Hack Review: Abandoned Villages and Stuff

Imagine my excitement at discovering a book titled Abandoned Villages and Ghost Towns of New England at my local bookstore. Finally! I thought: a solid regional history of the places I stumble upon during my wanderings, terrestrial and nautical.

Then imagine my disappointment upon bringing it home to discover it full of prose such as this:

As we traverse overgrown trails that were once well worn with life, it becomes clear these forsaken hamlets had similar ends even though no two settlements were completely alike. Their history and people are often all but forgotten in the shuffle of time and evolution. This could be one reason why many of them are haunted.

Ah, fiddlesticks. What I had believed to be a historical touring guide is instead a collection of Weird NJ hokum, 200 pages of Halloween-store plastic and polyester in lieu of actual archival work. Worse still, the mistake was my own fault: if I had only glanced at the bibliography before lining up at the register, I would have seen most of the sources are either other fiction collections by D’Agostino or spooky storybooks similar to his.

There are lots of photos and a few maps, and Abandoned Villages is best when D’Agostino steps out of the picture completely, like when he quotes at length newspaper articles about the flooding of Flagstaff, Maine. But D’Agostino gives the impression he didn’t do much original research himself, and whatever factual evidence he presents is immediately ruined with personal asides about curses and fluctuations in his EMF meters.

Abandoned Villages is the literary equivalent of a ghost-hunting television show: 10 percent history diluted by 90 percent green night-vision. If you’re interested in any of the towns listed in the table of contents, my advice is to contact the historical society or government agency D’Agostino posts at the end of each chapter and proceed on your own from there.

Live Fast, Love Hard, Own an Island

I have an article busting the myths surrounding Vincent Island, a deserted acre of rock and sand less than half a mile off Connecticut’s shoreline, in today’s Stamford Advocate.

I’m especially proud of this piece because there are so many garbled stories about the island (its Wikipedia entry, for example); even a current co-owner, a nice old lady, insists on believing her well-worn yarns instead of documented evidence to the contrary. I did a fair amount of archival research on the island and uncovered stuff not even the Stamford Historical Society knew about.

The island is best known for its overgrown ruins of a large cottage, which was built by an owner named Paul Smart:

In 1945 the island was bought by Paul Hurlburt Smart, a lawyer and world-class sailor who lived in Darien.

Smart’s 1979 obituary is a laundry list of accolades. Born in Nova Scotia, he was a graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Law and Oxford; was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart in World War I; belonged to several yachting clubs and was first commodore of the Noroton Yacht Club; was chairman of the Olympic Yachting Committee, captained and managed the 1972 Olympic Yachting team; and himself won gold sailing in the 1948 Olympics.

Also, Smart enjoyed group sex.

From page 22 of a December 2, 1943 New York Times news story (not online):

Paul H. Smart, a lawyer who is well known in the midtown district as a night club frequenter, was sentenced yesterday in Special Sessions to a nine-month penitentiary term on his guilty plea two weeks ago with two other men and two women to indecently exposing themselves in an East Forty-seventh Street apartment that the police raided on the night of Sept. 29.

The other men, one of whom owned the apartment, received six-month workhouse sentences. The women, both 22 years old, each received three-month workhouse terms. The fact that Smart was given a much harsher sentence in comparison suggests prosecutors perceived him as the ringleader.

To be fair, the article never says what exactly the group was doing; they could have been having an orgy, yes, but they could have been nudists playing charades too. The article ends with this:

The sentences were pronounced after Assistant District Attorney Lawrence J. McKenna had described the five as “moral lepers who should be dealt with severely as a deterrent to others of their kind.” He added that the five were members of a “degenerate clique.”

Some degenerate. Five years later Smart the decorated war vet and island landlord won gold at the Olympics — at the age of 56. As with the Michael Phelps brouhaha last year, authorities then and now seem shocked that folks who work hard, play hard. I’m sure moral finger-waggers everywhere champ at the bit to someday raid an Olympic Village and disrupt the fabled hook-up parties rumored to take place within.

Or is that just another urban legend I must investigate?

“Something Unexpected About Being Here Near the Sea”

Yesterday work resumed toward removing the cottages on Long Beach West. Demolition had been halted since April 15 due to the shorebird nesting season. But over the summer, the ghost town saw some new residents: vagabond artists who made the desolation of the place their canvas.

Ben Wolf, 27, the organizing member of the artist brigade, said the project is worth the application of the more than 30 gallons of paint used thus far, despite the sealed fate of the dilapidated ghost town.

“Life is ephemeral,” he said. “Art in a gallery only lasts for one month, but the chance of this lasting longer than a month is at least possible.”

Caledonia Curry, 32, Wolf’s girlfriend, said the natural landscape at Long Beach West is a force of inspiration for many artists in the retreat.

“There is something unexpected about being here near the sea,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a paradise, but at the same time you get the juxtaposition with the broken cottages. …”

Skinny-dipping, star-gazing and storytelling occupy the artists’ downtime. But often, they work all day and use flashlights to continue into the night.

Camping on the beach? Co-ed skinny-dipping? Dude! Why didn’t anybody call me?

Anyway, I hustled out there to take some photos of the art before it was gone. I wasn’t surprised to find the po-po stationed at the beginning of the construction road going through the dunes. I asked an officer about the artists. He said they didn’t know how long the artists had been camping on Long Beach West but the place was deserted now. He also said a lot of people had recently been ticketed for trespassing out there. He added that while it was acceptable for me to take pictures of the cottages from below the high-tide mark (which in Connecticut is open-access land), if I or anybody else went above it, we would be “jackpotted.” Does anybody really believe a main function of the police isn’t revenue collection?

