GMW.com‘s columnist Dan Berg imagines what Wilton will be like in 2030, looking back at today. His first part, “Georgetown On Down,” appeared Sept. 9. This is Part II.
One Last Look Around, Part II: Wilton Center of the Universe
Wilton, still September 2030
…and my final bike ride through town continues. Tomorrow we load it all up in the moving truck and head south to a place where winter means never having to say you’re snowy. But today, I take one last look around at the Wilton that we wistfully leave behind. (To see where this ride has taken me so far, click here.)
I roll into the parking lot at Merwin Rec, hop off to stretch my legs, and enjoy watching everyone enjoy one of the last warm weekends before fall creeps out from behind the hills. It’s interesting to consider whether there was any one key project or catalyst that turned the town from a quaint but somewhat sleepy place into a still-quaint but far more vibrant destination. It’s usually never just one thing. You can pick whatever metaphor you want: The whole became greater than the sum of the parts. A tipping point was reached. What smoldered for years suddenly caught fire. And so on.
The transformation of Merwin Meadows to Merwin Rec took a while but it’s a nexus of our community life:
- The dog park where the overflow parking lot used to be is now one of the hottest social scenes in town. And not just for the dogs! The location is ideal: central, easy to get to by foot or car, yet separated from the rest of the Rec by the river, to keep the doggies in their happy place.
- It’s hard to believe that where there is now a big multi-section pool with shallows, slides, a splash zone, a high dive, and beautiful terraced patios, there used to be a murky pond ringed by sand.
- Though the sand has been put to good use! The beach volleyball courts are busy three out of four seasons of the year. It’s fun to see the winter transformation, when the posts come down and the whole footprint is ringed in and frozen over as one of our two outdoor ice rinks.
- Where the covered picnic tables used to be, the band shell hosts all kinds of great musical performances and plays. On popular nights, we need to be sure to get our blanket out on the grass well ahead of time. My personal favorites are the HS Jazz Ensemble’s “Jazz at the Rec” performances, but to each their own!
- Oh, but the piece de resistance… Not many realized it at the time (though some did), but turfing and lighting the Merwin sports field closest to town and putting in a few rows of bleachers was the game changer – no pun intended. Having a top-notch field right in the middle of town and scheduling as many of the youth travel games there as possible was a strategic master stroke.
Since the day it opened, that field has been busy every hour of the weekend and many afternoons and nights during the week, full of kids and parents from Wilton and from every neighboring town. And every kid wants ice cream after the game – a quick walk down the path into the center. And every parent wants coffee before the game – ditto. And many want a meal in town before or after the game. And many choose to run a few errands, and shop the stores while they’re here.
Pedestrian traffic has exploded. And at least half of it is people from neighboring towns who have discovered a Wilton Center that they never knew existed. And have found another place to see live music outdoors. And sometimes a place to swim after a game. And a place to run their dogs while their kids warm up. And they come back again and again. And maybe that’s partly how Wilton Center became the destination that it is today.
Or maybe it wasn’t just the field, and or any one single thing. I ponder while I hop back on the bike, pedal past the pool and the band shell, over the footbridge, past that field of dreams (girls’ travel lax game in progress) and into town.
As much as I’ve raved about all the hiking, jogging and biking trails that brought me six miles into town center today, the pedestrian friendliness of the center is wonderful in its own right:
- The foot bridge over the river from the Wilton Train Station to Old Post Office Square has changed the dynamic completely for commuting to Wilton by train – people now do it all the time. The hourly train schedule doesn’t hurt either!
- Where now we have the River Walk path, we used to have an overgrown mess where parking lots backed up to the Norwalk River and businesses parked their dumpsters. I love strolling along the river from Old Post Office Square all the way to Schenck’s Island on this NRVT spur.
- Bringing to life Bob Russell’s 2004 book on Wilton history, the interpretive signage with holo-video at key points throughout the center brings the past into the present and turns a stroll through town into an interactive Wilton Heritage Walk for visitors and residents alike. My grandkids love seeing the projections of the old buildings and horse-drawn buggies overlaid on the Wilton of today!
