the best we can and having some success but I am not the same rabbi on zoom. I wonder if any teacher or doctor regarding telemedicine would say they are same practitioner. We are doing the best we can, but I’m not same. I deal with a total life cycle– I can have a morning funeral and an afternoon meeting with bar mitzvah students.  We are really missing the celebrations: The bar and bat mitzvah’s are being put off, all of the weddings are postponed, the baby namings postponed. Funerals can’t be postponed because of the Jewish tradition so now I’m largely dealing with that single aspect of the lifecycle. And we dealing with a community dealing with loss, hardship and sadness, no one is celebrating–there is nothing to celebrate. I think that I desperately miss the balance of joyful and difficult that is generally part of a rabbi’s life. There is still joy to be found but the balance is different. 

My fear is that life will never return to what it once was and the fear is based so much that the idea that life before was so great. It’s the fear of the unknown and we human beings have such difficulty dealing with change and the world will change but we don’t know how. That’s what’s different from every other crisis in our lifetimes in near memory: We don’t know how life will go one because we don’t know the path virus will take, how to solve it. What are temporary adjustments or permanent changes? We don’t know if this is a significant event that will not change the course of human history or will it. I think that unknown is a fear.  

…the fear is based so much that the idea that life before was so great

In terms of hope, as a rabbi I would hope that people really appreciate, see and understand how Judaism and how Jewish community can provide hope and comfort in a tumultuous world on the one hand. On the other hand, I would hope that people really value the joy and wisdom that tradition can bring to their lives even when things go back to normal or a new normal is reached.” 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Patton Family

The Patton family moved to Westport eight years ago from Simsbury. Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton is the Pastor of Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC. Founded in 1832 by former members of Green’s Farms Congregational Church to service those living in “Saugatuck Village” (today’s downtown Westport) the church  is an important historical site. It has been closed since early March with worship services and other gatherings moved on line. Craig D. B. Patton is a freelance social media consultant and trainer focused on LinkedIn. He is part of the team at Post Road Consulting, which is owned by Westport resident Sandra Long. Son Tobey is a 2020 graduate of Staples High School and son Ian a rising sophomore at the school. 

“Being a pastor is all about people. Walking with them. Sharing with them. Supporting them. Teaching them. Learning from them. Worshiping with them. Praying with them. Identifying and executing mission work to do together. On and on. So, on the one hand, it’s challenging not to be able to gather in-person to worship, learn, grow, and work together. On the other hand, the building is not the church and never has been. The early Christian church gathered in homes and also public spaces when it was safe to do so. We find echoes of that all around us today. It’s also worth noting that Saugatuck Church has recent experience with being a displaced faith community. The fire in November 2011 forced us to improvise and live differently for several years. 

There is also a creative streak in this congregation that serves us well in times like this. New and different ways of doing things are embraced or acknowledged as worthy experiments. Living through the pandemic compelled us to be creative, learn new skill sets, and reengage with how we live out our mission as the church. But Zoom meetings and inventive video productions only get you so far. It’s still hard. It’s hard not to see each other. It’s hard not to sing together. It’s hard not to pray in the same space. We miss our friends. We miss watching the children growing up. We spend too much time apart. One interesting upside is that moving so much of the church’s life online has allowed people with physical and health limitations to participate more frequently. It has also allowed people in other parts of the state and country to reconnect with or discover us. Online Bible Study draws more people than the in-person version did. The weekly Online Worship services reach more people.   

For Craig, the primary impact has been the cancellation of in-person seminars and trade show events. A major event in Philadelphia was an early casualty. However, because we work online in the world of social media, much of our business has not been severely disrupted. Most of Craig’s work over the phone or the Internet, pre-pandemic and now. I’m grateful to be working in an area that has an easier time continuing than so many other industries.

We continue to feel very grateful to be at low risk in many ways. None of us have underlying health issues or are in other risk categories. Alison’s job is not at risk. Craig’s is in a sector that has reduced impact. We live in a parsonage, so we don’t have mortgage payments or rental fees. We often remind ourselves that we have advantages that others do not. We feel more settled, more balanced now. Looking back, we can see the waves of energy, fatigue, positivity, and grief that were hard to understand while they were tossing us. We’re much more adept at using Zoom and video editing tools we’ve had to learn. We feel apprehensive about the reopening efforts, both locally and nationally. Alison also feels energized by the new possibilities for ministry and the creative conversations that we’re having. 

Professionally, Alison has had to learn to run a virtual church. Ministry is all about the people, and she’s never with the people, so using other methods to reach out, nurture community, and even expand community has been a significant change. She quickly became the Zoom expert in the house. Tech support is now part of her pastoral care ministry to congregation members as she equips them to use various online platforms. In some ways, she feels like she has more regular contact with many members than before the pandemic. She’s also pastoring a community in grief over the separation from one another, canceled events, altered lives, lost opportunities, lost jobs, and more. 

 Meanwhile, Craig has poured much of his time and energy into helping the church create its weekly Online Worship services, which is basically like creating a short film every week. In our daily lives, the most significant change is that our teenagers have been home every day since mid-March with no break for any of us. Thankfully, we get along very well. We play a lot of board games, and all-family basketball games in the driveway have recently started. 

We both come from grounded, humble families. None of our parents are ostentatious, extravagant, wasteful, etc. Alison’s parents are clergy and engaged with social justice issues nationally and globally all their lives. Craig’s parents, while comfortably middle class, have always been frugal and carefully plan for every eventuality they can imagine. So we both grew up in households where we understood that we have more than many others and that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. We have some perspective. That helps. Our family also values adaptability, flexibility, and a sense of humor. That helps.  

We’re all campers, and campers don’t mind a little adversity, and they don’t worry if they look a little unkempt. That helps. The fact that both of us, but particularly Craig, have a great deal of life experience with information technology and video production has helped us quickly adapt and make a positive contribution to our community. We are both comfortable talking about our feelings and are intuitive by nature, so we have generally been able to process with each other how we’re doing. It was harder early in this period when we went from what we thought would be a 2-week shutdown to a process that would take many months and alter the complexion of our lives for a long time. Depression and grief impacted us more then. 

Generally, we feel that the community has coped quite positively with the pandemic. I Early in the shutdown, Alison wrote an article reflecting on all the positive energy, acts of kindness, and creative thinking taking place here. Communication from the schools and the town officials has been excellent. Grocery stores have adapted as our understanding of what was needed to evolve. People embraced social distancing and the sacrifices involved for weeks on end. We have a lot of creative, hard-working neighbors who have worked hard to move much of our lives online.  

