Friday, June 24, 2005

Memories of New London

Here are some memories of New London, the Connecticut town in which:

By a 5-4 vote, the (Supreme Court) for the first time said governments can take private property and give it to developers citing eminent domain, a practice historically used for public highway projects.

It's for Pfizer Inc, the drug company, to build offices - they want to take the homes of 15 long-term residents.

For Brit readers, a geographical note. New London is on the beautiful Long Island Sound, about 3 hours drive north of New York City. It is (of course) on the river Thames, although the "Th" is sounded. Just across the Thames is the Groton submarine yard.

I first visited the Groton yard in my late teens, at the behest of a relation in the Brit Navy.

At that time it was a submarine construction yard, run by the General Dynamics Electric Boat Division (EBD). The EBD folks were very hospitable, although a tad cautious since I was, after all, a foreigner. They gave me a tour of a nuclear sub and then walked me round the yard. Which was dominated by a huge sign identifying every sub built there from early WW2, giving launch date and current status.

It was a different world from the unionized shipyards I'd visited in the UK. EBD workers were unionized too, but they seemed to me better equipped, better motivated and more efficient. I particularly liked the way they took their tools to the job and minimized down time.

EBD gave me an aluminum nuclear sub tie clip as a keepsake.

This was at the start of my first visit to the US, and the hospitality, energy and efficiency I saw there made a big impression. I never expected that 4 years later I'd be fixing missile designs for the US, and subsequently spend so much of my life there.

New London then was unremarkable - decent wood houses, small stores and no doubt providing homes for the Groton workforce. Since then the sub construction has stopped, and Groton is now a sub base, slated for closing.

With the closing of the yard and the base, employment and population have fallen. Which has happened to towns throughout history. Many accept this with grace, like the towns in England that were workshops of the world in the industrial revolution and are now gentle backwaters. Others become tourist enclaves, like Charleston. And some try to buck the trend and stay big - England is full of ruined ancient towns that tried this, with ugly shopping centers and gridlocked roads.

And that's what this case is all about. The people elected to manage New London want to keep the town large, even if they destroy its fabric and dispossess the people they are elected to represent. Possibly they are corrupt too - refurbed houses on the Long Island Sound will be worth lots of money. But it will turn out to be just another ugly office park, and part of America's heritage will have been dissolved. As well as its freedoms.

But I still have, and treasure, the tie clip.