- And again, a few seemingly isolated events at the time, which in retrospect were maybe part of the tipping point:
- It seemed a good idea when the town, in cooperation with the Wilton Land Trust, acquired the land where the Town Green and gazebo are.
- It was of minor note when Bank of America sold their building between the Town Green and the Wilton Library.
- It was a bit more interesting when the new owner renovated the building to make it retail friendly.
- But when Scoops saw the opportunity to move from the back of the Barringer Building into one of those storefronts facing onto the Town Green, it truly transformed the center, as if Norman Rockwell painted it into existence! From April to October, there is hardly an afternoon or evening when the green is not full of kids enjoying their cones and playing tag, while parents sit and chat, high school kids busk with guitars in the gazebo, and people stroll in and out of all the nearby stores. I guess one strategically-placed ice cream shop can change the world. Or at least a town!
I pedal south in the bike lane on Old Ridgefield Rd., past the library, towards Schenck’s Island. Trains and biking paths notwithstanding, one area where it looked like we were going to be victims of our own success was car traffic and parking. Back-ups at the stop signs were annoying drivers and pedestrians alike, and traffic lights in the center were roundly opposed by everyone who wanted to maintain the small-town feel and keep things moving.
The parking decks “around back” solved the parking problem but it was a few observant world travelers who insisted we look toward Europe for the solution to the center’s growing traffic problems: roundabouts. The small roundabout where Center St. meets Old Ridgefield Rd. is beautiful and intuitive. Its twins at the River Park Shopping Center and at the south end of town where River Rd. meets Horseshoe Rd. solve the same problem in the same tasteful way. But the very best one, in my opinion, is at the top of Wolfpit Rd., where Belden Hill Rd. meets Rte. 106. What used to be a backed-up, 4-way stop sign nightmare during the morning and evening rush now only gets sluggish on rare occasions when people slow down to see what the Wilton Garden Club is planting in the middle for the upcoming season.
My ride is coming to an end. There are two places I want to see one last time before I hop a train back up to the Georgetown station. I hang a left and pedal into the parking lot at Schenck’s Island. The River Walk continues through here and Trout Unlimited does a great job maintaining the fishing sites and tutorial kiosks on the riverbank. I get a kick out of occasionally seeing one of their volunteers video chat from the kiosk to help a junior fisherman bait their hook!
What I love even more about Schenck’s, though, is the “drive in” movie program that Parks & Rec runs, in public-private partnership with Bow Tie Cinemas. What’s old is new again! A portion of what used to be meadow is now kept short. No cars of course, but blankets and lawn chairs galore, food carts from all the local restaurants, and everyone’s portable audio locked in and ready to go. The mix of first-run and classic movies is always eclectic and fun, and it can be even more fun when there’s a great live sporting event or concert simulcast to watch. Nothing better than enjoying nighttime World Cup matches al fresco at Schenck’s with 200 of your closest friends and a ham and cheese crepe from Café Ruche’s cart!
And finally, I wrap up my farewell tour at Wilton Center’s southern gateway and community gathering spot, Horseshoe Pond. The restoration started around 2014, and we never looked back. Once we got the water levels up a couple feet and got rid of the choke of weeds, lilies, and overgrown branches, the paddle boats and loop path became a reality. The floating dock is an incredible way for the Miller-Driscoll kids to come face to face with frogs, ducks, fish, and other creatures in the restored pond, but everyone likes to walk out there and watch the herons come and go! And OK, fine – there is actually one thing I will miss about winter: the fun that is ice skating at Horseshoe Pond. The kids wobbling through their figure eights. The pickup hockey games on the north end. My favorite wintertime trucks: Rentals from Kate’s Skates and Charlie’s Chocolate Shack-tory – the best hot chocolate and warm donuts anywhere! And the roaring bonfires on weekend afternoons. It almost makes me want to stay put for another Wilton winter. Almost…
Well, time’s a-wastin’. I have seen what I rode down here to see: a vibrant and thriving Wilton, better than when I first met it, but no less charming and quaint. It has lost nothing. It has gained quite a lot. Farewell Wilton of 2030. Hope to see you again someday!