Southeastern Connecticut boasts a flourishing, well-preserved hub of commercial activity, popular with tourists but hardly neglected by the locals. This hub is not New London, historically the largest city in the region, a former shipping center and home to the Coast Guard Academy. It also isn’t Norwich, a mill city up the Thames River that surpassed New London in population by the 1960s. These two municipalities retain some of their prominence as they seek to ease their downtowns’ transitions from a manufacturing to a services/information economy. And together, they serve as the primary central cities of the Southeastern Connecticut metropolitan area (the New London-Norwich MSA), which is a home to over a quarter million people. But neither city is a major attraction in and of itself.
The region’s greatest tourist selling point—and the node with the highest density of spending among people with disposable income—is Mystic, a village of approximately 4,200 people with no distinct political sovereignty. It is merely a Census-Designated Place with a visible urbanized form and a historic identity, spread across both sides of the Mystic River in the Towns of Groton and Stonington (which are discrete incorporated entities). But, on a Saturday afternoon, I’d wager that cashiers are swiping more credit cards in a two-block stretch of Mystic than they are across all of New London’s much larger downtown.The well-preserved main street and adjacent harborside shops serve as a prominent tourist destination: one of the leading towns for visitors to soak in an archetypal “New England town” experience.
But Mystic owes most of its magnetism to a key destination: the Mystic Seaport, the country’s leading maritime museum, just a ten-minute walk away from the heart of Mystic’s downtown. Regrettably I have not visited the seaport itself (admission required) but I can say that it covers 19 acres along the Mystic River, featuring carefully relocated and preserved homes cluster around a shipyard and numerous artifacts from Mystic’s peak years as a seafaring community. It’s not a recent introduction: the Seaport has operated as a viable museum for over 80 years, practically making it a historic landmark all its own.
Based on the evidence I’ve gathered from two visits to Mystic, I’d postulate that the Seaport is the primary attraction, and the adjacent village reaps the spillover rewards. Why do I say this? Despite being an outdoor-oriented, coastal town, Mystic still seems to retain its appeal in the cold months, particularly along the primary Main Street.These photos, from mid November 2016, capture Mystic during weather that was pleasant enough for the season but hardly beachcomber conditions. If the village depended on warm weather for its touristic appeal, I suspect that many of the stores would operate under significantly reduced hours, if not remain closed altogether. But Mystic was bustling on a cool weekend day, and it continued to shift to a more dinner-and-drinks crowd into the chilly evening. A facility with climate control (i.e., the Mystic Seaport museum) and an aesthetic old New England village synergize to create double-barreled appeal: a reason to spend a full day in the village rather than simply a museum and a sandwich.
But that’s not it: about a mile to the north, where the local highway leading to Mystic meets nightmarish I-95, the interchange features a variety of other allurements, still part of the greater Mystic area but beyond walking distance of the historic village center or the Mystic Seaport.Olde Mistick Village offers a verdant landscape with a bevy of shops “designed to represent a New England Village of about 1720”, according to the website. At least the description is honest. Of course it’s not a real town; after all, what 18th century settlement offered exclusively shops but no homes? Nor is it a reconstruction of actual colonial edifices, a la Mystic Seaport. Olde Mistick Village is a carefully wrought hybrid of a lifestyle center and festival marketplace. (Use the ICSC definitions to determine which one it more closely resembles. I really can’t tell.) It deploys a vernacular intended to evoke the colonial era, resulting in a retail-only facsimile. At the very least, its exclusively pedestrian character means that no cars are visible through much of the setting.
I can’t pin down the exact date of the founding of Olde Mistick Village. However, I’d imagine the Puritan settlers cleared the brush and paved the walkways across old Native American trails, way back in the 1980s or 1990s, when these consumerist incarnations blended the character of a town with auto-oriented convenience. Thanks to Google Street View, here’s the “olde stone gate” that forms the entrance. Nothing but a big parking lot. But the parking lot is isolated and leads to a fully pedestrianized pseudo-community. Here’s the olde highe streete.No cars beyond this point. Therefore, Olde Mistick Village offers a leisure shopping and dining experience akin to an outdoor mall, but with the veneer of architectural fidelity.
