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New London ‘never recovered’ from urban renewal

FILE: Joey Gonzalez of the Aetna Bridge Company descends from working on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in New London.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
FILE: Joey Gonzalez of the Aetna Bridge Company descends from working on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in New London.

In its prime, the heart of New London’s downtown would expect to see residents and visitors bustling through the streets of the former whaling capital.

“Into the 1920s New London evolved as a regional retail destination and shopping hub. There were multiple department stores and other shops,” says Anna Vallye, a professor of history at Connecticut College.

Today, that reality is quite different. The 5.2% unemployment rate in New London is higher than the national average.

Facades of multi-story buildings in disrepair currently line Bank Street along the town's Thames River waterfront. Boarded-up windows and closed storefronts dominate the scene, with some businesses holding on.

The city’s economic struggles began far before the Covid pandemic, or even the 2008 Recession. Instead, the expansion of the I-95 Gold Star Memorial Bridge and the urban renewal process from the 1950s into the 1970s displaced residents, forever impacting the city’s economy.

Local historian and native Tom Schuch recalled the expansion of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge into his neighborhood, permanently changing what once “was a thriving neighborhood.”

“New London has never quite recovered,” said Schuch.

Under the 1949 American Housing Act, the federal government designated specific neighborhoods throughout the country as blighted, authorizing the 57,000 acres of homes to undergo urban renewal.

Throughout urban renewal, 667 families were displaced in New London. Almost a quarter of those residents were of color, while the city’s minority population comprised only 7.8%.

White residents impacted by urban renewal accessed home loans in segregated suburbs outside New London. Meanwhile, Black residents, like Lonnie Braxton, 76, a retired prosecutor who moved to New London from a segregated Mississippi struggled to access mortgages.

“I was the last person to get my mortgage approved,” Braxton said.

The flight of white residents permanently rendered the city’s tax base. New London’s 6,790 acres hold several churches, three colleges and a hospital, all of which don’t pay property taxes.

“New London was rapidly being depleted of its tax base. In Connecticut, cities don't collect income tax or sales tax. So they overwhelmingly rely on property taxes to fund municipal governments. This was a big, big issue,” Vallye said.

Alongside immense economic loss, the city’s culture forever changed. A historically segregated city, small neighborhoods like Winthrop Cove integrated Eastern and Western European immigrants and residents of color. They were tight-knit and defeated racial separation. The neighborhood’s removal erased that sense of community held together by residents.

“What is immeasurable is the quality of the community that was destroyed…It was one of the most, [and] one of the earliest integrated communities,” Vallye said.

Despite the city’s troubled past, and continued economic stagnation, residents and government officials remain hopeful New London will regain its significance again. Mayor Michael Passero told Connecticut Public in March the city was undergoing a renaissance.

“There has not in my lifetime been so much interest by developers and investors and our historic structures downtown,” Passero said.

However, Schuch says urban renewal’s dark legacy can never be removed from the city’s history.

“There are three significant events in New London history. Benedict Arnold burned 145 buildings downtown in the American Revolution. That hurricane of ‘38 destroyed Ocean Beach and destroyed a large part of Downtown New London. And then we have the redevelopment program, which destroyed New London as we knew it,” said Schuch.

Terell Wright is a Larry Lunden News Intern based in New London. He attends Connecticut College, where he is studying political economy and history. Wright has reported for various outlets including The Day, American City Business Journals and WABE.

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