Village of Light

 

Photography by Tony Velez

Who wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood that celebrates its anniversary with the help of American musical legend Pete Seeger? That the neighborhood is small, self-contained, open-minded and unpretentious; that it is located within brisk walking distance of a train station and eyeshot of the water; that it possesses such amenities as a harbor, dock, tennis courts, central play area and no through streets, would make this fantasy all the more delicious, wouldn’t it?

But Village Creek, nestled between Woodward Avenue and Long Island Sound in Norwalk, is no fantasy. More than six decades ago, when the idea for it first percolated in the heads of five idealistic Manhattan couples, it may have seemed like a pipe dream. Indeed, as the estimable Betty Friedan wrote in a story about the fledgling Village Creek for Redbook in 1955, “Five couples sat around gloomily and agreed that it just wasn’t possible to buy or build a modern dream house, with adequate land and trees, for $10,000. . . .”

Together, the five couples pooled their ideas, ideals and money and, for the next year, searched on weekends along the Connecticut shore. One of the humblest sites was a swampy wooded peninsula behind some factories in Norwalk. As it turned out upon further investigation, this 67-acre parcel of wetland, rocky upland and woods was one of the last undeveloped waterfront properties between Greenwich and New Haven. They had to move fast lest the site be turned into an airport runway for Nash Engineering, a pump manufacturer that owned the land and was headquartered in a nearby office building. 

Taking what can only be described as a giant leap of faith, the group of founders purchased and eventually subdivided the property into 69 lots averaging a third of an acre apiece. They left enough room for an 8-acre community area and 800 feet of beach along the Sound.

Dubbed Village Creek, the neighborhood was, from its start in 1949, planned as a prejudice-free zone. According to its first prospectus, it was “a community which would be in itself a model of democracy . . . with a completely democratic character—no discrimination because of race, color, creed or politics.”

Fast-forward to September 2010, and the appearance of Village Creek’s most famous friend, Pete Seeger, trudging its woods and strumming his iconic banjo in celebration. Seeing this, you might get the idea that things had worked out pretty well for Village Creek. And you would be correct. However, please don’t get the idea that it was all hearts and flowers with nightly sing-alongs of “Kumbaya” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

It was, in short, anything but.

First and foremost, communities that did not discriminate on the basis of “race, color, creed or politics” were scarce as sharks’ beaks in 1949. This was before the protest marches, Civil Rights Acts and desegregation battles. As hard as it may be for today’s enlightened New Englanders to admit, racial discrimination was not confined to Dixie. Some of the core group of Village Creek founders, now in their 90s, still live in the community and have some interesting stories to tell in this regard.

Take Roger Willcox and Philip and Emily Oppenheimer. Willcox was, with financial help and encouragement from his remarkably enlightened parents, Henry and Anita Willcox, the driving force behind planning and building Village Creek. The Oppenheimers were among those who scouted the state for a suitable location and signed on as home buyers at the outset.

“We were mostly war veterans who wanted to be on the water and not subject to the prejudice against Jews and blacks,” says Philip Oppenheimer, a teacher for 18 years at Greenwich middle and high schools. Emily Oppenheimer, a gifted harpist, nods in agreement as her husband speaks. “Jews back then couldn’t even have lunch in a hotel in Greenwich.”

The Oppenheimers met the visionary Willcoxes through a mutual love of boating. 

“About that time we joined the group of people discussing finding someplace to live in the suburbs,” recalls Philip Oppenheimer. “Roger and his parents really lived out their ideals. When I think of how he planned this place . . .”

Oppenheimer pauses, still seemingly in awe of his old friend.

“He wanted narrow streets and no through streets, so that it would be safe for kids,” he continues. “The harbor was also the lure for us boaters.”

 

When the group first looked at the property, the only things on it were a dirt road and the remnants of a Girl Scout summer camp. “We found one of their wooden tent platforms on the lot where we built our house,” says Oppenheimer, adding with a satisfied smile, “It was good wood, too—oak. I used it to build our furniture, which we still have.”

