Friday, November 11, 2016

Alex Gibbons, Student Leader of the Arch Street Teen Center

The following blog post by Olivia Luntz, Greenwich Oral History Project volunteer and senior at Greenwich High School is derived from an interview conducted by OHP interviewer Renée Lux last spring. The interview is one of four commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Arch Street Teen Center and is with narrator Alex Gibbons, president of the Arch Street Teen Center board from 2014 until his graduation in June of this year   

Interior of the Greenwich Arch Street Teen Center
Alex Gibbons got his start at the Arch Street Teen Center by attending weekend dances when he was in middle school. He appreciated that the dances enabled him to meet people from outside his private school community. In his freshman year of high school, Gibbons sat in on his first teen board meeting and “really connected with just the message of the place and what it was doing for our town.” After serving on the board for two years, he became president in his junior year. Gibbons explains that the board is made up of twenty-five to thirty high school students, with about fifteen from Greenwich High School and another fifteen representing private schools. During weekly meetings they plan events and discuss how to advertise these events to fellow teens. As president, Gibbons ran most of the meetings and assisted the executive director, Kyle Silver, in keeping the center running. But Gibbons’ involvement with Arch Street didn’t end there. As a musician he jammed at the center with other kids and even opened for a featured band. However, Gibbons believes he has benefitted most from his involvement as a public servant. He values working with different people and nonprofits, scheduling events, and he recognizes that working with different organizations is not something most teens have an opportunity to do.

While Gibbons was working for Arch Street, the center expanded its programming to appeal to a wider audience. In addition to the flagship dances, the center now offers a variety of activities and events. Over the summer Arch Street offers paddle boarding, and during the school year yoga classes are available. In addition, the center recently opened its own café, the Greenwich Grind. Although Gibbons was not sure about the changes at first, so far, he admits, the feedback has been positive. “I’ve been used to having only dances this whole time, and I didn’t know …on your average Wednesday after school, are teens going to be coming down to hang out at Arch Street?” But, as it turns out, they do come. There they would be: “a bunch of middle schoolers, hanging out and eating food and playing ping pong and kind of enjoying themselves.” Overall, Gibbons is pleased with the success of these new programs, believing they will help Arch Street appeal to those teens less interested in the dances and more interested in other activities, therefore helping to broaden the center’s base of teens.
Alex Gibbons

However, no matter the success of Arch Street’s other programs, Gibbons still asserts that the most popular events are the dances, each selling an average of four hundred and fifty tickets. Gibbons believes it is the dances that best help Arch Street accomplish its mission of providing a drug-and alcohol-free environment for teens. Being able to attend fun events or just hang out in a substance-free zone is especially beneficial for middle school students, as it helps delay exposure to drugs and alcohol. Gibbons notes that Arch Street has very strict security to ensure that no substances are brought into the center and there are always trained EMTs on site during dances in case any teens arrive showing symptoms of alcohol poisoning.

There are still further goals to reach, according to Gibbons. Gibbons notes that the high school dances are most popular among teens attending private school in Greenwich and that in the future he would like to see a more diverse crowd in attendance. “Just because your dance is selling out, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily fulfilling the mission of the Teen Center.” He adds that a lot of the teen board’s programming focuses on trying to reach people at Greenwich High School and that he enjoys it when he sees students from public and private school interact. Gibbons notes that the middle school dances and the Greenwich Grind are popular with public school kids, and he is hopeful that the high school dances, too, will soon become popular with all of the teens in the Greenwich community.

In addition to reaching out to teens, Arch Street also strives to educate parents and the community. For example, Arch Street has recently introduced a speaker series, which is aimed at parents and teens. These talks focus on topics such as helping teens with the college process, managing stress levels, and talking to teens about drugs. The Winter Wonderland event last December was another successful community program, one of which Gibbons is particularly proud since it was entirely teen planned. In order to attract families of elementary school kids, the planners provided for activities such as a bouncy castle, an arts-and-crafts table, and a fire truck for kids to explore. There were also photo-ops with Santa and the Grinch and lots of food. Gibbons hopes that this event will become a tradition at Arch Street, bringing the community together for years to come.

