Published September 01. 2013 4:00AM
On any given night, apartment dwellers, homeowners, college students, residents of nearby towns and sailors come to downtown New London for dinner or drinks, to listen to music or to see a show.
A team of reporters, photographers and videographers spent Thursday night in the area of State and Bank streets, home to dozens of bars and restaurants with apartments above, to witness what happens when this divergent group comes together.
Those in search of fun say they generally feel safe in the city but think more could be done, such as a stronger police presence and better lighting. Unbeknownst to them, at around 9 p.m. in a neighborhood about a mile away, a 29-year-old man was shot dead. The city's first homicide of 2013 reignited a public safety debate that has raged the last few months and raised questions about whether the city needs to beef up its shrinking police force.
Tony Suarez is walking toward the Water Street Parking Garage after locking up his store, Northern Light Gems, on State Street. The New London native, who had a jewelry store in Mystic for 21 years before moving back in 2011, is going home to change then come back downtown for dinner.
"New London has an interesting reputation,'' he says of the days when the city was the off-duty destination of sailors from the Submarine Tender Fulton. "It's been known as a fight town.''
But today he sees an eclectic group of residents and visitors who shop and dine downtown. He says he feels safe.
"I understand some might have the feeling of being unsafe,'' he says. "If you have a lot of empty storefronts, you don't get the feeling of being warm and welcoming."
Three generations - grandmother, mother and two children - have driven to New London from a cottage on Gardner Lake in Bozrah to meet an incoming train. They're admiring the Whale Tail Fountain and looking for a "kid-friendly" place to eat. Although they've been to the train station many times to pick up a traveler, says Cynthia Ingelfinger, who lives with her family in Ipswich, Mass., this is the first time they've had the chance to explore the city.
"It's awesome," she says.
Kim Ammermann, 36, of New London is walking her dog, Duchess, on State Street in the breezy early evening.
Ammermann, who works at 2Wives Brick Oven Pizza, says she grew up in the small town of Chester and enjoys strolling New London and looking at the different shops and businesses or attending shows at the Hygienic.
"I feel safer here, because there's people out and about," she says. "Places are open all the time. Everything's in walking distance."
For Ammermann, the 2010 stabbing murder of Matthew Chew, her friend who also worked at 2Wives, was sad and a "random act." But while she thinks about it daily, she says it hasn't caused her to live in fear.
Inside Hanafin's on State Street, the music's on, people are gathering around the bar and a group is playing darts. Customers and owner Diarmuid Hanafin are celebrating a patron's birthday with a chocolate cake.
Kenny Seidel, 50, a union laborer, is waiting for his son, who is attending kung fu class.
"I come here to throw darts and have a good time," he said.
Four-year-old Calvin Johnson is tearing around Waterfront Park on his two-wheeler. He squeals as a train pulls into Union Station alongside the park.
"We just love it here," says his mother, Kara Markovitz, adding that they moved to Gorton Street in February. "Our neighborhood is fabulous. It's a quiet street. We love it."
Markovitz brings her son to the park to ride his bike several times a week.
"We love poking around the city," she said. "I grew up in Hartford. I got used to city life."
Arcangel Regalado, who lives in the Mohican Senior Apartments on State Street, is heading back home after a stroll along the waterfront. He carries a cane so he feels safe, he said. But walk around the city after 8 p.m.? Never.
Suzanne Simpson, who moved from Groton and bought a condominium in Harbour Towers on Bank Street three years ago, says she will walk anywhere in the city. She mostly travels with her greyhound, Michael Jordan.
"When I moved here my mother told me to get a gun," she says as she strolls down Waterfront Park. But she has no use for firearms.
"I love New London. There's always something going on. It's a happening place."
Inside the back dining area of the recently opened State Street Saloon, Denine and Craig Duchemin of Montville celebrate their 21st anniversary over a plate of fried pickles.
Denine comes to the city a couple of times a week to dine, and the two have enjoyed concerts and shows at the Hygienic.
Denine discovered the Saloon during a night out with friends and decided to come back for her anniversary. Craig says the high-end whiskey and bourbon list was a draw.
Three men are fishing off the pier in Waterfront Park, including Anthony Floyd Little, a homeless man who is a fixture on the pier and the police blotter.
"I understand why people don't feel safe,'' says Little, who says he's been in New London since 1989. "Sometimes we're very loud, obnoxiously loud, using the F-word. People don't need to hear that. ... But I think we can co-exist."
Later in the night, Little runs into James Stidfole, a New London fixture who lives in Harbour Towers. The two men loudly greet each other, exchanging kisses on the cheek.
"We all know each other,'' Stidfole says.
A police cruiser makes a pass through the parking lot of Waterfront Park. An officer gets out, takes a walk around and drives off.
Sally Ryan, the city historian, is enjoying dinner at Dev's on Bank.
"It's as safe as it's ever been," says the 83-year-old, who has lived her entire life in New London. "No one's ever bothered me."
