By Colleen Boken:
If you have ever traveled on the train between Boston and New York, chances are you have stopped briefly in the small city of New London, Connecticut. Located on the glistening shores of Long Island Sound, New London is home to the US Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, Mitchell College, and a whole host of small-town businesses. It is a town rich in nautical history, and is the kind of place that would seem right at home in a Stephen King novel.
I have been serving here as an Americorps member with the New England Science and Sailing Foundation, serving in the schools and getting an understanding of the integral structure that makes up the city of the sea. Therefore, when the coronavirus came, it forced us all to reexamine what it was about living in a small town that made it so much more different from other places around.
It is important to note that I love everything that makes up a great, small town. Walking down Bank Street, the main commercial hub, the variety of businesses making it their own is undoubtedly what makes it a town like no other. The two-story buildings that line the river and the railway tracks are usually bustling, with all sorts of emporiums plying their wares. There is a gay bar, a cute little coffee shop with memories of times once past, a few barbershops, a museum in the oldest operating customs house, and even a number of tattoo parlors. On a usual Saturday, from nighttime to daytime, these places are bustling. Students, locals, people who came in on the train, and the occasional submariner from the nearby base turn bank street into a party alley.
It was right before Saint Patrick’s Day when the coronavirus pandemic became serious enough to the point that the governor of the state had no choice but to order all businesses closed. It was a day that the town had been anxiously preparing for, with parades and all sorts of events planned, only for it to suddenly come to naught. I live downtown, not far from Bank Street, and with a view that tells a story of its own
I took time to walk down Bank Street that night, and what I found summed up many of the feelings that are being reflected in towns across the nation. Bars and restaurants that should have been bustling with people eating corned beef and listening to Irish pub music were instead graced with only the sound of the sea breeze and the occasional “toot toot” of the train. No lights were on, and a few places were doing take-out, but not many. In many ways, it felt like the town had become a ghost of itself, and it was quite easy to wonder if it was the end of the small town as we knew it.
Yet there is something to small towns that many people do not realize. When things like this happen, towns like New London do not just disappear. Instead, the people that make up a place like this find ways to remain positive. They bring forth a reminder of the good we can do if we just remember that we as a whole are a community–a community that needs to stand tall together.
I have had the great fortune of becoming friends with the local event planner extraordinaire. She is one amazing lady, and she embodies so much of what makes a small town wonderful. She recently began posting signs around New London: little reminders to thank the first responders who were helping everyone get through these unpredictable times.
In addition, a firefighter who was back in New London decided to share some happy music with the good people on the street he was on by playing his bagpipes loud enough so that everyone could hear: a welcome surprise it was, and a needed one at a time when the sound of happy music was a welcomed addition.
I have spent many years in small towns: growing up in one, going to college in another, and now serving for a year here. The small town is more than just a small gathering of people. Rather, it is a solid community that is built so strong that even when something like the coronavirus threatens the fabric of the town as a whole, it fights back even stronger. It may not be the biggest town in the world, but what is critical about the whole endeavor is that like many small towns, New London is built in such a way so as to thrive in the good times and show its strength when the going gets rough.
On a personal note, I did not know what this town would be like. I had never even been to Connecticut before I took this position. What I have found is a place that does not care who you are, but instead on what you can do. It is a town full of pride and filled with hope. As you go on with your day today, think about your community–and how every place, big or small, has a chance to thrive even on its darkest days.
Because when this whole thing is over, and when everything returns to some sort of normal, the communities we built will show us just what we can become.