Overall, Gibbons believes that Arch Street is not only valuable to teens as a place that is drug-and alcohol-free but also as a place where everyone is equal. “It kind of levels the playing field,” he says, giving teens a chance to interact with students from other schools. He is quick to stress that he, too, has benefitted from this opportunity. Gibbons adds that there aren’t many events outside of Arch Street that would bring together teens from the different high schools in Greenwich, and this is exactly what makes Arch Street special. Gibbons ends his interview by noting that Arch Street is lucky to have such generous donors that have kept the Center going for twenty-five years, and he hopes Greenwich will see Arch Street continue for at least another twenty-five years.

And we in Greenwich are indeed lucky to have young future leaders like Alex Gibbons and Olivia Luntz among us.

(OHP interview: Alex Gibbons, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 7, 2014.)

Greenwich Oral History Project interviews are available in the reference area on first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the project office on the lower level.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Arch Street Teen Center, 25 Years Old and Going Strong!

The Arch Street Teen Center, located at 100 Arch Street in Greenwich, is said to be the longest-running, privately funded center for teens in the United States. In order to record the history and accomplishments of this organization, Greenwich Oral History Project interviewer, Renee Lux, conducted interviews with some of the center’s key members and supporters, all with important stories to share, some going back to the organization’s founding. It is fitting to focus on these interviews since the teen center will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary,  November, 2016.

It is important to recognize that there are many community members who have been instrumental in the center’s success, who have given time and great effort. We focus here on four who represent what it takes to make a teen center a success.

Judith A. Donahue, one of the four narrators interviewed, was there from the beginning. She told our OHP interviewer that a friend had recruited her in 1985 to give six months of her time to a feasibility study for a teen center in town. Six years later, after much involvement, the feasibility of a drug-free, alcohol-free center where teens could successfully gather for fun and camaraderie became a reality. (OHP interview: Judith A. Donahue, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 7, 2014.)

Equally important and instrumental in seeing the teen center flourish was State Senator, L. Scott Frantz, whose interest in the center began early on, after the death of his younger brother, Chris, an early advocate of a safe place for teens to gather. After his death in an aviation accident at age twenty-two, Senator Frantz’s mother, Ann Haebler Frantz, took up the cause, but when she too died, in1988, the Senator was the sole family member left to see his brother’s dream become a reality. (OHP interview: Senator L. Scott Frantz, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 1, 2014.)
State Senator, L. Scott Frantz

While Ms. Donahue and State Senator Frantz are key figures representing the commitment and work it took to make the Arch Street Teen Center the vibrant success it is today, one of the narrators interviewed is on the frontlines daily, Executive Director, Kyle Silver, who has been at the organization’s helm since 1997, six years after the official opening, when Mr. Silver was still a student at the University of North Carolina.

A big part of Mr. Silver’s job is providing programs and events inspiring enough to tear teens away from social media and to bring them into the Arch Street location and into the community for service projects, as with Neighbor-to-Neighbor, for which the center won a student organization of the year award. Then there are the weekend evening events drawing hundreds of students and the conference events bringing in celebrities and well-known public figures to speak on important topics from careers to the environment.

Less in the public eye but equally important are the routine day-to-day operational duties, keeping the budget in line, growing attendance while securing safety and maintaining a drug and alcohol free environment at events. Additionally, there is the challenge of communications, so important to maintaining support for the center’s existence.  

Taken together, the challenges are enormous, and yet the Greenwich Center has become a template around the country for those communities who would like a teen center of their own lasting longer than a year or two. When Ms. Lux asked Mr. Silver about Arch Street’s success, his answer was immediate:

“I can tell you the definite answer to that; it’s because we give so much ownership to the teens when it comes to planning the events.”
Executive Director, Kyle Silver

Ownership must be initiated by the teens themselves, Mr. Silver stresses. That ownership ensures success of the programs, of community support, of the facility itself. The teens are the ones who ensure the center’s mission, “to provide teens with a safe environment in which to connect and socialize with their peers.” It’s that simple, and, according to Mr. Silver, “…it’s stood the test of time” because, he says, when you “grow from a simple base, you can have something extraordinary.”

