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Stone Wall Culture

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from the magazine

Stone Wall Culture

Connecticut Diarist Summer 2021
Covid-19

The pandemic’s first wave hit Connecticut hard, but of late, things have been looking up. Thanks to outmigration from New York, real estate is hotter than at any time since before the Great Recession. New Yorkers’ reasons for moving to the Connecticut suburbs vary. Many reckoned that an hour-plus commute is more tolerable if you’re only going in five days a month instead of five days a week. Others felt that they’d just as soon not regularly have to pass vacant-eyed homeless men fondling themselves. Some had planned to come here anyway, and the prospect of another six months stuck in a two-bedroom apartment with their loved ones accelerated the timetable.

The old wisdom holds that New York City suburbs, whatever appeal they offer in terms of the schools or other “low but solid” attractions, can’t compete with the city on culture. I wonder if that’s still true. Many of us left suburbia years ago because of its indifference to literature, live music, theater, and independent movie houses. We may not have gone to shows every week, but we liked the idea of being around people who did. Now, though, the choice between suburban and city living, with respect to high culture, looks less like indifference versus reverence than indifference versus hostility. Urban-based movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have put high culture on the defensive. You don’t find, in the suburbs, literal attacks on the City Beautiful movement’s legacy of grandeur in public art. It’s less painful, too, when a community museum or library operates in apology-tour mode than when a world-class cultural institution does so. These acts of hostility to high culture seem like micro-versions of the 1963 demolition of Beaux-Arts old Penn Station relived again and again. Suburbs may be boring, but they’re also relatively vandalism-free—both literally and figuratively.

Not all suburbs are equal. In their demographic profile, Connecticut suburbs resemble a sprawled-out Sunbelt exurb; but design-wise, they resemble old cities like Boston, which was laid out before the advent of the automobile. Architecturally, suburbs don’t offer much in the way of showpiece train stations and skyscrapers. At their best, though, they present the charms of the vernacular in abundance.

Stone walls are a glory of New England vernacular design. I’m speaking of dry-laid (no mortar) walls made of weathered fieldstone. They frame old houses and wind through forested areas of the Connecticut suburbs—actually, re-forested areas, former farm properties demarcated by stone walls that have since been absorbed by nature. Necessity prompted their construction, but they enhance the landscape just as much as walls built for aesthetic purposes.

In spring and summer, stone walls blend with the green. In autumn, they set off falling leaves’ radiance. In winter, they match the color of leafless tree trunks. Stone walls express the spirit of localism by reflecting community trust. They’re fragile—yet delinquent teenagers aren’t knocking them over.

By 1871, according to a federal government study, the northeastern U.S. was host to over 250,000 miles of stone walls. The walls are an extraordinary achievement, given the dire shortage of manpower and machines during colonial times, when most of them were built. Incidentally, new arrivals during the recent outmigration might be interested to know that Connecticut built New York, or much of it. The brownstone quarry in Portland, just south of Hartford, yielded material for thousands of row houses. Long closed, the quarry is now a water park.

Understated good taste is another virtue, along with hard work and Yankee ingenuity (stimulated by the urge to find a way around hard work), evoked by the New England stone wall. Somehow a handsome stone wall, with its lichen patina and the rocks arranged to look as if they were piled up almost at random, hearkens back to old-money WASP culture.

Connecticut’s current governor, Ned Lamont, is a blue-blooded descendant of one of J. P. Morgan Jr.’s close associates. Politically, of course, the WASPs aren’t what they used to be, but their cultural legacy persists more than is commonly appreciated. In twenty-first-century Connecticut, antique is still a verb.

Photo: KenWiedemann/iStock

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