Village of Light
(page 3 of 4)
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.