We do think this next part is harder for our community. Fatigue has settled in with this whole social distancing lifestyle. The direst predictions of what might happen haven’t come to pass, so there’s a temptation to think the risk was overblown or has ended. Craig has observed much more cavalier behavior by people in stores and elsewhere than a week ago. Some people are ignoring instructions. Doing what they want, when they want, and waving off corrections. Others are genuinely fearful, convinced the virus is lurking in every inch of the town, waiting for a chance to infect them, their family, or their neighbors. So, like the rest of the country, Westport appears torn about what the appropriate balance is between public health concerns and economic or personal liberty concerns. Every layer of our society seems to be in confusion, overruling what other parts have said is the “right” thing to be doing. 

We hope that people have learned from the pandemic that changes in human behavior can have a measurable, positive impact on the environment. Skies cleared worldwide as businesses figured out how to drive their companies without driving to an office. The pandemic also highlighted structural inequities that continue to plague this country. The United States has suffered a disproportionate number of casualties from the Coronavirus compared to other countries, and a disproportionate percentage of our dead are people of color. It’s not their fault. It’s our society’s fault. 

We hope this experience will inspire our country to confront and change racist policies and recommit to caring for the environment. We also hope that we will carry this community-building creativity forward. We hope there will be more appreciation for service workers, many of whom we never see, who work for little pay but were designated “essential” because they are and have been at risk while the rest of us hung out at home baking and streaming Netflix. Our greatest fear is that there will be a severe relapse, or second wave of infection and hospitalizations before treatment or a vaccine is available, sending us back into shutdown for months. But another fear is that the pandemic will continue as a slow burn. Life may look “normal,” while tens of thousands of additional people die over the coming months, tacitly written off as expendable because we couldn’t accept any other path forward.

We hope this experience will inspire our country to confront and change racist policies and recommit to caring for the environment

We want everyone who has been working on the front lines during this time to know we sincerely appreciate their work on our behalf. Their stress level far exceeds ours. So, thank you to the service workers, delivery people, sanitation workers, hospital staff, and anyone else who has endured weeks of heightened exposure, often for low wages. Thanks also to educators of all kinds and the administrative teams who support them as they have worked so hard to keep school going online for our sons. And we’d like all of you to know we’re glad to be here with you in Westport. We’re fine, and we’re looking forward to seeing everyone in person once it’s safe to do so. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: David Adam Waldman

A life-long Westporter who has lived in town for fifty years, having moved here at age one, David Waldman owns David Adam Realty, a commercial real estate brokerage, management and development company , founded in 1991.   

I and my wife and three kids (15, 17 and 23) were quarantined at my home down by the beach from early March . As a developer: I spent the last 30 years developing projects which were designed to be interactive with the community–to be active and crowded. For example,  I always loved driving by the Spotted Horse and no matter when I did, it was always crowded with people enjoying each other and living life.  To see our world shut down and realizing very quickly that this “invisible enemy” was not going away any time soon, I began to really worry about my business and quickly began to feel the pain of how Covid-19 was going to change my immediate future and potentially long term future.  National tenants stopped paying rent, restaurants and stores which were thriving are now struggling to stay afloat.  [At the time of this interview] It is now [late] June and things have begun to get better in terms of my business.  Of the 150 tenants I have across my portfolio, I made deals with over 100 of them to date, which has collectively cost me over $3 million in lost revenue. And while rent has been paid and I can again pay my obligations, I am afraid the entertainment aspect of our very social lives is going to take some vaccine to bring back what we have now all lost.  

As a father, I was petrified from the first 30 days.  I am a Type 1 diabetic, as is one of my children so we locked down our household and tried to limit our potential exposure:  No people inside the house; grocery shopping in masks (horrible) and gloves and then wipe it all down.  This went on for 30-40 days. As my wife and I watched the hospitalizations and deaths continue to decrease, we began to allow our kids to see their friend groups, allowed them see one another outside, at the beach etc.  The biggest change in my mind, and in particular my fear,  came after the protests began (and still go on).  While I understand the circumstances which prompted these protests, I was pissed that after shutting down mine and my family’s life for 45+ days and following the guidelines put forth by our leaders,  thousands of people decided they were done and this was a worthy cause to go out into the world, not socially distant and paying little to no attention to the reasons we stayed home for so long.   

[As downtown opens up again] my fear is that it comes back and our government tries to shut our lives, stores and restaurants down again.  With that said, I am so pleased with the initiatives and creative ways businesses are trying to make a go of it.  Having tables and chairs spread out on sidewalks is great and makes people feel safer.  My favorite new “creative” outlet for social gathering is the Remarkable Theater Group’s Drive in theater on Imperial.  It opened to a sold-out crowd (67 cars) and again the next Saturday. It was full of families and adults seeking social interaction in a safe and controlled manner. I pray these initiatives continue after COVID. 

I would like to see the state of CT “capitalize” COVID.  What I mean is, COVID has accelerated Millennials’ desire to leave big cities for the suburbs to raise families. In the past 60 days over 10,000 people have migrated INTO Connecticut and Westport. Prior to COVID we were losing people and corporations on a daily basis. CT needs to become a more business-friendly State. The exodus from big cities is going to continue (unlike 9-11 where it was short lived).  As for our town, my wish is that we stop creating “plans” which never get off the shelf and start doing things.  We need a theater downtown.  We need a public playground, we need our streets and landscape beds to look full of life and color and not just weeds.  I really hope that people begin to realize how nice it is to be able to live in a place like Westport, where the community cares about one another and where the Town supports (financially) the catalytic things needed to allow Westport and Downtown to thrive.

I guess what I would like to share is that my vision of our downtown has been at the forefront of my business career for over 25 years.  Unlike most developers who build outside their own communities, I have been blessed to be able to help shape our community.  I have tried to create attractive, well-built projects that make people stop, look and enjoy.  I may have rubbed some people the wrong way but in the end, I stuck to my beliefs and followed through on my promises.  In the end I wish we were a world of “and” not “or”.  Rich and poor, Black and White, Democrat and Republican.  Growing up I remember our world being more understanding of the opposite opinion’s and beliefs. Today I only hear hatred, disgust when it comes to our individual beliefs. We need to all understand that each and everyone one of us on this planet can make a difference in the world we live in and will leave our children. Our planet needs us to take better care of it.  In my mind, in a post-COVID environment, we need to unite all humans under a simply but steadfast premise, “treat others (and our planet) like you would want to be treated”.   

