I grew up in Cornwall a town that typified old-time rural Connecticut. My first playmate’s family, I was told, had acquired their farm when the town was established in 1738, and had passed it down from parents to children ever since. A nearby Yankee farmer could remember when his family made clothes from homespun cloth woven from the wool of their own sheep. The town’s representative to the legislature in Hartford also delivered the morning milk. That was Connecticut to me.
A dozen years ago I began recording oral histories of women and men who had worked in the brass mills of the Naugatuck Valley. Their families had come from all over the world and many of them still lived in ethnic enclaves in Waterbury and other industrial cities. As I listened to their stories, my sense of what Connecticut is became broader but blurrier.
My confusion only deepened when I began a radio series about the state’s history called “Remembering Connecticut.” The series focused on the lives and experiences of ordinary people- what is sometimes referred to as “history from below.” I interviewed scores of Connecticut residents: members of the state’s Indian tribes, the founders of a Puerto Rican parish, members of a long-established black community in an affluent shoreline town, a self-described “old time Yankee” who went to work for the state 70 years ago trying to clean up its polluted rivers and stream.
The more people I talked with, the more I was haunted by the question of whether they had anything in common, whether there was anything that held the people of Connecticut together beyond mere geographic proximity. I wondered.
Does Connecticut have an identity? If so, what is it? If not, why not? And does it matter?
For the past four years, I have been working with a team from Connecticut Public Television and the Connecticut Humanities Council to produce a documentary – “Between Boston and New York”- that attempts to pose afresh the question of Connecticut identity.
Ken Simon, our producer, interviewed more than 60 people from all walks of life and from all parts of the state- and beyond- for the program. They ranged from recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America to descendents of the state’s original settlers, from factory workers to college professors, from people who dote on Connecticut to others who scorn it.
I was fascinated by the results. They revealed not a consistent image of the state but a web of themes and counter-themes, reflecting the diverse origins of Connecticut’s people and the radical changes that have marked the state’s 300-year history. They also help explain some of our current problems- and define some of our current challenges.
One thing’s for sure: There is no consensus on what Connecticut’s identity is, or even if it has one. In part that’s because of the state’s diversity. Jane Stern, who has explored many Connecticut towns seeking material for the food books she writes with her husband Michael, says “There are probably hundreds of Connecticuts, I think the rest of the world might think of Connecticut as the Martha Stewart state where everyone walks around in a white linen dress with beautifully arranged flowers on their tables and makes goat cheese appetizers and leads this country chic life. But when you go to Derby, you could think Martha Stewart did not exist And similarly if you go to Greenwich or New Canaan or Darien or Hadley me, every place has its own take on what Connecticut is; it’s a state that in a way reinvents itself every time you cross a border.”
This diversity often means fragmentation. Jerry Watts, a professor of American Studies at Trinity, has studied the state’s political evolution. He finds Connecticut “a baffling state.”
“For a small state, it has a lot of diversity. We have rural communities we have urban areas, areas that have a typical kind of ethnic communities. And we have these very rich enclaves throughout the state. What’s baffling about the state is that because it is so small, you would think that there would be more dialogue between these different factions, and yet there seems to be very little.”
Such fragmentation often means conflict. Herbert Janice, professor of history at Western Connecticut State University and author of the only history of 20th century Connecticut, uses an idea from American studies scholar Henry Nash Smith to explain Connecticut.
“He said when you’re trying to define a culture, you don’t look so much for the unities, for the broad, free-flowing stream. He said look for the tensions. And I think in a sense, modern Connecticut, with its variety, is defined by its differences and its tensions as much as by its common beliefs.”
That doesn’t mean Connecticut has no identity, but rather that its identity can’t be summed up in a simple-minded image or slogan. As Christopher Bickford, executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society. puts it, “We haven’t had a single identity, we’ve had a multiplicity of identities. And that lends complexity to our history and makes it harder for people to think simplistically about themselves and their state.”
Playwright Arthur Miller says, “I don’t know what Connecticut is.” But he adds, “The mere fact that we can’t name what its character is doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. It may simply be that we’re in the middle of it and don’t see it.”
Does identity matter?
