Village of Light
Photography by Tony Velez
(page 1 of 4)
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.”