Though he’d graduated from both Harvard and MIT with degrees in city planning, Roger Willcox was truly schooled at Village Creek. It was, one might say, his internship.

“Shortly after World War II, absolutely independently, 10 or so other cooperative communities sprang up around the country along the same lines as ours; they were all modeled on or suggested by the Urban Land Institute,” recalls Willcox. “I visited most of them. Of course, long before then the idea was already in place in New York, where I grew up. I spent part of my childhood at Bleecker Gardens in West Greenwich Village, a co-op. After planning Village Creek, I went professional.”

In 1950, a group hired Willcox to plan a neighborhood in Greenbelt, Md., itself a legendary planned community. Begun in 1937 as part of a “green” town effort by New Deal visionary Rexford Tugwell, Greenbelt was one of three cooperative communities created from scratch by the federal government, the construction of which provided jobs, stimulated the local economy and eased a housing shortage in the Washington, D.C., area. The Greenbelt neighborhood Willcox planned was Lakeside, completed in 1953.

“The Quakers started a community on their own similar to this, called Penn South, and there were others in the hills of Berkeley, Calif., and Skyview Acres in Rockland County, N.Y.,” says Willcox.

One of the more idiosyncratic of these communities was in nearby Westchester County. Called Usonia Homes, it was the brainchild of Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Village Creek, the land for this planned community in Pleasantville was purchased collectively by a group of couples from New York City. Wright, who harbored a utopian streak, probably agreed to plan their community because it gave him the chance to put his ideals into practice on a blank 100-acre canvas. He decided where each house should be placed, and who should design them (he designed three of the houses himself). He also planned the circular neighborhood layout and, a signature of his genius, placed the houses organically within the contours and natural features of the land. Sixty percent of Usonia Homes was forest and meadow, and its houses are nearly invisible from main roads.

Despite Wright’s special touches, one Usonia Home resident ended up moving to Village Creek. “And he lived here happily ever after,” says Willcox with a laugh. “Most of the people driving this effort to build cooperative communities were war vets. They all followed the same basic concept. All were integrated and each homeowner was given one vote in all decisions.”

Willcox went on to become one of the nation’s leading proponents of cooperative housing and the open-occupancy philosophy. He was founder and longtime president of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives and responsible for about 20,000 units of such housing in New York City alone. 

His successful career speaks for itself—you can look it up, as they say—but it was the experience at Village Creek that provided Willcox with the necessary toughness to prevail in all the uphill struggles he faced along the way.

As to Village Creek, its travails began before even a road had been carved through the woods or a single house built.

“The crazy behavior started early,” Willcox recalls. “Within the first 30 days that we owned the property, we already had 30 families signed up to build homes here. Around that time, we held a party on the beach. At some point, a police car arrived with two Catholic priests in the backseat. They didn’t say anything, but the cop who was driving told us they were from Manresa institute located on the island just off the coast. The priests or monsignors, or whatever they were, wanted to know a bit about our group.”

 

Through their police intermediaries, the Jesuit officials asked Willcox about the black family seen at the beach party. Willcox explained that they were friends who were thinking of buying home lots. The Jesuits sold their property within a week and soon vacated the island.

“After this incident, the word got out in the greater community and we were shunned,” says Willcox. “Before that, people were welcoming, but after that, forget it. I couldn’t get FHA insurance for mortgages. We were told flatly that we would have to get rid of our covenants if we wanted FHA mortgage insurance. I told them, ‘We are a cooperative and we are not going to change our covenants.’ The covenants were the whole basis for why we were there in the first place. And they said, ‘Then you don’t get any loans.’ As a result, we have never had an FHA-insured mortgage in Village Creek to this day.”

“During the ‘Red Scare’ this place was called ‘Commie Creek’,” says Phil Oppenheimer. “Because many of the homes here have flat roofs, some guy began spreading the idea that they were designed in this way to direct Soviet bombers to New York City,” says Hu Lindsay, a graphic designer and longtime Village Creek resident. “We also have houses with a lot of glass facing the water, which some other genius suggested was designed that way to help guide Soviet submarines to New York City.”