At the Arch Street Teen Center the structure of the teen board provides that simple base. The students who underpin the ownership required for success are those on the leadership council: the president, the co-president, the vice-president, and the teen board. Working together the teen leadership committees and the adult committees provide a foundation strong enough to weather challenges that can appear daunting to the casual observer.

Simply reading Mr. Silver’s interview gives an indication of how he goes about his job on any given day: steadfastly maintaining a policy of zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol; staying informed, whether on the premises or away, with Blackberry always handy; checking emails constantly; keeping his sites on what’s going on socially among his “customer base”; being aware of the unique challenges a town like Greenwich presents, making sure kids of varying economic backgrounds and experiences can come together in a place that welcomes them all as equals.

With all this in mind, it is easy to understand that Executive Director Kyle Silver is proud of his successes, remembering when those events that now produce four hundred attendees once saw only thirty or forty.

Mr. Silver concludes with this observation: “Teenagers are a very tough demographic because they’re challenging on a lot of levels….So we have our challenges, without a doubt, but at the same time the community support has been outstanding.” Things are, it seems to Mr. Silver, “to be as good as it could be.” (OHP Interview, Kyle Silver, “The Arch Street Teen Center,” October 23, 2014.)

Our fourth interview, with Alex Gibbons, president of the teen board for two terms until his graduation in June, 2016, will be the subject of a separate post by our own student Oral History Project volunteer, Olivia Luntz. It’s next up.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Cos Cob Park, Before and After

Last March our volunteers commemorated the opening of the Cos Cob Park by going to our archives and highlighting here an interview conducted in 1989 with Gertrude O’Donnell Riska. Her interview is largely a retelling of the time her father, Lewis Grant O’Donnell, had overall responsibility for the Cos Cob Power Plant from 1923 until his retirement in 1940, long before the plant was demolished in 2001.
Gertrude O'Donnell Riska

Much has transpired since last year. This past summer the Cos Cob Park won the 2016 Sustainability ACE Award and the 2016 Environmental ACE Award of Merit from the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers (CSCE). In September, on the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the town hosted a remembrance ceremony at the new 9/11 memorial in the park.
September 11 Memorial, Cos Cob Park
But before these events, on March 18, 2016, just days before the park’s first anniversary, Gertrude O’Donnell Riska died, surrounded by family in her Cos Cob home.
Given these events it is fitting that we turn again to her interview, and the writer responsible for this year’s visit is a new Oral History Project volunteer, Olivia Luntz, a Greenwich High School senior. We are pleased and honored to publish her first blog entry below.

Cos Cob Park Today
Olivia Luntz

Walking through Cos Cob Park today, one could never imagine the huge significance the piece of land once held. When walking on the fields, hearing kids laugh on the playground, or skipping stones into the harbor, one would not think the now peaceful place was once essential for all train movement in New England. A century ago the site of Cos Cob Park held “the world’s first experimental station to use alternating current electrification to run trains.”

The unique location of the site was essential for the power plant, as the area has access to fresh and salt water, as well as access for barges, and proximity to New Haven and New York. Originally the plant supplied power to run trains from Long Island to New Haven and also gave power to feeder branches in Danbury, New Canaan, and White Plains. This huge undertaking occurred in the heart of Cos Cob and was staffed by fewer than 150 men, working around the clock. For the Chief of the Power Plant, Lewis Grant O’Donnell, the responsibility to provide Connecticut trains with power required many sacrifices. His daughter, Gertrude Riska, describes it as “a twenty-four hour job, whether he was there or at home….During emergency calls he would have to go at night.” The power plant opened in 1906 and O’Donnell was there from the start. He was eventually promoted to chief electrical engineer in 1923, a position he held until he retired in 1940, after working for the plant for 34 years.
Lewis Grant O'Donnell

Riska’s descriptions paint a vivid picture of the power plant. It was built four stories down into bedrock, with six-foot thick support pillars, and walls of two-foot thick reinforced concrete, while the floor was four feet thick. The turbine room was five to six stories high, with six to eight turbines the size of a house sitting in a row, and she recalls, “The minute you stepped inside you were engulfed in heat and noise.” The generators between the turbines produced the electricity. If one of the huge wheels inside of one of the turbines ever broke loose, which had happened in other power plants, “it would cut a path of destruction for ten miles…to the other side of Port Chester and destroy everything in its path.”

