Build community at Ocean Beach

As New London edges toward its longed-for revival, who will benefit from better economic times? Does the rising tide float all boats or will the city overlook the chance to re-make itself into one community?

The stars are aligning, or being nudged into position, for housing and new businesses in several quarters. A pedestrian trail that was probably in use when John Winthrop II first sailed up the Thames but has been stuck on the wishlist for the ensuing 350 years should soon link the two farthest points — Ocean Beach Park and the Connecticut College campus.  

In between dwells a population that is diverse in standards of living, language, ethnicity and expectations. As many-faceted as we are, city residents tend to separate into just two socioeconomic groups: one above the shifting line of "middle class" and one below it.

That line can be a chasm to cross from either direction. It shows up in adolescence, despite strenuous efforts by schools to play it fair. It's obvious in where people shop, worship, and especially where they play. If a community center were built right now in a neighborhood that ostensibly needs it most, people from the other side of the line would think it was not for them. Good intentions would fail to deliver what the city must have if its economic development is to succeed for all: a sense of one community.

Luckily for New London, it has a rare and desirable inheritance that carries a whole litany of saving graces: sand, sun and salt water belonging to all. Few municipalities, especially small ones, have an Ocean Beach Park.

For older New London natives, the name of Ocean Beach stirs memories of working-class families with an affordable beach to go to, starry summer nights and sweaty summer jobs. It was the definition of the heart of a community. Almost.

A few years ago I broached the idea of a community center at Ocean Beach with the Hon. Jane L. Glover, whose service to New London and Groton adults and children included elected and appointed office, her library career, and the former Kente Center. Glover, who died last month, wasn't having any of the nostalgia for Ocean Beach as "everyone's" park, despite a melange of all races daytripping from inland cities. Local blacks didn't have the same experience as local whites, she told me.

I had no business arguing with what former Mayor Glover experienced. I am a transplanted adult who has only heard the stories of youth. It's a fact that the happy memories crop up from many ethnic groups but the beach wouldn't be the only resource that quietly offered less to minorities.

Simultaneous with developments downtown, Ocean Beach Park is on an upswing. This is the ideal time for the mayor and City Council to promote the city's unique recreational asset as a place that can bring people together, even year-round.

The park is setting the tone, hosting a New London Pride Festival and a Military Appreciation Day. A grassroots group recently persuaded the council to create a fund for donations to rebuild the historic clock tower that figures in many people's best memories of the beach.

The Gam, which at its most basic is the ice cream and arcade building, turns out to be worthy of listing on the state register of historic places. The Rotary Club is making a gift of shade by rebuilding the pavilion at the western end of the beach.

Make it easy for the people in the middle of town to get there; get a grant for a trolley to supplement SEAT bus runs; run programs for the city's kids at the beach, the marsh walk, the pool. Put up signs in several languages. Make sure everyone knows Ocean Beach belongs to them. Then watch what that does to get New London closer to being one community.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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