We need to all understand that each and everyone one of us on this planet can make a difference in the world we live in and will leave our children

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Edward F. Gerber

A recognizable figure around town, Ed Gerber has lived in Westport for 10 years although his roots go much deeper. With a passion for historic preservation and the arts, Gerber has been instrumental in creating a renewed interest in the artistic legacy of local artist George Hand Wright, who is largely considered the “grandfather” of the Westport Art community. 

“I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut and divided my youth between North Haven during the school year, and a cottage on Fairfield Beach in the summers. The majority of my family never left the state, so I had and have a number of cousins in the Bridgeport metropolitan area. However, I spent most of my life in Washington, DC, but after more than 40 years, I returned to Connecticut, settling in Westport. My reason for doing so was to save a historic house – the Sturges–Wright House on Cross Highway. It was built in 1764, and occupied continuously by the Sturges family until the artist George Hand Wright bought the property in 1907.  Ownership passed at Wright’s death in 1951, to his nephew Frank Boylan, who was my dad’s best friend, my namesake (Edward Frank Gerber), and my godfather. His widow Constance was a dear family friend and my adopted godmother. When she died in 2010, I stepped forward and purchased the house from her heirs in April of 2010.  

I think my passion for historic preservation began with family trips to the charming and very historic town of Woodstock, Vermont. In the evenings after skiing, I spent my time in the library researching how Woodstock managed to protect so much of its historic core. When I went to college at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I found myself living in Georgetown, which I still believe to be the most beautiful and successful historic district in the USA. Imagine what it was like for a boy from the suburbs of Connecticut to find himself walking on Georgetown’s pre-Revolutionary War sidewalks, gazing into federal style homes, many only recently owned by members of the Kennedy family and their circle.  For a liberal democrat like me it was like finding heaven.  

After graduating, there was no question that I would stay in Georgetown. I quickly became involved with DC’s preservation groups, initially Historic Georgetown Inc. which interestingly was created to preserve several late 18th Century commercial buildings in Georgetown and to prevent Georgetown University from expanding into the residential area. So, I became involved with town and gown disputes on the side of the town!  

I purchased a house in Georgetown, with the stipulation that I put a scenic historic facade easement on it, effectively preventing the university from destroying it, altering its use and/or modifying it, without the approval of a board of preservationists. At roughly the same time I became involved with the Woodrow Wilson House Museum, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the last home of President Wilson. I was asked to join its Advisory Council while in my 20s, which was very unusual at that time. Now many years later, I am still on its Advisory Council.  

Preserving Georgetown as a living breathing community should be of great importance to the current and future generations. At one time I volunteered weekly to give walking tours of the neighborhood to raise money for the legal expenses of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, the official watchdog of the area. This was logical, as I had become chair of its Historic Preservation Committee!  There were, and continue to be, pressures from developers to change Georgetown, unscrupulous landlords who allow buildings to deteriorate in order to then have them declared unsafe and unsanitary so that they may be demolished. Because the preservationists prevailed in so many cases, Georgetown continues to attract scores of tourists interested in its history, architecture, dining, and shopping, as well as investors who see it as a prime residential location. I still enjoy giving walking tours of Georgetown, and I believe it is important to give factually accurate tours, based on my own experiences there as a student, a preservationist, and a property owner. 

When I moved to Westport and bought the Sturges-Wright House, I was well aware of its history and importance to the town. The property was maintained by generations of the Sturges family as a working farm, until 1907, when George Hand Wright and his bride Ann Boylan Wright moved in. Wright had intended to move to Paris to pursue his career as an illustrator, but after visiting an artist friend in Westport, he and Ann fell in love with the Dutch Colonial farmhouse, along its large plot of 30 acres, three cows, a horse and several out-buildings, one of which became his studio. Wright doubled the size of the house by adding a new kitchen, increasing the living room’s size, and adding two bedrooms and baths. The Wrights entertained and encouraged artists to move to Westport. In short order George became known as the Dean of Westport Artists, while Ann became involved in the women’s suffrage movement.  

When I moved in 2010, I had all of the rooms plastered and painted, installed central air conditioning, remodeled the kitchen, added a bluestone patio, and removed several layers of asphalt roofing shingles and replaced them with more appropriate cedar wood shingles. I greatly enjoy showing the house to anyone interested in history; I opened it for the former Westport Historical Society’s house and garden tours five times since 2010.  

I think it is important for Westporters to see that historic houses are livable and town treasures. In order to ensure its future, I had my property declared a Historic Landmark of Westport, and recently I gave a preservation easement on it to the organization Preservation Connecticut, and had it added to the National Register of Historic Places.  None of these designations are designed to make it into a Williamsburg-style house museum, as alterations will be considered by the Local Historic District Commission, and the staff of Preservation Connecticut, whose Board I joined after my terms as President of the former Westport Historical Society and Vice-Chairman of the Westport Historic District Commission ended. 

It continues to give me pleasure when passers-by stop to relate how they have admired the house and gardens for many years, and to thank me for my efforts.  

I think that I have lived an interesting life, although compared to “young” people today mine has been fairly routine. I have only lived in Connecticut and Washington D.C. Professionally my life was most interesting during two periods: one was when I was Vice-President of a minority-controlled Savings and Loan Association in DC, founded in 1968 immediately after the civil disturbances following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Our goal was to combat “red-lining” in lending. In my first job out of college I worked for a conservative commercial bank, where I saw a map of DC marked with a very obvious red line separating the city into parts in which the bank would lend money to would-be home owners, and other areas of the city that were considered credit risks, largely along racial lines. The Savings and Loan where I worked did not do that, and it was a profitable institution for many years. 

Later, when I worked for the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation during the infamous S&L crisis of the 1980s, I organized nationwide teams that closed insolvent thrift organizations. I learned a great deal about crooked banking practices, and was glad to participate in resolving the crisis and helping countless people who had lost part or all of their savings. I learned the importance of “people skills” at this time as well. 

I was in DC during the civil disturbances in 1968, which were the product of systemic racism. We smiled when we saw expensive shops in Georgetown with plywood covering their windows and signs saying “Soul Brother.” The protestors were mostly African-American, while the shopkeepers, whose property was destroyed, were all white. From the tallest building on the GU’s campus, my friends Michael Moore, John Donohue and I saw fires throughout our downtown commercial areas. One elderly British Jesuit who joined us remarked that the blazing horizon reminded him of London during the Blitz. There were very few black-owned businesses in DC, and nearly all of them were untouched. One famous black-owned eatery that is still very popular today with a multiracial clientele is Ben’s Chili Bowl. Its owners fed rioters and police alike through the long weekend.  

