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    Local Columns
    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    OPINION: Back in The Day

    This was how the fourth-floor composing room looked before the size of the building was doubled in 1928. The area was later the newsroom, and after that, offices and a meeting room. (The Day)

    It was the fall of 1979, and, as a fresh college graduate, I arrived early one weekday morning in the busy newsroom of The Day ― it was an afternoon paper then, with a hard 10 a.m. deadline ― for a job interview with Managing Editor John Foley.

    “Hope it’s still there when you get back,” Foley said, after I answered his first question by saying I had parked my car on Bank Street.

    Foley, the news-hardened editor who passed away in 2019, at the age of 86, was in 1979 keenly aware of the declining fortunes of downtown New London, which had slid in his time as a newsman from a bustling retail and commercial hub of the region to a forlorn victim of urban renewal by wrecking ball.

    Suburban growth had sucked life from the city.

    Indeed, I walked past a lot of empty storefronts after parking my car that day. Much of downtown commerce by then catered to sailors assigned to ships at the Submarine Tender Fulton at State Pier, bars, greasy spoons and tattoo parlors. There were prostitutes on street corners many hours of the day.

    A big part of State Street was closed to traffic, a failed pedestrian mall, Captain’s Walk, where canned music filled the empty blocks.

    I’ve always loved New London, its grand architecture, a reminder of its rich glory days of whaling, its long relationship with the sea, a seafaring tradition as old as the country. The wharves on the bank of the Thames, below Bank Street, sent ships around the world.

    Even its diminished state in 1979, New London seemed sleeping to me, ready to reclaim its grandeur. I feel the stirring now, more than ever.

    The Day’s sale of its building this month, it seems to me, is big part of that reawakening.

    What was once a vibrant manufacturing plant, producing a new product every day and dispatching it on a fleet of trucks to thousands of customers all over eastern Connecticut, is now slated to be a fulcrum of downtown renewal.

    I’m very glad for the ambitious project to be starting, with luxury apartments, new park space, a boutique hotel and amenities for the new residents and tourists who will be populating the evolving downtown.

    The ghosts of The Day at 47 Eugene O’Neill Drive, though, will always animate for me the central downtown block that was once, before the uninspiring name change of urban renewal, Main Street, the gateway into the city.

    Of course, I will always remember The Day for its bustling downtown self, a complex that grew in my time here, with a big new office addition and a second plant for the newest of three presses that were used over the years on the site.

    When I arrived, linotype machines were still used by compositors who set each character of each line of type of the news pages in metal trays, reading the words backwards. Proofs of each column of type and then proofs of pages assembled from all the columns were sent to a big copy desk in the newsroom for editing, then back for corrections in the actual lines of type. All that type was melted down and repurposed after every press run.

    There was a faint hum and vibration in the building when the press ran. There were many hallways and corridors where you could always smell the fresh ink.

    There was a night I remember, after the paper had gone morning and deadlines were late into the evening, when we decided in the newsroom that crucial breaking news required a new front page.

    We sent a delegation to run and make the long trek across the complex to the press room, where someone, with some urgency, got to yell: “Stop the press!”

    Back then the classifieds sales staff filled a room of ringing telephones, the kind with a row of plastic buttons along the bottom for different lines. People who wanted to place ads rang in on all those lines all the time.

    No one had heard of the internet.

    Once a week, a payroll manager circulated among the hundreds of employees, handing out paychecks. Long before the days of direct deposit, I took mine next door to the Savings Bank of New London, where I stood in line on marble floors and under gold gilded ship paintings, the reminders of the city’s great whaling wealth.

    That grand banking concourse is going to be preserved and repurposed as The Day’s block on Eugene ONeill Drive, as I will always think if it, finds its new life.

    My car, after I returned to it from my interview with editor Foley, was fine when I got back to it.

    I am sure it would be safe to leave there today, too.

    But I suspect, in the not too distant future, it’s going to be harder to find a parking spot on the street, as grand old New London stirs awake.

    I hope someone looks back and recalls that decades from now, as a pivotal change for the city. Maybe they’ll write about it on theday.com, or whatever that’s become by then.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@thday.com

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