And it seems to be working. On a comfortable Sunday afternoon, Olde Mistick Village appears as popular as its more urbanized, “authentic” counterpart a mile to the south.And, somewhat surprisingly, the retail district seems to offer its own assortment of eclectic, locally-run stores—almost like it’s the “overflow” space for shops that wanted to locate in historic Mystic’s Main Street, but there simply isn’t enough leasable area. No national chains that I could find. Granted, it helps that Olde Mistick Village has its own tourist magnet, much akin to Mystic Seaport’s role for the village center: the Mystic Aquarium. And, in keeping with the general car-friendly layout of this tourist node, the Aquarium sits far from the main street, with a huge parking lot in front, visible here. In fact, it’s essentially the same lot as the one that serves Olde Mistick Village. The Seaport and the Aquarium, coupled with their respective shopping districts, help elevate Mystic into more than a day trip: there’s enough going on for a full weekend destination.
With so much information on Mystic’s attractions and hardly a hint of analysis, you’d think the Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau hired me to write a promo piece. Not quite. Though I’ve been reticent up to this point, perhaps the reality is clear: while it’s not unheard-of for locals to patronize the coffee shops or the long-standing Mystic Pizza (of Hollywood and Julia Roberts fame) along the impeccably maintained Main Street, the entire Mystic area owes most of its energy to well-heeled tourist out-of-towners. I don’t much like the adjective “stuffy” (truth be told, I’m not partial to adjectives in general), but I have a sneaking suspicion that, despite the vitality of both Olde Mistick Village and Main Street, it doesn’t offer much appeal to the under-40 crowd, and certainly not the singles scene. Of course, that’s not a criticism per se; it’s just not what Mystic is about. The sui generis offerings of most of the mostly mom-and-pop retail betrays its carefully crafted, staid, New England preppy aesthetic. You know the type: boomers who finally caved and bought a Range Rover, but still listen to Carly Simon albums with their now-adult children and hyperkinetic grandchildren. It’s a family atmosphere, but not a place for salt-of-the-earth types to kick back a bottle of suds or recent art-school grads to show off their latest opus. Not edgy, never funky, and, outside of the seaport and aquarium, only marginally referential to its seafaring roots.
Again, it’s perfectly fine for Mystic to be what it is. The irony, however, is that, in this day and age, Greater Mystic—both the old Main Street and the more “suburban” Olde Mistick Village—willfully ignores sizable a demographic that craves a fusion of recreation and urbanism. You know what I’m getting at: those Millennials, the folks who keep leasing downtown apartments, spending four nights a week at the latest brewery/distillery/foodie venture, while delaying student loan repayment, homeownership, and raising children. It may come as no surprise that Southeastern Connecticut isn’t exactly a hub for trendy young urbanites—call them “hipsters” if you must—nor is Connecticut in general. Why bother, when NYC is just little ways past the state line? But, incidentally, it appears that New London-Norwich can claim its own little niche offering for some genuinely local funk. Alas, it’s right across another state line, over in Rhode Island.
Westerly lives up to its name: it’s the westernmost (and southwestern-most) town in Rhode Island, separated from Pawcatuck, Connecticut by the Pawcatuck River. At this juncture, the river is so small that visitors barely notice they’ve crossed a state line; as evidence, the white building in the background is Connecticut, while the red building in the foreground is Rhode Island.Both villages have their own commercial centers, though Westerly’s appears much more robust. Here’s a view standing on the state boundary, looking toward the Rhode Island side of the Pawcatuck River.And a more conventional street scene:And like the village of Mystic, the urban agglomeration that these photos depict is merely a Census-Designated Place called Westerly (population 18,000) with no political power of its, though it is a small subregion within the fully incorporated Town of Westerly (population 23,000). Also, like Mystic, its historic village center has asserted itself as a locus for shopping and dining.It’s not so easy to tell in the late morning on a Sunday (the same November weekend as the Mystic photos), but the low vacancy rate and eclectic offerings among the storefronts in downtown Westerly reveal a generally healthy downtown.
