By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — The future of Saugatuck is again in flux, with plans under review that could drastically alter the once bustling seaport that later was home to a close-knit community of Italian and Irish immigrants.
But Saugatuck is a part of Westport, according to longtime community members, that has undergone change over the years. And, some say, the latest development prospects could bring transformative changes to an area long considered a stepchild to the rest of town.
The word “Saugatuck” means “mouth of the tidal river,” in the Native American language of the Paugussett tribe, according to the town’s website. It was a name used to designate the whole Westport settlement until the town was chartered as “Westport” in 1835.
Three men with Saugatuck connections — former Assistant Fire Chief Joe Valiante, whose grandparents moved to Saugatuck in 1897 when Irish and Italian immigrants flocked there to work on the railroad; Michael Rea, who with his wife, Carla, was instrumental in reviving Festival Italiano in 1984; and Matthew Mandell, who currently represents the Saugatuck area on the Representative Town Meeting — agree one of the biggest changes in the area took place in the 1950s when construction of the Connecticut Turnpike, now Interstate 95, bisected the community.
The highway, which opened in 1958 after years of planning, destroyed many houses and buildings in Saugatuck.
Valiante, now 80, still remembers how the turnpike crushed much of the fiber and spirit of the Italian community. Houses up and down the streets where the highway was built were emptied and torn down.
He remembers walking down Saugatuck streets as a child and pointing to empty spaces and recalling that this family lived here and that family lived there — but their homes and the families were gone.
Rea remembers what his father, who was born in Saugatuck, told him about the arrival of the turnpike.
“It disrupted the close community that they had there. Houses were moved, houses were torn down,” he said. Saugatuck residents “all started looking for other options once I-95 came through.”
“I-95 came and cut off the southern part of Saugatuck,” said Mandell, whose mother rented a summer place in Saugatuck in 1972. He met his future wife there when was he was very young, he said.
Just like the Irish before them, many of the Italians moved to other parts of Westport or other communities, especially after the highway was built.
But some Italian families did remain in Saugatuck and are there to this day, Valiante said.
“I’m never leaving Westport,” he said.
Although the Italian community after I-95 was not what it once was, enough people with Italian heritage remained to resurrect the St. Anthony’s Day Festival, which became Festival Italiano and ran in Luciano Park for 27 years, from 1984 to 2011.
“It was a phenomenon from the moment we started it,” Rea said. “We wanted to have a festival for the community that highlighted Italian culture and art and food.”
Since it was held in the summer, the festival attracted as many as 100,000 people from Westport and beyond some years, he said. “It became more than a uniquely Italian experience.”
In addition to attracting thousands, Festival Italiano raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for organizations ranging from the Women’s Crisis Center to the Staples High School football team.
The event ended when it became too expensive to organize and stage, he said.
The year it ended, a new festival — the Slice of Saugatuck — began, said Mandell, the executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, which promotes the new event.
Although Slice of Saugatuck, primarily restaurant-based, is smaller and different from its predecessor, the event still brings people to Saugatuck, the three men agreed.
“I designed it to be a side car to the Italian Festival,” said Mandell. “But they stopped it the year I started” Slice of Saugatuck.
Mandell and the others spoke about how Saugatuck has long been characterized as an industrial part of Westport, and all agreed that the area has deteriorated in some ways over the last few decades.
“It’s a little rough around the edges,” Mandell said. “But that’s part of its charm.”
“From the 1960s on it seemed to deteriorate,” Valiante said.
He remembers there once was a button factory in Saugatuck, as well as other construction and industrial businesses when he was growing up.
“Saugatuck people became the tradesmen in the town — the carpenters, and grocers and landscapers,” Rea said, and many of them were immigrants. “It was a melting pot.”
Immigrant families formed the backbone of the Saugatuck neighborhood in the 19th Century, drawn there at first by construction of the railroad. The first track was opened in 1848, according to the town’s website, but work was not completed until the 1890s.
“The railroad and the community in general was built with the arrival of immigrants from Ireland, Italy and numerous other European countries,” the town’s website says.
Saugatuck continues to be a hub for commuters and commerce with one of the town’s two rail stations.
The tallest structures in Saugatuck — the towers on the Saugatuck River railroad bridge — are a visual reminder of the early days of the railroad, when power lines had to be high enough to allow tall-masted merchant vessels to traverse the waterway.
The movable iron span is older than the Titanic by four years.
More than 100 years after the railroad came to Saugatuck, and 60 years after the turnpike changed the neighborhood forever, another major change occurred.
“There was a dramatic change with the Gault development,” Mandell said.
The Gault family, one of the oldest families in Saugatuck and owners of an merged company dating to 1863, redeveloped the area on Riverside Avenue between the Cribari Bridge and the I-95 overpass. The mixed-use development, known as Saugatuck Center, was finished about 12 years ago.
None of the three men with Saugatuck roots wanted to say whether they are definitely for or against the recent proposal to rezone Saugatuck for more commercial development.
But they did have concerns.
“It’s good and bad,” Valiante said of the possible development plans, enabled by a recently approved text amendment to the town’s zoning regulations. “It’s more development, but it is also upgrading the area.”
His main concern is more traffic in a small area that already is plagued by congestion and parking problems.
Mandell said it is not traffic that worries him, but that the businesses already in Saugatuck may not have enough parking spaces if the proposed development is approved.
“I’m more worried that they are under-parked. … Most importantly that there’s enough parking that current businesses aren’t harmed by not enough parking” from added development.
“Saugatuck does look a little run down — and this is an opportunity to upgrade it,” Rea said. “But we don’t want to do it at the expense of getting a commercial enterprise, and losing a community.”
“I just hope it all works out,” Valiante said.
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.