On a more cheerful note, the plant also housed hidden treasures. For example, on the wall where the workers’ timecards were kept there was a beautiful clock and above the clock was a mural that O’Donnell had painted himself in 1938 after several accidents at the factory. The mural was six feet long and three feet high and depicted a racetrack. It featured cutouts of horses, which were movable from the start line to the finish line. “Each department was represented by a racehorse, and they advanced or retreated according to their careless accidents for the month. Among the horses was a donkey named Carelessness. He represented the lowest score. And the winning department got awards.” The poem above the mural read “Our racehorse Safety who is fast on his feet/Can beat old Carlessness whenever they meet/So give him your support--obey all the rules/By taking no chances when working with tools.” Over the next seven years the competition between all of the departments was so intense that no accidents occurred at the plant. Riska believes that the mural and clock have since been taken to the Smithsonian. She recalls that the Smithsonian also claimed the plant’s switchboard “with its gleaming brass dials and rows and rows of gauges and needles….It was beautiful….Some of those dials dated back to nineteen hundred and they were still working when the plant closed [in 1987].”
Racehorse painting above the clock

Along with caring for his workers’ safety, O’Donnell also fought to keep his workers’ jobs during the Great Depression. When informed that twenty of his men had to be laid off, he was distraught. All of his workers had children and there were no other jobs available. He asked if they would take a cut in pay to keep everyone working, but many who had been working at the plant for years claimed seniority and asked O’Donnell to fire the newer workers. O’Donnell, however, had a different strategy in mind. The next day he re-gathered the workers, and standing at the top of the stairs, he announced, “I have a hat in my hand which contains slips of paper with each man’s name on it…the first twenty names [pulled out] are the men that will be laid off.” As none of the workers wanted to rely on luck, they all agreed to the pay cut and no one was laid off. O’Donnell saw these workers as his family and could not let any of them go.

According to Riska, the most exciting events at the plant were the several times a year when a deep sea diver would go down to clean the flumes. Barnacles growing on the sides of pipes would, over time, block the flow of water to the plant. “The diver sat on an old wooden bench, the huge suit was put on him…then the heavy over boots each weighing fifty pounds. That’s so when he got down to water, he wouldn’t float; he would be upright. Then, lastly, the headpiece and the breastplate….At this point, the tender would start the air flowing, by using this little hand pump. The diver would shuffle—he couldn’t walk because the shoes were too heavy—over about ten feet to the open manhole. And he did look like Frankenstein.” From there, as Riska explained it, he would wave up and disappear into his work. The task of scraping all of the barnacles off took a few days.

Other important events at the plant included the 1938 hurricane, in which the tide rose so quickly and so forcefully that it swept up the flume, short-circuited the plant, and flooded the lower floors. O’Donnell did not leave the plant for a week, until he was able to get the trains running again. Later, during World War Two, the plant was guarded by F.B.I agents, because if the plant were bombed, there would be no train movement in or out of New England. Additionally, an armed guard protected the plant from a shack under the Riverside railroad bridge. His job was to stand, rifle in hand, whenever a train came along.
Power Plant Boiler Room

Outside of the power plant O’Donnell also made a major impact on the Cos Cob community. He was one of the founders of the Cos Cob Fire Department and built the first pumper for the fire patrol. He also drew the plans for the present firehouse and raised the money to build the firehouse. O’Donnell also used the burned coal residue from the plant to fill in a swamp in Cos Cob, which is now part of the Cos Cob School playground, and created a mini-park beside the Cos Cob firehouse. “My father had established many flower beds where beautiful giant flowers thrived in a mixture of fly ash and soil. The paths were neat and edged with whitewashed stones. At Christmas time there were at least ten Christmas trees, ablaze with colored lights, a lovely sight for the people to see from the trains.”

O’Donnell retired as chief electrical engineer in 1940 and the power station was decommissioned in 1987. Although the plant was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, it was demolished in 2001, after a local and national debate. If you ever find yourself in Cos Cob Park today remember that what is now a beautiful place for children to play was once capable of powering trains across New England. More importantly, however, remember Lewis Grant O’Donnell and the lessons that we could learn from his life, such as his dedication to his job and community and his commitment to the wellbeing and safety of all of those around him.

