Editor's note: When Village Creek received a grant to prepare a National Register nomination (it secured the designation last month), we learned that Village Creek Founders were forerunners in obliterating racial and ethnic barriers in the city that prominent artists left marks there. It prompted us to ask the question for our readers--What are other historic neighborhoods like, up close? So we have been walking around and talking to people who call them home as well as local historians to discover how these neighborhoods came to be and what makes them special. Come take a walk with us.
After the close of World War II, a faction of people from the New York metropolitan area sought a quiet place to live in the wake of worldwide upheaval and the vast economic turmoil of the Great Depression. This same group of progressive, like-minded individuals wanted an expanse of real estate along the coast to settle upon, and, perhaps most importantly of all, they wanted a place free of the racial barriers that had for so long divided slices of American cities.
Village Creek, a community on a splinter of prime coastal real estate in southern Norwalk, was born.
"During this time, we saw some of the patterns of discrimination around the country," explained Village Creek resident and co-founder Phil Oppenheimer. "We wanted a place that had a policy of non-discrimination."
The group of about 20 people purchased the land that was to become Village Creek from the Nash Engineering Company and promptly made non-discriminatory policies an integral part of the Village Creek Homeowners Association agreement -- a stark contrast to many similar associations that were, during the middle part of the 20th century, going to great lengths to keep minorities out of their neighborhoods.
"We had people of various religions and various colors," Oppenheimer said.
Over half a century after the Village Creek founders took some of the first steps in obliterating caustic racial and ethnic divides, the neighborhood on Sunday celebrated its 60th anniversary, during a year that saw Village Creek designated as both a State and National Historic District.
Tod Bryant, a historic preservation consultant, said the neighborhood applied for and received the historical distinctions because of those early measures to prevent discrimination that remain intact today, and because of the neighborhood's distinct mid-century architecture, which remains largely unchanged.
"It still has that look and feel of a community of the 1950s," Bryant said.
Because of the state designation, all residents of Village Creek now qualify for the state's Historic Homes Rehabilitation Tax Credit, which provides 25 percent credit on renovation projects of $25,000 or more.
In addition to being an honorary title, the federal designation --¦puts you on the federal government's radar as a cultural resource that should be considered into the future," Bryant said.
In conjunction with the 60th anniversary celebration, residents and the Norwalk Land Trust (NLT) honored Village Creek co-founder and 35-year NLT board member Roger Willcox Monday with a plaque celebrating his retirement from the NLT.
The plaque is mounted on a boulder in view of Hoyt Island, a land trust property stewarded by Willcox and an open space valued by the Village Creek community.
Willcox, who built a house in the Village Creek community decades ago, said his job with the New York Regional Plan Association -- where he had access to photographs and maps of the entire New York metropolitan area - eventually parlayed into an opportunity to conceive a unique cooperative neighborhood on a shard of Connecticut coastline.
The founding residents of Village Creek purchased the 71-acre parcel of land for $75,000, and in 1950 the Village Creek Homeowners Association was born.
"We had a community where we felt we would have no problems with neighbors, no problems with the zoning, and the prospect of a deep water harbor," Willcox said in a phone interview with the Citizen Wednesday.
"All of my life I've fought all types of restrictive thinking....We wanted an all-ages, mixed-race community, and that's what it still is today."
Oppenheimer said that while some of the original structures in Village Creek -- like an old Girl Scout cabin, whose planks Oppenheimer eventually turned into furniture -- have been lost, much of the history is preserved in the mid-century architecture for which Village Creek has received state and national recognition.
And then there is the view.
"It's absolutely stupendous," Oppenheimer said.
"If I look toward the west, I look at the boat basin, the marsh. I've seen as many as five egrets out there....And then there is Sheffield Island....Being able to live on the water is a definite attraction."
Dr. Ruby Shaw, a former assistant superintendent with Norwalk Public Schools who was instrumental in the success of Columbus Magnet School, is one of five members of the Village Creek Homeowners Association who has lived in an original home in the community for more than 50 years.
Shaw grew up in a diverse community in Queens and sought that same type of diversity when looking for a place to raise a family.
"When I heard about Village Creek," she said, "I thought that this is the kind of experience my children should have. They have grown up and are activists, because they are generally concerned about other people."
"When you come here, you feel as if you are, indeed, welcome," she said. "It's just beautiful."