Though the genial Lindsay chuckles at the absurdity of such notions, they were no laughing matter to the first families of Village Creek. Indeed, the “Commie Creek” label lasted well into the 1970s, as did more subtle forms of prejudice. Lindsay, Willcox and Oppenheimer attest to separate experiences with real estate operatives who would not show Village Creek properties to prospective buyers if they were white.

Willcox tells a story about Jim Halsey, who wanted to move from New York City to a waterfront area on Long Island Sound. He contacted real estate agents who showed him some places, to no avail. Puzzled, Halsey began researching on his own. He compiled a list of more than 100 addresses of available properties simply by combing the classified ads in The New York Times. Two sites in Village Creek were on his list. He contacted the owners directly and ended up buying one of the houses.

“Halsey called the real estate agent who had shown him around the Norwalk area and asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about these houses?’” says Willcox. “And the real estate agent said, ‘You don’t want to live there.’”

Patrice Hunt is a second-generation member of one of Village Creek’s first black families. Since 1995, she has been a homeowner living here year-round.

“Both of my parents [Charles and Pearl Hunt] were physicians in Harlem,” says Hunt, a physical therapist in Norwalk. “My Aunt Ruby [Shaw, who was assistant superintendent of Norwalk Public Schools] and Uncle Charles lived in Village Creek from the mid-1950s. They had three children, so we had cousins to play with and we always looked forward to visiting them here. It was really a big deal for us, going to the country.”

Eventually, the Hunt family was in the market for its own weekend and summer house. Their decision came down to Sag Harbor or Village Creek. Largely because of the positive experiences during visits with the Shaws, they settled on Norwalk.
“The Village Creek philosophy was so in line with who my parents were,” says Hunt, recalling that her mother became president of the homeowners’ association, despite her busy weekday schedule in New York. “When my mother got on the board, they changed their meetings to Sunday, to accommodate her, since she was here only on weekends.”

Largely because of such an enlightened atmosphere and quietly relaxed lifestyle, Village Creek has attracted its share of creative and accomplished people over the years. In addition to Roger Willcox and Ruby Shaw, the community has been home to renowned artists Antonio Frasconi, Joe Lasker and Leona Pierce, art historian Robert Koch, filmmakers Pablo Frasconi and Victor Kempster, musicians Laura Schlessenger and Joan Wasser, composer Miguel Frasconi, landscape artist Tom Balsley (for whom Balsley Park on Manhattan’s West Side is named), architects/designers Klaus Grabe and Norman and Ben Cherner. 

Another remarkable aspect of Village Creek has been its ability to maintain the racial balance it set out to create. Many communities have tried to do this and failed. Simply having an open buy-in policy did not guarantee racial diversity, as a visit to just about any Connecticut suburb today will demonstrate. And in the 1950s, most communities that implemented such a policy eventually became either all-white or all-black, which defeated the entire purpose. Willcox mentions one community near Philadelphia started by Morris Milgram, who devoted his career to constructing interracial affordable housing. Vexed over this tendency toward segregation, Milgram visited Village Creek to see how they had succeeded where he was failing. 

 

“One of the differences with Village Creek and the reason we have retained the balance and same spirit that infused us in 1949 is that we created a detailed covenant,” explains Willcox. “All homeowners have to sign a document to abide by it. We used our cooperative concept to retain the balance that we wanted. We had a real estate broker, a waiting list of white and black people, and we used the right of first refusal to make sure we didn’t lose it.” 

This has had unforeseen consequences. During the 1960s, a well-known black couple expressed interest in buying a house in Village Creek in the part of the community where many other black families lived. As Willcox told The New York Times in 1996, “The prospective buyers were offered several other properties that were available, but they insisted on that very one and brought charges against the association.”