Gertrude O’Donnell’s interview, “Chief of the Power Plant,” 1992, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.
The Power Plant at Mid-Century

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sue Hout Baker: Teacher, Conservationist, Preservationist

In June our thoughts naturally turn to summer, and in Greenwich they often turn to the beach and Tod’s Point where today we can enjoy sun and sea and the loving restoration of the buildings nearby, the Innis Arden Cottage and the historic old barn, dedicated recently as the Sue H. Baker Pavilion, in honor of Sue Baker, retired Greenwich High School teacher and active preservationist who has been instrumental in the restoration work at Tod’s Point from start to finish.

In March 2011, Greenwich Oral History Project interviewer, Richard M. Blair interviewed Sue Hout Baker just two months before the official opening of the Cottage.

Sue Baker’s history with the Innis Arden Cottage goes back to her earliest teaching days at Greenwich High School. Having taught in the area since the 70s, by 1980 she had secured a position as a marine biology teacher at the high school and, as she says, became “joined at the hip” with Dan Barrett, the highly regarded science teacher and founder of the school’s oceanography program. Because of its enormous success, over time, the program was integrated into the curriculum and became a two-semester course, both of which entailed fieldwork. The old Queen Anne building, now the Innis Arden Cottage, at Greenwich Point was appropriated for lab work, and it was at that time in a state of disrepair.

Sue remembers that “great chunks of plaster were falling off the upstairs ceilings, the second-floor ceilings and walls, and the roof damage was so severe that water was just running down to the ground-floor walls, and all those were mildewing and falling apart. It was a beautiful building. Those of us that ever were inside could see architecturally how interesting it was.”

Sue never forgot her time there and her regard for the historic building. In 2004 Sue and others concerned with the state of the building founded the Greenwich Point Conservancy in hopes of saving the building that, as fate would have it, had been put on the docket for demolition. The preservationists set out immediately to raise funds to save the old Queen Anne Building of Greenwich Point.

In her interview, Sue shares the history:

“…this Cottage was built right at the periphery of the property for a member of the family. His [the owner, J. Kennedy Tod’s] sister-in-law had become a young widow with three children....[It] was built for her and her young daughters to occupy and to be close, because she had lost her husband, a very young man, and she was, I think, forty, with three young daughters, or maybe not even forty, and that’s when it was built, and she occupied it. Then when she moved on in her life and remarried, that became a dedicated R&R summer resort for the nurses.”

The nurses were from Presbyterian Hospital of New York City. Sue’s account continues, with the history of the nurses:

“…there was one that was very famous. Her name was Anna Maxwell, who is kind of the Florence Nightingale of the United States with Clara Barton, you know, started the whole concept of nursing as such a career, with so much special education, special training, and military adjunct, military army nurses.
So it has a very rich history, in those summers—and most of those were maiden ladies. I mean, the ones that showed up, most of the nurses were maiden ladies with no place to go to escape the heat of New York City, and so when they had their two weeks or maybe even more vacation, they came out to the shore at Greenwich and were the guests of J. Kennedy Tod and his wife.”

Sue and the Greenwich Point preservationists were able to save the building from the bulldozers.

The restoration incorporated the best materials, “roofing, shingles, cedar shake.” The project restored the building to its original condition. The preservationists did their research and according to Sue, “tons” of it.

Today the new building, renamed the Innis Arden Cottage is “totally green,” a LEED certified building providing education and resources to the entire community. The Bruce Museum operates the Seaside Museum there. The Cottage provides space for the Shellfish Commission and for other civic organizations.

Through her work with the Conservation Commission, the Shellfish Commission, the Greenwich Point Conservancy, and other organizations, Sue has never truly left her role as an educator behind. She continues to teach and to guide her community into the future.

She ends her interview with this quote from Baba Dioum, a Senegalese ecologist, a quote she used to teach her students at Greenwich High School:

“In the end we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

The Greenwich Oral History Project interview, “Sue Hout Baker: Teacher, Conservationist, Preservationist,” March 2011, can be found in the reference area on the first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the library.