All college classes were cancelled, and my friends and I left DC at 6:00 am in one of the few cabs operating. It was disheartening to see Georgetown’s commercial streets lined with National Guard Troops.  

A few years later I was awakened early one morning by the sound of helicopters overhead looking for anti-Viet Nam War protesters. I put a garden hose in front of my house for the marchers to wash the tear gas out of their eyes.  It was a scary time indeed. The anti-war protesters were almost all white. Even the demonstrations of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were segregated. In contrast, I believe that the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations have been on the whole more positive in that they have attracted overwhelmingly multi-racial participation. This is as it should be.  

As I look around Westport today, I cannot help but wonder what my grandparents thought when they moved here from Bridgeport in the 1920s. My mother attended Bedford Elementary when it was in the Town Hall building, and had her First Communion at Assumption Church. But was moving to Westport a sign of upward mobility or not? Remember that the Bridgeport that they left was a thriving city. All Bridgeporters had to do was take a bus downtown for the best shopping, dining, amazing movie palaces showing first run movies, hotels, and the crown jewel – Seaside Park. There were many employment opportunities as well. In contrast, Westport comparatively had not much to offer. I guess my grandparents agreed with this analysis, because after five years they returned to Bridgeport. My uncle who wanted to finish his senior year in Westport at Staples, had to ride the trolley daily to do so. 

As I look at Westport today, it still does have a thriving arts scene, which George Hand Wright played a major role in establishing over a century ago. The number of artists here (led informally by everyone’s favorite Miggs Burroughs) heartens me. However, I regret that we continue to lose important buildings often because their owners have not agreed to designate them as historic. Sadly, Main Street, even with its stunning Bedford Square, continues to fight the commerce vs bricks-and-mortar battle that we see nationwide. I hope that small independent shops like Savvy and Grace will survive and prosper.  

I have been a volunteer with ABC – A Better Chance for several years. If you are not familiar with it, go to their website or call them. Briefly, they provide housing, wonderful meals and a safe studious but not boring environment for eight smart non-white boys from across the nation, whose local school systems do not provide an atmosphere in which they can thrive academically compared to the academic advantages they experience at Staples. They need all sorts of volunteers to help make these boys’ experiences in our town successful ones, so volunteer! 

New developments like our Museum of Contemporary Arts, the new format at the Westport Museum for History and Culture, and of course, our amazing Library are all positive developments. The Westport Country Playhouse has closed down for this season. My first experience at the Playhouse was during their “Summer Stock” productions as an usher at the age of 16. Since then the Playhouse has evolved into a year-round venue and offers Westporters theatrical productions comparable to any in the nation. I certainly hope that it will reopen soon. 

Another positive development in town has been the increasing number of international homeowners. I am surrounded by a fascinating collection including a Spanish wife and her German husband, a multigenerational Russian family, a Kenyan wife and Norwegian husband and a household led by a Swedish father and New Jersey born mother. Imagine how much their kids are teaching one another about the world. 

The current COVID pandemic has been a real challenge for me, because I like to go out to eat, go to movies, theater, New York, the beach and gatherings with friends. I have been advisedly cautious, but I was delighted when my barber reopened. I have not even been back to my second home in Washington D.C. 

I feel that Westport is a transient place as evidenced by the fact that every neighboring house to mine, but one, has sold once and sometimes as often as three times in my ten years back here. 

Contrary to popular belief there is much more residential stability in D.C. than here in Westport.  I had the same neighbors for 20-plus years in my last neighborhood in D.C. Sadly, it is especially hard to interest such a transient populace in our town’s history, especially now that most activities are by necessity on zoom. 

I wish I could say that I learned Spanish, which was a goal of mine during the lockdown. Instead, I spent a lot of time preparing my garden for the summer. My wonderful yardman Manny Mondujano worked with me on this project throughout the period.  I helped two non-citizens do everything required to become citizens during the lockdown.  It is an increasingly complicated and expensive process, but I can only hope that changes in the White House in 2020 will make it easier for longtime hard-working residents to become citizens. I organized and sorted files and renewed friendships with old friends. Due to a family emergency, I housed my cousin for two weeks, which was a wonderful opportunity to see her and help resolve the family problem. 

Perhaps most importantly I studied the roles and duties of Historic New England and was asked to join its Board of Overseers serving as one of its Connecticut ambassadors . Unfortunately the pandemic has delayed the actual start of my duties!

 I am ready to resume a normal life, but sadly do not see that occurring any time soon! 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Adam Moore & Family

Adam Moore is the CEO and co-founder of WHEELHOUSE Center for Health and Wellbeing along with his wife Dr. Tegan Moore, Executive Medical Director. Originally hailing from Brooklyn Heights, Adam’s father’s family is Caribbean and his mother’s is from the South. His mother, Madeliene Moore Burrell is a groundbreaking industrial designer, marketing executive and cultural leader, who was among the first Black women in her field while his father is the former head of psychiatry for Harlem Hospital. The Moores moved to Westport in 2017 with their children Addison, a rising sophomore at Staples High School and Mia who is a rising 7th grader at Bedford Middle School.

“We lived on the Upper East Side in Manhattan for over a decade where I owned and operated Moore Creative Living, a multi-disciplinary personal development company while my wife was the head of the Center of Excellence–a clinic run jointly by Bridgeport University Medical school and Dr. Peter D’Adamo who is best known for creating the blood type diet.

We founded WHEELHOUSE together in 2018. WHEELHOUSE is an integrative health center that focuses on multiple aspects of a patient’s health by employing a spectrum of unique professional perspectives. My wife’s focus is precision medicine based on genetic assessments. We also work with a nutritionist, another physician and an acupuncturist as well. My focus is in cognitive health and wellness based on a combination of different training and disciplines ranging from lifestyle management to neurolinguistics and hypnosis. As an ordained minister, I also help patients reflect upon their challenges from a larger perspective, asking them to examine themselves in relation to their health problem. We think about how these different health approaches fit together and create a treatment plan with respect to them. So, say you come to us with digestive issues, we think about disease tendencies, anxiety level, and your nutrition to create a multi-pronged treatment plan.

My role in the organization is split between helping our patients enhance their cognitive health and wellness and being the CEO — running the ship and developing a relationship with our community. I think of WHEELHOUSE as not just a business but as a movement.  We are thought leaders and change agents in area of medicine actively driving how we evolve individually and as a community.