For some, it seems to matter little whether Connecticut has an identity or not. According to Michael Stern, “When people think of Connecticut, they don’t think of anything in particular. And I think that’s fine. There’s no reason for us to get chauvinistic and say we in Connecticut will believe in one thing or another.” In fact, he regards Connecticut’s lack of identity as a virtue.
“I enjoy being in a state that doesn’t have a clear identity to the rest of the world. I think because that means we’re not pigeonholed, we’re not stereotyped. And that’s a very good thing There’s something very obnoxious about that image of the classic Texan or the guy from Missouri who says ‘Show Me,’or the New Yorker or the Californian. Almost any other state you could name has that very annoying person who symbolizes it. And I think we in Connecticut don’t.”
But for other people, Connecticut’s identity matters. Says Bruce Fraser, director of the Connecticut Humanities Council and author of a history of Connecticut, “Can we have a state which successfully deals with some of the major political challenges which face it – all of which call for widespread sacrifice and concession. and some sense of mutual obligation – when in fact we have no common sense of who we are and what we want to be?”
Howard Rifkin, for many years a state official and now a professor at the University of Connecticut, argues that for practical reasons state identity is becoming more important.
“A lot of the issues we’re confronting in the area of environment and housing and transportation and waste management are things which no longer respect local boundaries, With the New Federalism, I don’t think there’s going to be a trend back to looking to the federal government for solutions to problems. That sharpens the debate for Connecticut about what its identity is and requires of all Connecticut citizens, its political institutions, and its other institutions to think through how the state responds to the problems of today. It demands that the people have a debate about what an identity is and what being from Connecticut means.”
The Rev. Richard B. Griffis, senior minister of Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, sees the reconstruction of Connecticut’s identity, not just as a problem but also as an opportunity.
“Who are we and what are we going to be now and in an era that seems to be dawning? That has economic implications, it has identity implications for this state. And I think in a sense almost a moral implication for a lot of people. What can we become?”
Connecticut’s people face crises that affect the very fabric of our daily life. Since 1990, the state has lost nearly 10 percent of its jobs. Its major industries from defense to insurance from construction to manufacturing are in severe decline. Our cities are increasingly unlivable and ungovernable. Our political system has seen violent mass demonstrations. Whether or not we now pull together to forge solutions that meet the needs of the state’s diverse people will depend in large part on who we think we are ‑ and whether we think we are indeed a “we” or just an aggregation of “I’s.”
Images and Realities
Much of our sense of what Connecticut is comes from historical and media images that have little to do with the current character of the state. Christopher Bickford argues that much of our image of Connecticut is drawn from a “mythical colonial past.”
“When we picture a New England town we think of the common, the green. We think of white colonial structures, an orderly existence. This is mythical because Connecticut was never really that orderly. There was a lot of contention on the local level. But that is our sense of our past. And I think it’s precious to us. I think we value the colonial buildings and the small towns.”
This sanitized version of Connecticut’s past was created by ancestorship on the part of those who identified with it. Barbara Tucker, director of the Center for Connecticut Studies and professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University, explains that as immigrants poured into Connecticut in the 19th century, the established population anxious about the changes taking place, began to glorify its colonial origins by means of the so-called Colonial Revival.
“The Colonial Revival was an attempt to look back at what people perceived as a more stable, tranquil, peaceful, restful time. They looked back to the village. And what they did was not take the village as it was, but as they wanted it to be. They literally built up a new concept of the New England village. The Litchfield we see today is a prime example. It doesn’t harken back to the colonial period, but our vision of what the colonial period was like.”
That image of the distant past, however dubious, continues to shape the way Connecticut imagines itself today, says Bruce Fraser.
“Mythic New England is what unites us. And that’s the virtues of small town life, of town government, all these icons of New England life. The town meeting, local control of Puritan steeples although no one goes to the church. That vision of New England remains a shared sense of what we used to be. And it is that used to be that continues to be about the only thing that links us.”
Modern media images have further obscured our understanding of Connecticut. A string of Hollywood movies set in Connecticut (but mostly filmed elsewhere), such as “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” “Christmas in Connecticut” and “Holiday Inn,” gave the world its image of the state.
Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, recalls, “I grew up in a movie theater in South Dakota and I had a very clear, very specific image of Connecticut from the movies. When I was offered a job here I thought. ‘Great. I’m going to that place where they have those beautiful homes in the country with tennis courts, and swimming pools, and those old station wagons with wood that have two matching dogs in the back, and those kitchens so big you could land a helicopter, and everybody wears tweeds and everyone is well-dressed and elegant and rather ritzy and at night they put on tuxedos.”‘
Instead, she wrote the folks back home in South Dakota, “Guess what, this place is full of pizza parlors!” Says Basinger, “Who knew there were Italians here? You didn’t know that from the movies. You didn’t know anything ethnic about Connecticut.”
The image of wealthy, elite Connecticut continues to be purveyed in the media. As columnist Colin McEnroe observes, “You say you’re from Connecticut and people picture you spending your weekends racing at Lime Rock with Paul Newman and your evenings around the fireside in Cornwall with Mike Nichols and Francine du Plessix Gray chatting about literature.” But that hardly sums up the experience of most of the three million people who call Connecticut home.
The persistence of change
One reason Connecticut is so hard to define is that “the land of steady habits” has changed so radically over its three-and-a-half centuries.
At one time, Connecticut must have had one of the clearest identities of any place on earth. The Puritan settlers who subjugated the area’s Indians and established the Connecticut Colony were unified not only in their British background but even more in their religious orthodoxy. Griffis, whose Congregational church in Hartford has its roots in Puritan Connecticut, notes that the original colonists “came here to live out a covenant, as they put it, with God, and to bring their common life under God’s guidance They wanted to five out a New Testament or Biblical image of what God wanted. The word ‘covenant and the word ‘hope’ gave them their identity.”
But this Puritan Connecticut changed radically in what historians have dubbed the transition “from Puritan to Yankee.” According to Connecticut state historian Christopher Collier, “This other-worldliness, this community sense, this willingness to accept an authoritarian social and political structure, became diluted, then sharply undermined. And the Yankee then became someone we think of as materialistic, this worldly, out for the main chance.”
Connecticut was soon transformed again by the change from a rural farming state to an urban industrial one. The rise of manufacturing brought a flood of immigrants, first from Germany and Ireland, then from Southern and Eastern Europe and French Canada At the time of the American Revolution, 95 percent of Connecticut’s 200,000 people were of English descent; by 1910,70 percent of its 1.1 million people were first and second generation immigrants, the majority from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Historian John Sutherland of Manchester Community College notes the place of birth of residents of a working class Manchester neighborhood in 1900:
“On Cedar Street, five from the United States, four from Ireland, two from England four from other countries. On Cooper Street no heads of households born in the United States. Ten born in Germany, one born in Ireland, one in Scotland, one in Sweden. You can go on and on. Industrialization, in attracting these immigrants, was creating a different America.”
It was surely creating a different Connecticut. Herbert Janick.
“People identify Connecticut with white picket fences and the small town. But in reality, Connecticut from the mid-19th century on has been a very urban, a very ethnic, a very industrial place.”
Ethnic Connecticut has finally come to be represented in movies such as “Stanley and Iris” and “Mystic Pizza.” But meanwhile, the state has gone through a transformation that has hardly begun to be assimilated into its identity. De-industrialization cut manufacturing from more than 60 percent to less than 20 percent of the state’s employment, while the service sector rapidly expanded. White flight from the cities, development of once rural areas, and the migration of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and new immigrants from Latin America and Asia has turned Connecticut into a state of suburbs inhabited by whites of mixed ethnicity and cities inhabited primarily by minorities.
Contemporary Connecticut, it is often observed, is two Connecticuts, one suburban, white and affluent the other urban, minority, and poor. Barbara Tucker argues, “While we are ethnically and racially diverse, we’re certainly not integrated. Our school systems are not integrated. Various racial and ethnic groups live in pockets all through the state ”
Tucker says such segregationism is nothing new.