I thanked him, then drove to a paddleboard launch far from his prying eyes. I paddled up Lewis Gut and used one of the still-existent docks to access the cottages. There was no one about; the workers were only doing preparation work on the road, with the actual demolition days away. I surreptitiously took my photos (exteriors only, since this cat has an aversion to treeing himself) and then paddled away. Mischief managed.

My favorites by far were the murals. The scale of the collages and their composition out of the environment made them fun too. I wish artists had been out there every summer since 2007. Having to commit a crime just to experience the exhibit is another demonstration of the ridiculousness that is Long Beach West and Pleasure Beach.

I’ve updated my photo essay on LBW, with some more pics of the artwork at the end. The narrative also includes new research and the events of the failed land deal.

Cast Away on Pleasure Beach

I have a short article on Pleasure Beach, accompanied by two of my photos, in this month’s Connecticut Magazine.

In early July I paddled out to Pleasure Beach to take the photographs. It was my first approach by water, and as such, my first up-close experience with the peninsula’s western shore. There was the usual trash — bottles, plastic bags, wrappers, unmatched flip-flops — but I was astounded by the large items thrown onto the beach. Fifty-five-gallon drums. Traffic beacons. Long lengths of containment booms. Tires — not car tires, but the kind from wheel loaders or other construction vehicles that are as tall as I am. Many of these have been half-buried by the tide, rising out of the sand like sphinx heads and temple columns in a David Roberts painting.

The western end of Pleasure Beach fronts Bridgeport Harbor, so it’s reasonable to assume this detritus originates from the barges and tankers trafficking through the area. Pleasure Beach, depending on how you look at it, is either a desert island pockmarked by the relics of civilization or a desolate landfill.

Your Tax Dollars at Work on Long Beach West

Last week was the third anniversary of the cottage evictions on Long Beach West. I made my annual photo safari out to the peninsula to see how the stimulus-funded clean-up is progressing.

Beyond warning signs (ignore) and the construction road leading out through the dunes (great for running), I couldn’t see much difference once I arrived at the cottages. Perhaps slightly less detritus scattered about, but since there’s so much, it’s hard to tell if any of it has been taken away. The cottages themselves continue their deterioration and vehicles like the camper and the pickup truck remain. The blue above-ground water pipe, leading from a hydrant in Pleasure Beach to Long Beach West, is still smashed in several places, making it useless for fighting fires.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Post continues its superficial reporting about Pleasure Beach and LBW with a feature published last week on the status of the proposed water taxi from Bridgeport to the peninsula. I did some preliminary investigation earlier this year into the water taxi, and after fruitless phone calls and two absurd interviews with Elaine Ficarra, the mayor’s communications director, I realized there is no real plan. Bridgeport requested the funds ($1.9 million — an appropriation, not stimulus or recovery money as has sometimes been reported) without any hard ideas of what to do with them. All departments redirected my queries to the mayor’s office, where Ficarra was unable to answer the simplest questions. How much will be spent on renovation of the facilities already existent on the beach, the status of the docks, what (if anything) will be done with the burnt bridge, whether the water taxi will be publicly or privately O&Oed — “I don’t know” and “I’ll have to check” were Ficarra’s stock responses. It’s not even certain the taxi will run out of the East End, which this editorial assumes, or if it will be based at the Port Jeff ferry terminal clear on the other side of the city.

I asked Ficarra if she has been out to Pleasure Beach since the bridge fire. You can guess what her answer was. I can also guess whether the writer of the feature has been out there herself. I ask that question of everybody I interview regarding LBW and Pleasure Beach and an affirmative reply is the rare exception, not the rule. That to me is the most frustrating thing about covering this story: the disconnected conversations I have in which I inquire about things I’ve seen or experienced on the peninsula and the people making decisions about the place have no idea what I’m talking about.

Ghost Town Gallimaufry

The plan to sell Long Beach West to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is officially DOA:

“Unfortunately, due to an unprecedented decline in the real estate market and poor planning by previous town officials, the sale of Long Beach West for the $10 million price approved by the voters is no longer viable,” [Stratford mayor] Harkins said Thursday. “TPL has proposed termination of the agreement, and in light of these developments, I believe it is in the best interest of the town to explore other options of preserving and protecting this environmental treasure.

“As it stands today, the $10 million purchase price will never be certified by the federal government, who would have ultimately bought the property from the Trust for Public Land. If the agreement as it is currently written were to be executed, the Town of Stratford would be forced to accept a sales price that is far less than initially anticipated.”

TPL has no one to blame but themselves. If they had been more transparent and presented the townspeople with a realistic price tag in 2008, the voters probably would have still passed the referendum and the deal could have gone through.

In an open letter to his constituents, Harkins described learning the details behind the agreement: “I felt as though I was watching Chernobyl melting down.”

Meanwhile, only five houses remain in the Pennsylvania town sitting atop a smoldering coal fire:

After years of delay, state officials are now trying to complete the demolition of Centralia, a borough in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania that all but ceased to exist in the 1980s after the mine fire spread beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.

Friends and I have been considering a mountain-biking expedition to Centralia. From what I’ve read, the roads are primarily safe — traffic still passes through — but visitors shouldn’t trespass in the woods southwest of town. We’re looking for a complete stranger with whom we have no emotional attachment to ride point. Wanna come along?