Group brings out homegrown initiative in Hodges Square

Taryn Kitchen, second from right, a Connecticut College student that works at the Sustainability Office at Connecticut College, talks to Sam Moreno, right, of Groton, who is interested in starting a business in the neighborhood, while Connecticut College students Julia Hooker and Connor Storms sing and play the guitar Saturday during the Fall Fling at Hodges Square. The event continues today.
Taryn Kitchen, second from right, a Connecticut College student that works at the Sustainability Office at Connecticut College, talks to Sam Moreno, right, of Groton, who is interested in starting a business in the neighborhood, while Connecticut College students Julia Hooker and Connor Storms sing and play the guitar Saturday during the Fall Fling at Hodges Square. The event continues today.

In terms of putting a positive spin on things, consider Robert Frost's personification of Sorrow, who, in "My November Guest," thought "these dark days of autumn rain as beautiful as days can be."

That was the spirit on a dreary Saturday in New London, where members of the Hodges Square Village Association offered hot chocolate and doughnuts to area residents and visitors on the first of the organization's two-day Fall Fling - an event to encourage discourse and build enthusiasm for the group's efforts to revitalize the neighborhood.

Standing under a flapping canvas tent erected on the sidewalk in front of the Hodges Square Building - which managed to withstand gusting winds and, for the most part, hold a steady, chilly rain at bay - Art Costa, an adviser to the association, was upbeat and positive.

"Given the weather, we're maybe not expecting much of a turnout today," Costa said, "but we said we'd be here, and we are. And we'll stay until we melt."

Evidence of the association's work is plainly evident. They've installed benches, bike racks and trash receptacles, and a small plot of grass in front of the Hodges Square Building is festooned with flowers. In addition, murals have been painted on the walls of various structures, and various storefronts and windows have been painted and cleaned up.

"The first goal is to beautify the area and make visible changes," said Forrest Sklarr, co-chairman of the association. "If we can get the neighborhood engaged, we create energy and momentum - and then who knows what might happen. It's an ideal place. It used to be a lovely old neighborhood, " he points up Williams Street toward Connecticut College and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, "and we're right down the road from two vibrant campuses. This could be really vibrant again."

In the late 1960s, the construction of a second, parallel component to the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River massively reshaped the Hodges Square neighborhood and significantly disrupted the area's social patterns and commerce.

But, in the wake of a 2010 New London Landmarks grant, a Re-Connect New London master plan was developed with the help of the University of Connecticut's Community Research and Design Collaborative, Thames Valley Sustainable Connections and the Mystic landscape architecture firm Kent + Frost.

The Hodges Square Village Association is a tangential offshoot, and attempts to raise awareness, even on a messy afternoon, were attracting visitors.

Two Conn College students, Connor Storms and Julia Hooker, dropped by to sing a few original and Beatles songs in support of the Fall Fling and the association's efforts.

"It's close to campus - a 15-minute walk," Storms said. "It's not really practical for us to walk all the way to downtown New London, but we can easily get to Hodges Square. You can see some things already starting to happen. This would be a great place to shop or go to a restaurant."

Hooker added, "Everybody (at Conn) knows Hodges Square. Right now, kids don't really see a reason to come down here. But if there was a bike shop or a drug store or a place to sit and have a beer, it would work."

"Build it and we will come," Storms laughed.

Costa said, "That's the key. Someone just bought the old Portuguese Fisherman. If they open something and others see something successful happening, a whole new energy could develop. This is basically a small area with 3,000 people who would love to have their own business focus. And that doesn't count the two colleges or Quaker Hill."

Just up the street, at Mr. G's Restaurant, co-owner Pete Gianakos said he'd like nothing better than to see a neighborhood renaissance.

"I like to think (Mr. G's) is a big part of this area, and we have a vested interest in seeing the association succeed," he said. "They're trying really hard and we try to participate when we can. And they're doing it the right way. I wouldn't say this neighborhood is a slum, but it is what it is. Already, it's starting to look more pleasant and I think that attracts possible businesses. Times are tough, economically, but Hodges Square could present someone with some nice opportunities."

After lunch at Mr. G's, New London City Councilor Michael E. Passero stopped by the tent to show support for the association's initiative. "I've been following their efforts since they started," Passero said. "They're doing a tremendous job. It's probably one of the best grassroots movements I've seen."

Stan Jacovich, a resident of Eastern Avenue, said he was walking to the store, saw the tent and gratefully accepted a cup of hot chocolate. "I love this neighborhood," he said. "I sit in the park and look at the river, and just enjoy walking through the streets. If they're trying to renovate Hodges Square, I'd love to help with that."

The Fall Fling continues from noon to 2 p.m. today.

r.koster@theday.com

Twitter: @rickkoster

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