Our role is to get people excited about having a positive relationship with their health. The way I describe it to our staff is that I want people to be as excited about their health as they are about their new iPhone. We want them to be excited for their next upgrade.

We were situated in a unique place when COVID hit because our approach is highly evidence-based. Everything we do is grounded by a scientific and clinical foundation but we also have access to a lot of traditional medicine because our Executive Medical Director is a naturopath.  We were already talking to health professionals from different areas of medical research which meant we were able to hit the ground running by providing patients access to different emerging technologies. We saw the COVID curve before it was coming and decided to situate ourselves first to create strategies for treating symptoms ranging along the physical to psychological continuum.  We have a genetic map for most of our patients, so we know their respiratory and gut weaknesses. We can say to some degree ‘If you get COVID here’s your unique primary risk factors and here’s how we’re going to keep that risk low.’ We’re trying to create strategies to mitigate the unknown: What would happen if you had to get to a hospital? How would symptoms play out if you became ill?

We also examine the impact of lifestyle and emotional factors in dealing with COVID: My role is in part to ask ‘What does this pandemic mean for you and how is that affecting your health?’ How is your anxiety about getting or spreading COVID impacting your sense of well-being?

The other side of that equation has been actively treating the patients in our practice who have been infected. We have patients all over the globe, but a lot in the Northeast corridor. New York started to get it first and we were able to give our patients strategies to treat physical symptoms as well as manage their mental health needs, and address their nutritional demands: How to calm down, how to get better sleep, how to maintain healthy eating habits, etc.

Of course, the unspoken conversation that is developing in all of this is about how COVID has hit African-American and Latino communities harder and I’ve gotten into some intriguing conversations with people in this community about that. Through this experience—and now the experience of the renewed civil rights movement –I’ve learned that a lot of the assumptions I came to Westport with were misplaced.

I believed that because the town is so geographically close to NY that there was spillover of a certain cultural openness and I didn’t expect quite the level of racism that we have encountered here. I remember trying to check out diversity organizations before we arrived here. I did find TEAM Westport but I also found articles about people repeatedly vandalizing the Black Lives Matter banner at the Unitarian church. Still, I told myself that being from New York and being a world traveler, I could handle what little racism Westport had to offer.

It’s been a bumpy ride culturally for us so far as residents of Westport. My family and I have been faced with frequent harassment from a neighbor who has repeatedly called the police and the fire marshal to our home claiming that I am physically menacing, that my wife is stealing flowers out of her garden and that our citronella candle is too strong and is aggravating her asthma. Each time the police and fire department come they agree that I am being harassed, and that it is an abuse of the system but that legally there is nothing that we can do to protect ourselves from it happening again. It’s truly disheartening to have my kids witness the weaponization of public resources as an instrument of targeted racism.

Racism is a regular occurrence everywhere but it’s a little more in your face in Westport. Not long after moving here, I went to the Chase ATM on the Post Road where a woman I perceived to be Caucasian and her rather tall teenage son were also approaching the machine. As I opened the door to follow them in, she held out her hand and said “I’d feel more comfortable if you waited outside”. I was so stunned I couldn’t even process it – so I just stood outside dumbfounded and later angry with myself for not course correcting her behavior.

Black people have been making adjustments to how we move in the world for the comfort of others and our personal safety for generations – it is and always has been an unfortunate necessity. My kids enjoy the Westport school system but have had their share of negatively biased experiences in school and they have naturally gravitated to friends of color – most are Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern (as there simply aren’t that many black students to be found). They have their little brown squad.  I don’t think in NYC they thought much about that, they just had a mixture of different friends.

My son and I routinely discuss his own personal experiences with racism at Staples including the letter by a classmate calling out bias at the school. We talk about the assertion that the African American students sit together at the same lunch table out of unity, that there will be metaphorical lunch tables throughout his life and he must learn to take his seat.  I remind him that ‘You have to feel comfortable with your people because when it comes down to it, that is who will have your back.’ With this in mind, our entire family has been more active in seeking out other people of color in this town.

Because I still have clients and patients in NYC, up until COVID hit I was continuing to see clients in the city a couple of days a week. As a city-kid at heart that gave me what I needed emotionally in terms of a ‘city-fix’. Not having that has been hard. On the flip side, I really love living in Westport more than I thought. I was really surprised to see how much I enjoy the ready access to nature and the beach, the rich historical foundation apparent in the colonial architecture, and its deep commitment to culture and the arts. It’s a beautiful town.

There is a pocket of transplants here who share a common experience and we’re enjoying getting to know each other including a family a few blocks away who share some very curious parallels. They are also from New York.  The father is a person of color and the mother is also white. We have daughters with the same name and in same class and sons the same age who look strikingly similar. Bizarrely, about a year after meeting them, we learned that the wife and I are both distant cousins related by John Wilkes Booth. She is a descendant of the Caucasian bloodline and I am a descendant of Booth’s enslaved women with whom he fathered many children.

It’s wonderful to witness the civil-rights awakening Westport is undergoing. We attended the downtown protest organized by TEAM Staples and after the protest happened, one of our friends who is Indian was adamant that the protest not stall at the stage of outcry and that it progresses into action. She has put together a group of parents and people via Zoom meetings interested in making change within the government and the school system. As we do this, I feel it’s important to remember something my mom always said: ‘Don’t get lost in the sweetness of your own honey pot’.  Meaning: don’t get so enamored by your own indignation that you lose sight of the goal. It’s important to initiate change, but let’s not reinvent the wheel. Westport lives in a bubble. If change is going to happen it will require stepping outside of that bubble to employ the resources, insights and leadership of communities and organizations that have been working on issues surrounding equality and social justice for decades. We must be willing to turn to neighboring communities like Bridgeport and Norwalk for guidance—or even turn inward to organizations like TEAM Westport – that are already confronting these issues with a running start.

The idea of the bubble exemplifies something I think is problematic: Often when people say we need to have diversity and change, they are focusing on the goals and not the outcomes. We need to really ask and understand: What is the point of diversity? Do we want to have diversity just for the sake of saying we are diverse or is there a deeper goal? The town prides itself on its open-mindedness but if that doesn’t translate into meaningful outcomes then we’ve missed the mark. We need to better understand what racism is, and the multiple manners in which it shows up – not just in society but in our thinking, words and behaviors. Westport needs to invest in cultural competency so it can understand the benefits of having a more diverse cultural community instead of looking at it as an obstacle we have to get past.

