Hodges Square revival needs citizen input

There's a lot to the old adage: you only get one chance to make a good first impression. It holds true for places as well as people; and Hodges Square in the New London is a prime example.

Cities are important in countless ways. Without them there would be no civilization, no economy, no culture. So if the local region is to set itself on the road to prosperity, vibrant cities are essential economically, culturally, and particularly for their infusion of diversity that creates innovation.

For cities to matter, their entry ways, or gateways, need to be identified and complement the fabric of city life. Hodges Square Village has been identified as just such a gateway. As a village it can serve as a closely connected community evolving over time.

The area lost much of its natural neighborhood affinity with the construction of the interstate whose sole purpose was to move traffic from Interstate 395/Route 32 onto I-95. To insure its success, engineers widened upper Williams Street as a connector and added three gas stations to support this quasi thoroughfare. While efficient in moving automobiles, it raised havoc with the Hodges Square community.The roadways off Williams Street were severed, losing critical "circuitry" that allowed for ease of navigation in the neighborhood. Nearly 100 acres were consumed in this endeavor, creating large swaths of vacant land, and eliminating a significant number of neighborhoods that had great vitality (once home to working-class immigrants); a vitality which is essential to the overall health of New London.

Meanwhile, the revitalization of downtown New London, a worthy goal in itself, has led to the neglect of the northeast corridor into the city. We may have lost sight of a key gateway: Hodges Square. Writing it off will not solve the issue of revitalization; it will exacerbate it. Today, almost all of the traffic (automobile) through the "gateway" leaves the city, usually at alarmingly high speeds. Additionally, there is little pedestrian and bicycle traffic through the area due to a lack of destinations and high-speed traffic. This cuts the downtown off from inhabitants on the other side of the bridge - residents, businesses, college campus and the Coast Guard Academy - and from the rest of the city.

After a year of identifying the assets of northeast New London - which includes a significant set of resources such as natural, physical, human capital, businesses, institutions and associations - the area is positioned to build commercial capacity and mobilize for improvements. The good news: there is much to work with.

With a 2010 New London Landmarks grant - obtained from the state Department of Economic & Community Development, Office of the Arts - a Re-Connect New London project master plan was developed with support from UConn's Community Research and Design Collaborative, Kent + Frost Landscape Architects, and Thames Valley Sustainable Connections.

More than just another "plan," this one has an organization consisting of residents and businesses: Hodges Square Village Association (HSVA). Thus far the HSVA has purchased and installed benches (which are regularly used), bike racks, trash receptacles, planters, window dressing, ground covering, and flowers for starters.

Strengthening the Hodges Square Village gateway will complement the downtown area. With way-finding signage, the development of points of destination will help ensure that passersby will either stop or return (or both) to visit sites along the Williams Street corridor. Today Bailey Circle in the heart of the village is a meeting place for cyclists (one of the bike racks is located here) from around the area. Consider how a coffee shop and bike repair/equipment business could service the campuses, community, and these frequent visitors and become a thriving addition to the neighborhood.

There is an upcoming opportunity to meet some of the members of the HSVA board. We have planned two consecutive days - Saturday, Nov. 1 from noon-2 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 2 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. We will have live music, food vendors and a couple of tents erected across from the Hodges Square building. We encourage everyone from the neighborhood to stop by and discuss your ideas for the development and revitalization of the Hodges Square community. We will have literature available outlining our efforts and a survey to help us understand what is important to you. For more information go to www.hodgessquare.com.

Forrest Sklar is co-chair of the Hodges Square Village Association. Art Costa acts as an advisor to the group.

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