Murder spawns doubt downtown
New London - The lease on Valerie Goergen's downtown New London apartment is nearly up, and it might be time for her to go.
Ever since the Oct. 29 murder of her friend Matthew Chew, Goergen has considered leaving her home on Washington Street, which is in the same building as 2Wives Brick Oven Pizza and Bean & Leaf coffee house.
The resturaunt and café are "like my living room and my kitchen," Goergen, 23, said glumly on Wednesday afternoon. "I don't know if I'm staying."
The killing of Chew, a 25-year-old downtown resident, and the New London Police Department's initial report that it was a drug-related homicide instead of, as police said this week, a random act of violence by six "bored" teenagers, is the latest trial for those who live in the heart of the city.
The murder, along with other inexplicable acts of violence in the past year, has led several people who have made their home in the urban core to re-examine why they live here and whether it's worth it.
There are people who live in the refurbished 19th-century homes on Starr Street. Some live above shops and storefronts. Others have bought houses on streets a short walk away from the city center.
Since the murder, some of these people who once delighted in walking a few blocks to the bars and taverns now drive. Those who do walk home now avoid shortcuts down side streets and across parking lots.
Adam Demorest and Brittnay Caruso, who live on State Street, each say that they no longer walk around downtown alone at night.
"It's the unknown factor," Demorest said.
Demorest and Caruso admit they have vacillated on whether to stay in their apartment.
"I don't know," Caruso said. "I like living down here. Everything's in walking distance. I like being around the arts."
Because of institutions like Hygienic Art, downtown has for decades been a hub for creative types - artists and indie musicians as well as those who are simply enthusiastic about such things.
But many business owners and community leaders also live in the city center.
Caiti Griffin, 23, whose family owns Bean & Leaf, said she has walked the path Chew walked along Huntington Street that tragic night a thousand times. "I live right there," she said. "My parents live two blocks away."
Rod Cornish, whose Hot Rod Bar and Restaurant on Bank Street provided the food for Chew's memorial service, lives on State Street. "I walk everywhere," he said. "I walk to work."
Cornish, who takes safety measures such as walking his employees to their cars after their shifts, said he'll continue to be diligent. But, he added, his years of living in New York have given him some perspective.
"(Chew's murder) was a random thing," Cornish said. "Violence can happen anywhere. There are home invasions in rich communities."
Daphne Glover, co-owner of Telegraph record shop on Golden Street, has taken extra precautions at night, such as riding a bike when traveling to and from her house on Tilley Street.
Glover, who has owned property in the city since 2002, said she hopes the violence won't hinder the growth that the downtown area has experienced in recent years.
"It's such a different place," Glover said. "We don't want to see it regress and go back to what it was when I got here."
The vacancy rate for downtown apartments is nearly zero, according to New London Main Street CEO Penny Parsekian, who cited a New London Main Street study noting that 265 new apartments were added to downtown between 2000 and 2009.
"As soon as an apartment is available, it's gone," Parsekian said.
Downtown New London is the cultural and transportation center of the region, but it's also a neighborhood.
"Everyone here is really close, and really good friends," Griffin said.
Demorest, who has lived in downtown for six years, said it's the mix of culture and community that drew him here and, if he stays, will keep him here.
"The amount of culture you get here for the cost of living is really impressive," he said.
Frank McLaughlin, a downtown property owner who lives on Starr Street and likes taking the short walk up to 2Wives for dinner, said he will continue to do so. "We're not going to overreact to this," he said.
Demorest, who like others wondered aloud why New London does not have a proper community center, hopes the city will rally in the weeks and months to come. "We need to focus on the problem instead of blaming each other and taking sides," he said.
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