It’s really important that parents take an active role in shifting this perspective to the benefit of diversity. For every Black person or person of color who has died at the hands of a white male cop—that white male cop had a mommy and daddy who failed to teach him to value all lives. It’s incumbent on anyone who has a child to teach them cultural competency and to set clear expectations in their behavior in a way that demonstrates respect for others—to make sure they understand who they are in context to the larger community. I believe a lot of Westport parents are open to this notion, not just for its inherent moral value but because they see that their children are better equipped to navigate the world in which they live when they are empowered by multicultural understandings.

We are witnessing an unprecedented awakening as a nation and I am really proud of Westport for taking a leadership role in this and so thankful that we as a family are able to call Westport our home. This awakening is an uncomfortable process for many people on all sides of the issue, but in truth we will only find progress together when we are willing to get comfortable with being uncomfortable long enough to face our own issues. It’s in rubbing up against each other that ultimately, we all become more polished.

We are witnessing an unprecedented awakening as a nation

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Bonnets & Sonnets: Reviews for June 25th


Music Review

Bardcore: Where have you been all my life?

Sara Krasne

There’s a new genre of music evolving on YouTube these days. It’s called Bardcore (or Medieval Style), and I am HERE for it! Bardcore is the soundtrack I didn’t know I needed as a historian and genealogist, I spend many days and nights steeped in the past, lost amongst the long (and sometimes not so long) dead trying to piece together their lives and connect them through the ages to the now.

Connected to both the present and the past as I am, hearing Progressive Rock (an occasional Hard Rock), Grunge, and modern Popular songs played out on harpsichord, lute-guitar, the bass notes thudding on hand drums and sometimes accompanied by the hammered dulcimer, melodies singing out on tin whistles makes perfect sense to me. Listening to this music, my inner band geek squeals in excitement and my nerdy heart soars.

The user names of the talented individuals who have pioneered this new and exciting genre may be lost in favor of their ‘real’ names one day, but for now I salute them. Graywyk, Cornelius Link, Algal the Bard, Constantine, Hildegard von Blingin’, Samus Ordicus and a host of others are joining the genre it seems daily now. Some of my favorites are those who have adapted the lyrics to a medieval (ish) style as well. Hildegard von Blingin’ has a cover of “Pumped up Kicks” by Foster the People that retains the catchy tune of the original song, but beseeches the “bully-rooks with your buskin boots” to “outrun my bow” of yew. And councils the rooks further to run “faster than mine arrow.” If you love music and are unapologetically nerdy, head over to YouTube, search “Bardcore” and fall into the past with a bit of anachronistic good humor. You won’t be sorry that you did! I’m off to the 1800s now, but I’m taking System of a Down’s “Toxicity” (Medieval version by Algal the Bard) with me!

YouTube Review


Ramin Ganeshram

If you are a fan of re-enactment sites and living history museums like Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg Foundation then you have likely seen the goods produced by Townsends (formerly Jas Townsend & Son) a manufacturer and retailer of reproduction 18th and early 19th Century clothing, cookware, and accessories. Not only do Townsend’s proprietors provide material for re-enactors, they walk the walk and are re-enactors themselves producing YouTube videos on everything from era-specific carpentry, camping and, my personal favorite, cooking. Billed as “a channel dedicated to exploring the 18th century lifestyle”, Townsends features proprietor Jonathan Townsend cooking recipes from both American and European cookbooks. Cooking both in a reproduction kitchen as well as campfire-side, Townsend prepares both long-gone recipes like Swanky & Gruit, Bison Soup and Corn & Eel Succotash along with those that are still familiar today like chocolate cream pie, fried chicken and pancakes. Clearly a skilled cook who enjoys the history of the dishes he prepares, the videos are both entertaining and educational. Lovers of the foodways of the Colonies and the Early Republic will enjoy this channel with can be found below.

Hold Still, My Dearest: Reviews for June 18th


TV Review: “Dead Still”

Sara Krasne

I will start by saying that this show is for mature audiences only as there are sexually explicit scenes as well as images of a graphic and sometimes gory nature. Set in Victorian-era Ireland, this show follows the exploits of photographer, Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley), along with his niece, Nancy Vickers (Eileen O’Higgins) and his assistant, former grave digger Conall Malloy (Kerr Logan). Mr. Blennerhasset is a memorial photographer, meaning he takes pictures of the recently dearly departed, usually alongside their very much alive family. This type of photography was popular with the wealthy and elite of the Victorian era who had a somewhat morbid fascination with death and art surrounding it. Seances to commune with the dead were also popular in that time period and occur in the show. During the course of their adventures, a police detective, Frederick Regan (Aidan O’Hare), catches wind of an illicit photograph ring which deals in photos of a risqué nature. As his investigations go deeper into this seedy world, he seeks the advice of the renowned Mr. Blennerhasset. 

Dead Still is almost equal parts murder mystery and mad-cap detective story with a healthy smattering of macabre wit and humor thrown in for good measure. If you aren’t good at listening to Irish accents, you may have trouble following some of the conversations, but I love the accents and the delightful Irish-ness of it all. Most of the show takes place in Dublin and the surrounding country estates where it was, in-fact, filmed. This was particularly delightful as true-to-the story location filming is unusual these days. In a May 2020 interview with The New York Post Actor Michael Smiley spoke about filming in a huge mansion which only had one occupant who lived in a handful of the 40 or so rooms in the house. The crew filmed amongst the old relics left in the upper floors because who needs props when you’ve got the real thing collecting dust and creating just the right atmosphere? If you like dark humor blending with a bit of the ridiculous, you’ll love this show. The costuming is fantastic and mostly period accurate (there are a few discrepancies, but it’s a great show, so I turned a blind eye) I have found myself waiting between episodes with giddy anticipation and re-watching the previous week before the new one becomes available—in order to be in the thick of the story when the next installment  drops. The show’s tagline is: When death is in the picture, mysteries are sure to develop. And I think that when those mysteries develop, so too does an addictive show. Dead Still is available to stream through AcornTV, which is both a stand-alone service as well as a channel available through Amazon Prime. 

Film Review: “The Favourite”

Nicole Carpenter

Set during the reign of Queen Anne, spanning the years 1702 to 1707, The Favourite is the comedic tale of two women vying for the close friendship—along with the perks—of the English monarch. While complete fiction from the perspective of period costume and historic events, the film weaves an entertaining narrative lead by three strong female actresses portraying three actual historic figures. Olivia Coleman won an academy award for her portrayal of Queen Anne as a childlike monarch controlled by her lover. While Coleman gave a masterful performance, the historical record shows us that, as a ruler, Anne was highly involved in matters of state.