“Connecticut has a very long history of racism. Beginning with the Pequot wars, we had slavery in Connecticut When abolitionists came in to speak about freeing the blacks, you had wholesale riots.” Indeed, Connecticut became a national symbol of such intolerance in the 1830s when Prudence Crandall was arrested and attacked by mobs for starting a school for black girls in Canterbury.
Today’s continuing, perhaps worsening, division of the “two Connecticuts” makes an integrated state identity difficult to achieve, according to Hartford state representative Juan A. Figueroa.
“There are a lot of people here who think. ‘Boy, this is a great place to live because I am able to live in a community where there’s no crime, where my kids can go to school well fed, where everything’s taken care of.’ There are a lot of people who, in addition to that have nice picturesque surroundings.
“Now on the other hand, you have people whose reality is, ‘When am I going to get my next check in order to cover my rent? What am I going to do if my son or daughter gets sick and has to go to the hospital?’ There are people questioning even more basic things, like where am I going to live next week? It is part of what we are here in Connecticut. We’re living in two very different realities.”
Somehow, Figueroa maintains, both those realities will have to be included in Connecticut’s identity.
“Amidst a nice rural town with a nice lake or a nice suburban community not far down the road we have a big urban center of people of color with a lot of poverty and a lot of unfair treatment. You can’t avoid it This is part of the reality that we live in. This is us, this is who we are.”
While gaps between rich and poor have been growing throughout the United States, they are highly visible here because the state is so compact, says political scientist Jerry Watts.
“It’s an amazing state. You can go five miles in the state of Connecticut and go from extreme wealth to destitute poverty and back and keep going back to extreme wealth. I suspect that we are one of a very few states that you can do that in.
“The fact that we are one of the richest states in the union – always one or two in per capita income- and still tolerate three out of the ten poorest cities in the country, is utterly baffling. It’s even more baffling given the closeness. the proximity. Somewhere along the line in at least 20th century Connecticut, there wasn’t an overarching sense of community or a vision of the state that ever really permeated the population at large.”
169 Sovereign States
The fragmentation of Connecticut’s population is reinforced by the tradition that each Connecticut town is an island unto itself.
Charles Duffy, executive director of the Council of Small Towns of the Capital Region Council of Governments, notes: ”The small town nature of Connecticut is very deeply ingrained in people. Even people who move here quickly discover that you are not from a region – you are not a Hartfordite if you live in Glastonbury.”
That attitude may build strong local communities, but it undermines wider cooperation, says the Rev. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, Hartford minister and a city council member.
“We are really, in most people’s minds, 169 little sovereign states. What I see is a state that’s fractionalized by the traditions that we have.”
Collier, the state historian observes that traditions of town autonomy conflict both with historical reality and with the needs of contemporary life.
“There’s a tremendous tension, and its been an ongoing tension at least since the Civil War, between the perception of town autonomy and the Constitutional and legal fact of state sovereignty. Everyone who has been to a zoning meeting or a board of education budget meeting ahs had these experiences where someone gets up and says, ‘We don’t have to spend $125,000 to build a handicapped ramp in our schools.’ and then school board members will say, ‘Well now, the state mandates that we do this,’ And someone will get up and say, Well, the state can’t tell us what to do.”
Collier has done extensive research of the history of town/state relations in Connecticut, and has concluded that the idea of town sovereignty was a deliberate fabrication.
“Perhaps one of the greatest myths about Connecticut is the idea that our towns are the focus of power, that original power lay in the towns. and that our state is a mere confederation of autonomous towns. That’s been a potent myth for 200 years. It is a myth, however. In fact, the towns in Connecticut historically, legally, and constitutionally have never been, from 1633 to the present, autonomous in any sense of the word.”
The myth, concocted in the 19th century, says that the Connecticut colony was created by the original towns, Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor, and towns ever after retained rights of sovereignty like the 11 reserved rights” of the states under the United States Constitution- But, Collier says, “Right from the very start the three towns were settled as groups of people and not as towns. And they were administered by the Massachusetts colony government right from the very moment of inception. So towns are not now, and never have been autonomous; they have always been agents of the state. And I think it’s correct to say they are mere agents of the state. And the state can do anything it wants to.”
