Mystic and the tourist main street: undermined by its own eclecticism?

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.IMG_6661The 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.

Mystic Main Street

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.Mystic Main StreetIMG_6660These 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.IMG_6715Olde 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.IMG_6717IMG_6719

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.IMG_6714No 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.Olde Mistick VillageIMG_6718And, 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.

IMG_6659IMG_6664IMG_6667Again, 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.

 

IMG_6670Westerly 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.IMG_6673Both 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.IMG_6679And a more conventional street scene:IMG_6677And 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.IMG_6680It’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.

IMG_6699But 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.IMG_6698IMG_6690IMG_6689IMG_6708IMG_6693

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.IMG_6695IMG_6691IMG_6702IMG_6704Truth 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:

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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:IMG_6701An apple wine tasting room. And, just a bit further down the street, my personal favorite:

IMG_6684IMG_6685A 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:IMG_6686

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?!

 

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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.

 

14 thoughts on “Mystic and the tourist main street: undermined by its own eclecticism?

  1. Alex Pline

    Great observations Eric. I’m going to share this because Annapolis is having this exact discussion running up to our Mayoral election next year. One of the candidates message is that we need to make it a place for locals because everyone else follows as they want to go where the locals go, rather than catering to the tourist with historic kitsch. ie do we want to be a “Mystic” or a “Westerly”.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      My thinking is that Annapolis would be big enough (and have enough architectural fabric) to support both a Mystic and a Westerly. The question is: are there any districts that have sufficiently depressed real estate value? Maybe depressed isn’t the word, but “lower value” (in contrast to the high-stakes tourist epicenters) that can encourage risk-taking entrepreneurship or, at the very least, goods/services that appeal to more than simply high-end tastes? A great example of a Westerly that comes to mind in a much, much bigger city that depends heavily on tourism is Magazine Street in New Orleans.

      Reply
      1. Steve P

        I’m enjoying the conversation Alex and American Dirt are having about Annapolis. I so enjoy visiting Annapolis on foot from the top of the hill by St. Anne’s all the way down by the water. But gettjng there from other parts of the city is so frustrating it makes me want to cry.

        Reply
        1. Alex Pline

          The problem that Steve is hinting at is the core downtown and surrounding old neighborhoods from the streetcar era and all walkable/bikeable, but the development of the city and surrounding county starting in the 50s (like everywhere else) was very autocentric. Luckily most of the downtown Annapolis escaped massive urban renewal destruction – it was just in pockets such as Gotts Court which is still a really sore subject – but the development patterns have made it very unpleasant to get around without a car. The distances are not large but everything is unconnected and the development that continues to this day is of that pattern with no sense of the consequences by planning officials. I wrote about this if you are interested: https://teampline.org/…/traditional-street-grids-are…/

          Reply
        2. Alex Pline

          But my original comment is meant to highlight the difference two sections of the the “downtown” (really Ward 1 in local parlance). We have the downtown proper, Main Street, City Dock, Maryland Ave and State/Church Circles, what people think of as “downtown” and we have West Street that has been branded as the “Arts District”. The later very vibrant and frequented by locals and the former is where the tourists go with kitschy t-shirt shops and increasing numbers chain restaurants (Moes, Chipoltle et at). As Eric and I have commented about before the Historic District has some handicaps that that Arts District does not. But as I said above, catering to locals is a strategy for longer term success and resilience…

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirt Post author

            Thanks for your additional comments, Alex. I’m pretty sure I read–and responded–to your street grid blog article about a month ago. Maybe my comments somehow failed to get placed. As for the touristy area getting populated with chain restaurants, I’d imagine that means downtown Annapolis is a victim of its own success. Like many places that go from edgy to yuppie, the leasing rates for retail get too pricey for all but the wealthiest mom-and-pops. Therefore we end up seeing national chains take over, since they can afford the real estate.

  2. Kismet

    My wife and I go to Mystic every June for the Wooden Boat Show, held at the seaport where we are members. We love the place, the vibe, the atmosphere, the hotel (which is small and shall go nameless as I don’t welcome competitive guest booking my weekends). The OMV is no more than a mall, just like you could wallpaper over a fast food chain, but it does serve a purpose as a place to get a trinket or a gift. Mystic has a great Blues Festival and if we had a bigger sailboat it would always be a great port of call for us. Stonington has great beaches and an excellent rental market for vacationing families.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Kismet. I’d definitely agree that the minds who conceived Olde Mistick Village were targeting the mall audience. Yet OMV doesn’t seem to compete with Main Street Mystic; it seems to supplement it. I think it’s interesting that OMV has managed, thanks in part to its very “anti-mall” design, to secure a variety of distinctive, local tenants…pretty much an extension of what Mystic offers. No Five Guys, no Starbucks…those are on the other side of the street.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I’m guessing you’ve been to Nashville, IN, where I’d say OMV and “Main Street Mystic” coexist side by side. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the old from the new(er).

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          It’s been over a decade since I’ve been there, but I think you pinned it down well. Is there any “Westerly” component to Nashville these days?

          Reply
          1. Chris B

            The county courthouse square is still “original”. And the Nashville House restaurant/general store, with the local delicacy, fried biscuits and apple butter. 🙂

            But there are only 800 residents…overwhelmed by far more visitors on nice weekends.

  3. Alex Pline

    American Dirt we discussed this and to reiterate I think it is a function of unrealistic expectations and the ability to wait, based on low carrying costs, for property owners hold out for a deep pocket chain to come in. You really have to spend time here at all time of day/year to see these effects. The Arts District is hoppin on a random evening but city dock only rocks on chamber of commerce days. This is a function of where locals go.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That probably has a lot to do with it. Many owners/managers of urban properties don’t care that much about an eclectic main street (and, of course, “eclectic” is a subjective judgment). They want the most secure tenant to which they can charge the highest rates, and often this translates to tenants that detract from eclecticism (or at least my opinion of it): we get “boring” tenants like banks, chain restaurants, or 9-5 white-collar services (insurance, accounting, engineering etc). These sort of tenants are far less likely to fail in 2 years than the average mom-and-pop, so it’s understandable that property managers court them, and even “wait it out” until they secure one. Frankly, I’m surprised Main Street Mystic doesn’t have lots of chains, unless the municipality overtly banned them, but the “municipality” in this case is the Town of Stonington…as I indicated before, Mystic isn’t a political entity unto itself.

      Reply

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