The love triangle shown in the picture is also fiction—Anne by all accounts was devoted to her husband, and enjoyed his mutual affection and respect. Some events shown in the film are based on history such as the political shift from the Tories over the Whigs, as well as Anne’s stroke; but little else of historic fact shines through this humorous depiction of the early eighteenth century.

Viewers will enjoy the imaginative story woven by the 2018 film, not for the depiction of the past but for the fanciful narrative.

Focus On: Darcy Hicks

Darcy Hicks is a well-known figure throughout town—an activist and artist who moved here with her brother and mother, who is also an artist mom, in 1978. Darcy went to Hillspoint Elementary, Long Lots Junior High, and Staples High School. After leaving for college, grad school in Boston and a career in NYC, Darci moved back to Westport when she married her high school boyfriend, attorney Josh Koskoff. The couple have raised their three boys in town.  

“In my years in Westport, I have known so many good people who truly care about those less fortunate. But the bubble is real, and so is the desire, however subconscious, to stay inside of it. So, the words haven’t always turned to action. Humility is not America’s thing, and yet without humility we can’t change how we see things. However, lately I’m seeing the bubble in Westport get thinner, and people are listening better. This gives me hope. 

I want to be careful about belittling the effects of COVID in Westport because I know many people have been suffering the effects – physically, psychologically, and financially. But we are all so lucky. Just a few miles south and north of us, our neighbors are unable to socially distance because of congested living situations, because they cannot afford to stay home from work, and because they are often the essential workers we need to help us function. And many of them have lost their jobs as their struggling workplaces have shut down – so the students I work with in Bridgeport, for example, are simply hungry all the time. That’s the reality of COVID for so many. 

With respect to COVID, I’ve caught myself being less careful in the last week or so, especially as I feel the urgency of speaking out and participating in protests for Black Lives Matter. Also, we are social beings, and for many this has been either a lonely stretch of time or a claustrophobic family time. As the weather gets nice, of course, we all want to get out and see our friends or go to the beach and be among other people. But I am very worried that we have been impatient and in denial. The thing that really drives me crazy is the people who say they aren’t worried about getting it so they are willing to “take a risk.” They are ignoring the very real fact that many of us are asymptomatic carriers, which is like being armed with a weapon that has its own mind. We can be giving it to those who are susceptible to dying from it. It’s so important to try to think about other people right now. 

Westport has two mouths. Out of one, we preach tolerance and inclusiveness – and that is not nothing. And, we have walked the walk, a bit. For example, unlike so many other wealthy suburbs, we provide housing and services for the homeless, for lower-income families, and for people with disabilities. However, the other mouth is simply that: a mouth. Being mostly white and wealthy, we have this remarkable ability to rest on our laurels. We post the right sayings, go to the right protests, and then close the blinds on the rest of the world. It’s not enough. You don’t have to be a confederate flag-waving white nationalist to be part of the problem. In fact, resting on your words or your beliefs – without actually fighting for change – is the systemic racism which allows for what we see on our screens. I can sum it up with this anecdote: shortly after Hurricane Sandy devastated our shorelines, people in Westport were incredibly responsive. It was beautiful to see throngs of people at the beach, raking people’s houses and yards free of sand. A week later, I put the word out that there was a project community in Norwalk that had literally been underwater, and again, the response was so generous. I collected gift cards, furniture, and at Thanksgiving many people cooked extra turkeys and sides since the residents of the project lost their kitchens in the flood. But: I could not get a single person to come with me to deliver the items! I made eight trips because people were so generous – but they were also generous with excuses as to why they couldn’t join me to meet the people who lived there. Until the people who live in the comfort of towns like Westport meet people from towns like Bridgeport, they will not understand how similar we are, and how different our circumstances are. What they would have discovered is that many of these people who were so destitute were sharing the food we donated with the homeless that lived on the streets outside their project. They were as giving and as compassionate as we are, and I was sad this beauty was not seen by Westport residents. 

I think we are moving in the right direction. Every debate and every argument pushes us forward. Sometimes the smaller arguments online – the shaming, especially – can set us back. But we are a lively town, willing to share our thoughts. I’ve always loved that about Westport. This engagement is what moves the dial and allows for creative thinking. 

I think that most women, actually, have had to learn to be patient, hopeful, and hardworking in order to get through life’s challenges. So as a woman who has, like all women, dealt with sexism in school, in the workplace, and in social circles, I feel equipped for obstacles. On a personal level, I’ve experienced family tragedies and trauma. These times seemed insurmountable, yet here I am.  

My fear stems from the scapegoating and vilifying of particular groups, whether it’s by race or by uniform or by income. It is distracting us from finding solutions to gun violence, systemic racism, climate change, and the pandemic. Because one thing we must do now is VOTE. We MUST get Trump out of office or he will dismantle the few protections to our country and our planet we have left, which are fewer every day. Most urgently I think climate change needs to be addressed so we can all live long enough to fight the rest of the world’s ills. My hope is that we get every soul in this nation to vote in November so we can avoid the iceberg and focus on repair. 

I love this town. When you are a parent, you don’t see your child as someone that should be doing things for you. You see that child as someone you should be nurturing and helping to become a good, compassionate person. When they disappoint, you don’t abandon them. You correct them and admit that maybe you also need to correct yourself. I hope that people can see Westport – or anywhere they live – in this way. It’s not here for us… it is here BECAUSE of us. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Cat Graham, Westport Museum Associate

Catherine—Cat—Graham joined Westport Museum as an associate, after graduating from Staples High School in 2019. In addition to greeting visitors, she is learning the ropes of the museum field, and also uses her skills and talent as an artist to help exhibit installation and more.  

“My sense of the current-ness of history especially in more recent years has consumed many of my thoughts. But this current-ness isn’t new. Systematic oppression advances as fast as technology. A telephone is a telephone if it’s a rotary phone or a smartphone. But with my new exposure to local history and my town’s place in that history, historical events don’t feel so distant both geographically and chronologically. 

I have learned that the interpretation of historical events has almost always been done by the victors. Rarely are the stories of everyone ever told, giving people in the present an incomplete picture of the truth. This is especially important in this moment because one day we’ll look back on this moment from a historical perspective and I hope that people in the future will interpret the immense documentation of our current climate in a holistic way, and they may learn from the choices we are making right now.  