At the bar, Derron Wood, a New London resident since 1984 who bought a house on Prospect Street in 1996, says New London offers diversity, historic architecture and good restaurants.
"It's a comfortable place to live," says Wood, who also is a leader in the local theater community. "... I can be who I am."
Dev's owner Candace Devendittis says she is tired of fighting those who say the city is not safe. Her workers walk to their cars at night and have never had a problem, she says.
A smattering of people at Bean & Leaf coffeehouse wait for the Thursday night poetry slam to begin.
"This is such a unique little town," says Steve Keedy of Lebanon as he waits for a movie, "A Band Called Death," to begin at the Hygienic Art Park. For Keedy, New London's gems include good restaurants, music shows and the upcoming I AM Festival.
"The people are just friendly," he says.
When asked about public safety, Keedy brings up the 2010 murder of Matthew Chew, which he says disturbed a lot of people and caused some reflection about life in the city.
Leidi Serrano, who works at Mi Gente Express, a small grocery at 189 Bank St., closes up the store every night. She says nothing bad has ever happened to her, but that doesn't mean she isn't afraid.
Speaking Spanish, she says through an interpreter that there are some sketchy people around at closing time. She sees a lot of police patrolling Bank Street but she wishes they were more visible on the side streets.
Shelbey Antone is visiting her husband, Randy Hambleton, a tattoo artist at New London Ink. As they stand outside the business at 121 Bank St., each says the city has improved over the past few years. Five years ago, Hambleton lived on Bank Street. "It was pretty crazy," he says. "There were drugs, robberies and homeless all over."
Hambleton says that back then, he routinely would encounter people downtown who wanted to buy drugs. Now, occasionally he gets asked for a cigarette. There are still drugs in the city, he says, but the police have done a good job keeping them out of downtown.
"There are still certain areas I wouldn't hang out in," he says.
Antone says that if the city wants to improve its image, it should put more lights on the streets. She points down Bank Street where at least one street lamp is out, turning the sidewalk shadowy.
"It's a human reaction to be afraid when it's dark," she says. "They need to get rid of the bad juju. ... It's a shame to have people scared away."
Unbeknownst to people downtown, police are dispatched to 29 Connecticut Ave., about 1 mile from Bank Street, for reports of gunshots.
Terri Baker, 49, of New London is talking with friends outside Hot Rod Café. The band "Andre and Friends" is playing inside. She enjoys downtown, where there's a lot to do, from seeing the bands to dining at Gaspar's.
"I find it's not boring," she says. "I know a lot of people, and I come down here and hang out."
She says she's noticed changes since she first started visiting the city as an 18-year-old from Norwich. Back then, she says, Bank Street was more vacant, while now there are art galleries and new restaurants, and she sees more families. But, she says, she avoids some areas, such as "a couple of blocks over," because she reads in the newspaper about the crime there.
Word starts to spread downtown that there's been a shooting on Connecticut Avenue. One man, speaking with others, asks if someone is dead. Later, another man says he heard someone has been murdered.
At the State Street Saloon, New London residents Jack Langton, Kevin Pugliese and Vernon Shabarekh sit at a table as their evening winds down.
Langton says he's pleased to see the building, which has housed different businesses over the years, reopen as the Saloon.
"It has a nice feel," he says. "I think it's important that the city tries to open up businesses downtown."
Pugliese says the city needs more police on foot patrols. While the city needs to balance its budget. "You can't do that at the expense of public safety."
He has heard some people saying they would rather visit Old Saybrook or Westbrook, in light of recent publicity over the decreased police presence.
"People react to that."
Lee Bergam, an imposing figure at the door at the Exchange, said it is relatively quiet for a Thursday night. Speaking over the boom of dance music inside the bar, Bergam says he's noticed a drop in the number of police.
"Last summer it was much better when it came to a police presence," Bergam says.
People square off at a pool table, one man plays darts by himself and several others sit at the bar in the underground spot known as "33" on Golden Street. A DJ plays music.
Bartender and U.S. Coast Guard veteran Craig McCalister compares the businesses downtown to a big family that helps each other out.
"I've lived all over the country. People down here are great," he says. "Everybody seems to know each other and the locals look out for one another."
Deputy Police Chief Peter Reichard sends a press release to local media about the Connecticut Avenue shooting, reporting that the victim, a 29-year-old city man, had died.
Friends Jenn Murray, 23, of New London and Alex Moore, 23, of Waterford saunter out of a local bar and chat on the sidewalk.
Murray, who works in Norwich, moved to New London two years ago, lured by the cheap rent.
"I never thought I'd like it," she says, "but I love it. It's quieter than I expected. I have nice neighbors and I can walk to the bars."
While the two women say they might be hesitant to walk around late at night by themselves, they have found no problems walking together or in a group.
The bars begin to empty out and taxis line up along Bank Street. Suddenly, a group of people spill out of the front door of the Oasis. Yelling leads to fisticuffs between two men. The fight is over quickly and people scatter.