But a different population animates main street Westerly, despite being less than 10 miles away from Mystic. Aside from Westerly’s somewhat greater size, the differences are subtle, but a keen eye for retail will tell the whole story.
A gamer store. A wine shop. A cigar lounge. And these co-exist with more conventional merchants one might expect from a down-on-its-luck main street.Truth be told, it looks like Westerly’s downtown is waking up from a multi-decade hibernation. Antique shops sit right next to Ashtanga yoga. Furniture stores abut foodie destinations. It’s a main street in transition—a re-emergence from the doldrums—and I’d wager that the leasing rates are considerably lower than Mystic (both Main Street and Olde Mistick Village). Cheap real estate and high curb appeal form the perfect recipe for entrepreneurial experimentation—the exact stuff hipsters sought out in Brooklyn, during that brief period when places like Greenpoint and Williamsburg were both desirable and comparatively economical.
The Westerly renaissance is still very much afoot. Here’s a perfect example of that juxtaposition of tired/old and perky/new:
The sign in the foreground is for Life Essentials Wellness Center, featuring holistic health remedies, drumming circles, and yoga classes. In the background: a convenience/tobacco store with money order services. Here’s another that’s coming soon:An apple wine tasting room. And, just a bit further down the street, my personal favorite:
A craft beer pub with vintage pinball. The hipster archetype. Retaining—as it should—the 150-year-old bones of the building, exposed from the interior:
Unlike Mystic, Westerly feels every bit like it caters to a local population. In many respects, it offers a far more genuine depiction of a small New England city than Mystic, which is so aspirational, so manicured, and so self-conscious that the intrinsic character of Main Street (the real deal) and Olde Mistick Village (the spillover facsimile) are indistinct. The merchants stopped trying to appeal to the locals decades ago.
Also unlike Mystic, Westerly does not fit within the higher echelon of regional attractions. It does not factor prominently among the kiosks of brochures we find in rest areas and hotel lobbies. This doesn’t mean Westerly is lacking: some of Rhode Island’s most popular beaches stretch across the state’s coast, just a few miles to the south of downtown Westerly. Names like Misquamicut, Weeapaug, and Quonochontaug aren’t just fun to say; they bring scores of families in the winter, taking advantage of Rhode Island’s choppier waters and stronger tides (unlike the comparatively calm Connecticut coast, shielded by Long Island to the south). But none of these beaches are within walking distance of the village of Westerly, creating a sharp contrast from the role Mystic Seaport plays on Main Street Mystic, or the Aquarium to Olde Mistick Village. And beaches rarely offer much appeal during the cold weather, while museums typically can thrive year-round. Westerly doesn’t reference the beach, it doesn’t reference its history (at least not all that much) and it doesn’t really try to lure the shopaholics. It just meets a demand for young adults—or near-adults—from the area, who seek “streetertainment” in a classically urban setting. They can’t go all the way to NYC every weekend, and New Haven or Providence (which offer small-scale variants of New York’s urban-entertainment vibe) might also feel like too much of a schlep. Westerly’s magnetism isn’t entirely different from the appeal malls used to have. But what the heck is a mall?!
Westerly is a homegrown thing: a nicely intact downtown putting its best foot forward as the closest alternative to the rigidly bourgeois commercialism of the higher-profile Mystic. Thanks to its subtly distinct blend of shops and restaurants, Westerly Rhode Island is Southeastern Connecticut’s best-kept secret…at least until the word gets out. If it continues in its current trajectory, offering a night-time party atmosphere after a day on the beach, it might become a year-round attraction on its own: a fully flourishing small New England city. Sounds like a great thing, but then it’ll face a new challenge…over time, as it attracts a more cosmopolitan clientele, it’ll become another Mystic.