This may sound like historical hair-splitting; but the tension between the state’s constitutional authority and the belief in town autonomy shapes some of our most contentious current concerns, Right now, Collier observes, “The town based school systems are under attack in the courts because they’re exclusionary and they have the effect of segregating black and Hispanic students.”
The next target, says Collier, is likely to be exclusionary zoning. “Towns will not be able to make little islands of themselves where you can live on your two acres while just four miles down the road people are living 8,000 people per square mile:’ The state courts have the power to force towns to end discrimination, even though “the state in its present political structure is unwilling to do anything about it because the representatives represent so many suburban communities.”
Breaking down such barriers may be a prerequisite to developing a more inclusive Connecticut identity. Griffis likes to cite Robert Frost’s poem about mending walls.
“His point as the poet was to wonder with the old farmer, what’s the point of these walls now? And I am struck by that poem as we look at our towns in relation to our cities and the barriers that are still there.”
The Rev. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, whose son Milo is a plaintiff in the lawsuit that seeks to integrate Connecticut’s schools, sees the overcoming of such barriers as beneficial for everyone.
“We are moving toward a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, globally-connected world. Our children must be prepared to live in that world. They can’t be prepared to live in that world if they’re segregated, if they only know, as Milo said, their little hometown theories.”
Between Boston and Mew York
Another centrifugal force pulling Connecticut apart is its differentiation into distinct regions. Connecticut geographer Tom Lewis of Manchester Community College notes, “In spite of the fact that the state is roughly 100 miles east to west and 60 or 80 miles at its widest north/south extreme, the concerns and the interests and the focus of dairy farmers in the northeastern pan of the state in a town like Thompson are far, far different than those of in urban, suburban population like what we’d rind in Fairfield County or in Bridgeport.”
Some Connecticut regions tend to gravitate toward big cities outside the state. Media patterns reinforce that tendency, according to Lew Freifeld, vice president and general manager of WTNH, a network affiliate in New Haven. “We have an enormous number of households, though located here in this marketplace, that are watching New York TV, Providence TV, Springfield TV.”
Connecticut media recently organized a campaign to encourage Connecticut residents to patronize Connecticut media, featuring TV spots such as “It’s news about your town, not the Bronx. Its the weather here, not in Boston.”
Jerry Watts says the state is “divided spiritually” between Boston and New York – right down to professional sports allegiances. “In parts of the state you see only Yankee games, in other parts only the Red Sox.” (The statewide response to the emergence of the University of Connecticut basketball team as a national force is an exception that proves the rule.)
Fairfield County in particular is often characterized as more closely tied to New York City than to the rest of Connecticut. Children there, it is sometimes said, believe Mario Cuomo is their governor. Malcolm Pray, a car dealer who has lived in Greenwich for 50 years, says, “I’m a Connecticut resident, my driver’s license says so. But if I’m traveling some place in the world and someone asks me where I’m from, I say,’I’m from the New York area.’ To say ‘Greenwich, Connecticut’ is unknown. Greenwich is basically a suburb of New York, as is the better part of Fairfield County.”
This geographic division also overlaps with the state’s economic division. Market researcher Stephen Smith says 6 Percent of households in the state report incomes of more than $100,000. In Fairfield County, it’s 17 percent.
‘Me’ or ‘We’?
Contemporary Connecticut has two hearts beating within a single breast – one the legacy of Puritan communalism, the other an inheritance from Yankee individualism.
The Puritan past was highly communitarian. As historian Dale Joseph Schmitt has written, “The belief that the general welfare of the community was more important than that of any individual was the dominant force of Puritan society.”
We still implicitly honor that belief when we celebrate the churches and commons of small town Connecticut. But today’s Connecticut much more reflects the individualism which, as Fraser notes, came with the rise of the Yankee.
“We think of the Yankee trader, the Yankee tinkerer, the individual, the entrepreneur, the self-made man. That sense of ourselves which is organized around entrepreneurship, hard work, seizing the main chance, those kinds of values are completely opposed to what we inherited from the Puritans. That was a great sea change in Connecticut history, from Puritan ism to individualism.”