This situation created a weird political dynamic that saw the local NAACP siding with the association against the black family. But as the case crawled through the courts and the local newspapers, ownership trends shifted elsewhere in Village Creek and the racial balance became realigned more equitably. So the prominent black couple was allowed to buy the home they originally wanted after all, with no lingering animosity.

Strong bonds are forged at, and to, Village Creek. This is seen in obvious ways, such as the relatives of homeowners who, like Patrice Hunt, choose to become residents and home-owners themselves. At the peak of this second-generation ownership, 13 homes in Village Creek were owned by descendants (today there are 10). Among such owners today are three of the four Kerschner children, whose parents, Barbara and Nolan, were among the founders of the village and live here still. Nolan Kerschner had been a paratrooper in the Pacific during World War II and embarked on a lifelong career in construction upon his return, save two years off in 1961-63 to work on behalf of nuclear disarmament.

Their children obviously have taken to heart the lessons they learned growing up here—lessons that have exerted a lingering hold on others, too. In the silver anniversary publication in 1975, for example, Laura Lasker wrote, “I can return year after year and always see familiar faces. Village Creek remains the same—a factor of continuity and stability in my life throughout college, world travels, meeting and leaving friends, trying out different lifestyles—creating a place for myself in this challenging world.”

Robert Morganstern noted, “I am overjoyed that I had the opportunity to grow up in such a cooperative, democratic and culturally enriched community . . . Village Creek was a childhood where I had many ‘mothers and fathers’ . . . I never had time to develop racial, cultural or economic prejudices. I was too busy enjoying other people.”

Cynics might be tempted, when learning of a place with the lofty aims of Village Creek, to poke at it until tiny hypocrisies deflate its image. However, Village Creek may have fewer such holes than most neighborhoods, even after decades of being poked at by outsiders. It’s not perfect, of course, but it is a work forever in progress and still fueled by an idealism embodied by Ann Frimmet, the current president of the Village Creek Homeowners’ Association.

Frimmet lives in the first house built in Village Creek, located on Splitrock Road. “It was the typical 1950s home,” says Frimmet, who bought the house with her husband Alfred 18 years ago. “It had 600 to 800 square feet, no basement and no garage. Every vet returning from World War II bought one of these, it seems.”

She and Alfred knew Roger Willcox from sailing on the Sound.

“Alfred was a member of the Frostbite Crew, a group of friends who raced all winter on the Sound,” she recalls. “When Alfred complained to Roger about the water being frozen near Westchester County, he told him that the hot water emitted by the power plant here kept the water off Norwalk from freezing over. So, we came up to Norwalk with our boat and I looked out the window of Roger’s house and saw the area was filled with migratory birds.”

That visit nailed it. When she and Alfred were talking about retirement, Village Creek was where they wanted to be. They enjoyed 15 years of happiness at Village Creek until Alfred’s death in 2008.

“My husband was delighted in the time he lived here,” she says. “It had everything he wanted and I still feel it does for me, too. Norwalk has all the amenities I need and a good hospital—not that I want to go there anytime soon. It’s about as far as you can be from New York and still commute comfortably into the city.”

For Ann Frimmet, Village Creek also offered a chance to put her own youthful optimism, for too long in mothballs, into real-world practice.

“I grew up during World War II in Westchester County, in a place called Larchmont, which was one square mile in size,” she says. “We had one black family and no Jews. One guy, a Jewish manufacturer, bought a farm and subdivided it just so the Jews could have an option to enter suburbia. I was always moved as a child by those Norman Rockwell magazine covers that showed a world in which people were mixing. I remember thinking I should do something about it. We wanted to change the world, but not scream and shout and act outrageous. All these World War II veterans were committed to the same ideals.”

Earlier this year, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Village Creek, The Norwalk Museum installed an exhibition on the neighborhood. At the time, museum director Susan Gunn Bromley said, “Many suburban enclaves become cohesive as healthy cooperative communities, but few have done so in such a conscious manner or with the inclusive spirit of Norwalk’s Village Creek, whose nondiscrimination policy—unheard of in planned communities 60 years ago—is now the law of the land.”
 

Village of Light

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