I want other people to know that while it feels very much like nothing has changed, in a lot of ways that’s true, progress has been made. In our exhibit Taking the Cure I realized how the narrative around mental illness has changed. While we still have a long way to go in our treatment and discussion around mental illness, there has been immense strides in the right directions. I joke rather morbidly sometimes that if I were alive a few decades ago a doctor may diagnose me with being a black girl and I’d never see the light of day again. But I find that before mental illness was a taboo topic, buried away instead of treated. Now, my friends and loved ones openly discuss therapy and medication and feel safe to do so. While it’s taken a long time to get where we are now, and there is still a long way to go, change can be made. Being surrounded by our past every day at work has made me realize that there is hope for our future. 

I’m a biracial girl so my experiences in life will always be safer and easier than that of a fully black person. I also am very light, my skin is more olive than brown. Because of this I am not “enough” to many people. To white people I’m not white enough to be white but I do not fit the picture of blackness they have painted in their minds. To black people I am not enough because I haven’t been hurt enough and to an extent that is true, my light skin is a shield in many ways.  I have never in my life had a black person teach me black history in school. Neither have many of my peers, so I can’t really blame them for what they think I should be.  

While I go home to a black mother who introduces me to black history, art, movies etc, my white peers don’t. Black issues and black history are almost a fiction. It’s too far back to be real and too far removed from them to be related to them. Oppression is part of the same world as poodle skirts and sock hops, because my white peers rarely interact with black people unless they are behind a checkout counter or cleaning their house. I was often the only black person in the room in my classrooms growing up. The students I sat beside only interacting with blackness when it’s convenient. They love rap music. They love full lips. They love a tan. They love thickness. They love the n word. They love black bodies and minds as long as they don’t have to live in them.  I can’t blame them for wanting me to be something else when they can wash blackness off in the shower and don’t have to risk being killed for it.  

 I think forcing our citizens to look our history in the eye to understand what the truth is, is important. The Museum’s exhibit Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport was an incredible step forward and I am so happy I was able to see it even before I worked there and can now appreciate the work that went into making an exhibit like that. I never learned about Angela Davis or Tulsa Oklahoma in school let alone the enslaved black people that were considered the property of the people my [high] school is named after. I sat at the front desk of the museum over the summer facing the mural of names [of enslaved and free people of color]. My name –Cat– was one of them. Museums like the one I work at are incredibly important. Not only because they document, protect, and tell historical stories like this one, but also because they make up the gaps in education about what happened. By focusing on everyone’s story, not just the stories of the victors and the oppressors, we are doing right by our citizens.” 

Museums … are incredibly important. Not only because they document, protect, and tell historical stories…but also because they make up the gaps in education about what happened.

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Jes Bengston, Regional Executive Chef, Terrain Café and Amis in Westport

Chef Jes Bengston has worked in Westport for the last four years at Terrain’s popular Café and downtown-Westport sister restaurant Amis Trattoria.  She lives in West Haven with her wife who is a hair stylist. The restaurants opened today (June 12, 2020) after complete closure during the COVID-19 lockdown period. 

“We have never opened a restaurant like this before and may never again. When you open a restaurant you either take over an existing restaurant with its staff or start a new place and build it up. Yet, here we are starting over with an established restaurant as if it were brand new. For example, we started the week with an empty kitchen that had to be stocked from scratch yet we have the same staff doing the same dishes we were doing before. This morning we got some jitters out of the way and brushed up on some rusty skills, figured out where stuff was since things had been moved around. 

We have a smaller staff now because we did have a couple of people who have skipped coming back because they just don’t feel safe—and that’s ok. We only need a smaller staff now because we are doing very limited service—ten outdoor tables only this week and then will begin limited indoor/outdoor service next week. The folks who are back are really happy to be here—everyone is eager to get back to life even if it’s a completely different kind of life.  

There are things we’ve had to learn or relearn. For example, the mask makes it really difficult to work both in the kitchen and on the outside patio for the servers. Everyone’s struggling a bit. We already do handwashing constantly and keeping a safe distance is an old trick. The store is outfitted with new high-grade air filters, great signage explaining safety procedures and PPE. There is a full protocol about what to do if an employee—or guest—feels sick or comes down with COVID. When people make reservations, they are advised of safety procedures and again when they come in and again on their menu. So, we hope everyone feels prepared. So, it’s feels like business as usual but with a twist—kind of like the first day of school. 

Working in restaurants makes you feel prepared for everything. In many ways we are re-inventing the wheel everyday – managing problems is what we do. It’s not unusual to figure something out on the fly. We live in organized chaos all the time—what do you do if you don’t get a food delivery? Or a cook is out? Or the electricity goes off? 

In some ways, I feel like I’m working backwards. For example, we normally try to make our food in 12 minutes—fast. People want to get in and out, they want to get out and pick up their kids, get back to work, go on with their lives. Now I’m telling staff to take some time–we are trying to make good food, with masks and we don’t know yet where anything [ingredient-wise] is. It’s a work in progress.  So, now we have set the expectations is you get good food, but we hope that people realize there are things we can’t control – like the weather for outside seating. My hope is that, after being inside for so long, we take our time and enjoy being out, enjoy being healthy, and having the means to enjoy a nice restaurant meal. 

During lockdown, I did think about the fact that people were learning to produce food at home at a higher level so they wouldn’t have to depend on chefs and restaurants.  But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I myself have never been home so much as during the quarantine — my job has crazy hours. We all go to work to be paid to have a safe and great home to enjoy but we don’t seem to do it. But during quarantine, I saw a lot of people doing that. Maybe that’s why we are not yet seeing people are rushing around — because I think they learned it wasn’t that bad.  

I see the world opening its eyes and ears and a whole generation awakening. We currently have the opportunity to change the outcome of our future — to gain civil rights for people of color, change our government, rebuild our police forces. I see a movement happening, and our generation ready and willing to speak for justice and change.  

I see the world opening its eyes and ears…

Like a lot of places, I think Westport has a lot of work to do. My thought is that we all take charge in the areas we can to make a difference, permanently and with passion. It’s not enough to discuss for a moment or to chalk your driveway or donate money, we all have to do more. We need to be having open discussions and acceptance of our behavior in the past whether that behavior was intentional or not and just do better. I’m hoping to focus on people of color in the local farming community and bringing better jobs and wages and opportunity in the Restaurant business.  

We are now in a moment that is a great opportunity to start over—with respect to a lot of things: food service, race relations, the environment. I think food can be freedom, it can open doors. We all have a lot of work to do and it’s an exciting time to discuss all that has been previously swept under the rug.  

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.