Individualism, Arthur Miller notes, “is certainly not the classical ideal of mankind, which was always social.” And while individualism may be a value that many in Connecticut share. it can also be an obstacle to building community.
In Connecticut, according to Jerry Watts, “There is nothing overarching. There is no vision that is generated in the state that gets us together. Our only vision is: You get some money and I’ll get some money and we will spend it wherever we want That’s it, basically. If you ask me to help you out, I’m going to retreat to my money and my private sphere. I’m going to go at it That’s what they mean the Steady Habit state.”
Watts is concerned about the implications of such an attitude in an era of economic adversity.
“In moments of affluence we all can cover for ourselves. But moments of economic stress this state goes crazy because there’s nothing that binds us together to struggle together. You will starve in Connecticut right next to immense wealth. It’s a phenomenal state in that sense.’
Connecticut’s divisive and a times violent battle over the state income tax reflected in part that lack of a sense of being bound together. This has only been aggravated by the loss of such traditional symbols of the state’s economic life as Connecticut Bank and Trust, and G Fox.
Collision ahead: frightful or fruitful?
Surely this is a time when Connecticut’s identity is going to be shaped less by its unities than by its tensions. Says Juan Figueroa: “We’re living in two different realities. We need to bring those two realities together if we are going to survive as society or as a state. Whether over the income tax, whether over regional housing solution., whether over school desegregation, whether over economic development, these two identities that permeate our collective ‘we will meet and clash. There will be an explosion and we will come to have a new Connecticut identity. A new Connecticut Yankee is going to be produced out of this explosion.”
Jerry Watts sees our fragmentation as a barrier to constructive engagement among the different elements of Connecticut’s population. “Where,” he asks, “do people acquire a unifying identity? It comes from interacting with each other. Some commonality of interest. But to the extent that interaction at work is declining along with our factories, to the extent that our cities are no longer places where there’s ethnic interaction, we don’t have the mechanisms that generate that type of common identity.”
Watts thinks constructive approaches are possible nonetheless.
“A lot of things can be done to generate more cross-community dialogue, a dialogue based on having some equal stake in what goes on in the state, that don’t even require money. But to do that you’re going to have to take a risk. It’s very conducive for Wethersfield, where I live, to maintain itself as completely different than Hartford. It’s part of the benefit of being there, the fact that you’re not over here. A lot of politicians have a vested interest in maintaining that sense of opposition.
“I don’t know if politicians are willing to take the risk of overcoming it. But some of us are going to have to do it if we’re going to reconstruct Connecticut and help Connecticut endure these tough times.”
Perhaps our current adversity itself can provide a new motivation for us to take on the task of reconstructing our state’s life and identity. A favored few may be able to hide in sheltered enclaves, but for most Connecticut residents- in the small towns and suburbs as well as in the cities- that strategy is growing less and less effective. It doesn’t create new jobs, provide economic security, or make government workable. The walls we put up to protect us from each other are the very walls that prevent us from cooperating to solve our problems.
Connecticut is changing; whether we respond by reforging identity constructively is in part a matter of choice.
Says Christopher Collier. “Today we see that these changes are occurring and some people don’t like them. And they have a choice. Either they can go on and live in their little dream world, and spin their world of myth and try to stay there and live with the tension that creates. Or they can try to recognize what is there and try to help the transition which is a continuum. Transition never stops.”
Juan Figueroa sees that transition as something that could be positive for all.
“Who we are is in a state of fluidity. We’re heading towards a new reality. And people need not be afraid that we’re going to collide. That is how our identity is formed.
“The role of government is to make sure this collision does take place. Leaders, whether they be politicians or educators, can set the tone and make sure this collision happens and happens in a way that is fruitful for all of us.
“If we don’t do that we’re going to continue with this Dr. Jeckly/Mr. Hyde existence. When our people go to out-of-state conferences, they’ll be able to put a nice face on things ‘I’m from Connecticut, the number one per capita income in the nation and home of the nutmeg.’ But behind that will be a very ugly reality. A lot of poverty, a lot of death, a lot of racism.’
“So we need to bring these two identities together, we need for them to collide. And when they collide it will bring about the next phase of what Connecticut identity is all about and who we are for the next 100 years.