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A Century of Change

Stretching uphill from the harbor to the dignified courthouse built in 1784, State Street has been the organizing spine of New London since the town’s founding in 1646.  Yet, most of the buildings standing on State Street today have been erected since 1850, when New Londoners began a wholesale reorganization of urban space that continued well into the 20th century.

Although the economic prosperity of the whaling industry and the arrival of the railroad in 1849 were important enabling conditions, this urban reorganization was not just a matter of New Londoners using new-found wealth and easy access to metropolitan centers to do more of what they had always done.  Instead, this remaking of State Street involved a more substantial rethinking of the character of urban space.

While houses—large and small—once sat in close proximity to artisans’ workshops and general stores, Victorian State Street was increasingly subdivided into three zones: an industrial swath along the waterfront, a green and leafy neighborhood of genteel villas and cultural institutions near the courthouse, and a commercial district in between.

Functional specialization affected individual buildings as well as urban space. New buildings encouraged the pursuit of leisure and culture in spaces insulated from the sights, sounds, and smells of the world of labor.  As a result, some New Londoners could adopt trappings of gentility that had become associated with middle-class respectability.

If 19th-century State Street was the product of a Victorian tendency to make class distinctions visible, 20th-century State Street was shaped—and repeatedly re-shaped—in the pursuit of profit.  As the commercial district expanded, it eventually displaced the residential neighborhood at the top of the hill.  At the same time, successive cycles of renovation altered the ground-story shop fronts of older commercial blocks.  By the 1970s, however, such modernizations did little to help State Street businesses compete with new, automobile-oriented shopping malls.  A bold scheme to transform the thoroughfare into a pedestrian mall—dubbed Captain’s Walk—failed to reverse this trend.

Today, many New Londoners are committed to repopulating this streetscape created by their Victorian predecessors.  The future of State Street, however, is by no means clear.

From Exhibit: Commerce and Culture: New London’s State Street

Abigail Van Slyck ~ Curator