Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sound View -- The Way I Remember It

Photos via Digital Commonwealth 
from Boston Public Library, Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection 
Terms of Use (as appended to each item): 
No known copyright restrictions. No known restrictions on use.
Note: These Postcards are slightly before my time
 A Little Background

Here in Connecticut we have beaches; our shoreline on Long Island Sound is mostly privately owned with only a few state owned public access beaches. 

In Connecticut, a line of state Supreme Court cases dating back to the earliest days of the State confirms that private property generally ends at the mean high water line (the line on the shore established by the average of all high tides) and that the state holds title as trustee to the lands waterward of mean high water, for the use and benefit of the public. … A waterfront owner may not exclude the public from lawful uses of the public trust area, just as an upland owner cannot exclude the public from driving or walking on the street in front of his or her house. (Connecticut Department of Energy and environmental Protection – Connecticut’s Shore – The People’s Resource)

However, getting to that strip of “public beach” can be a challenge. Back in the sixties a community organization out of Hartford held protests to open the shoreline to the public and sometimes “invaded” private beaches to make their point. The problem was and is that no one can get to that public area without trespassing through private property or coming in by boat. Though the protests forced property owners to make some accommodations to the public, most individual property owners and beach associations still found ways to completely restrict access to the shoreline through physical barriers, lack of parking or exorbitant parking fees, resident only restrictions and subtle or overt intimidation.

With that sketchy background, I offer my impressions of being at the beach back when I was growing up. They may not be accurate in a historical sense, but they are my memories of many summers compressed into one composite snapshot, a collage of sorts:
For those of us not fortunate enough to own beachfront property, visits to the beach were limited to either the few state beaches or to private beaches where one might rent a cottage.

No one in our family owned beach property until one of my uncles bought a place in Westbrook. He had a large family of his own, children and grandchildren so the cottage was fully occupied all summer. The rest of us – extended family including my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins – were infrequent guests there.

We did, however often spend a week or more at some cottage we rented at a private beach, a family or two going in together to rent a place or my brother and I being invited guests of an aunt and uncle or cousin. It was usually a different house or beach each year, but Sound View Beach in Old Lyme stands out because we rented cottages there or near there several times.
Once some relatives rented a large house on Swan Avenue at Sound View that accommodated several families. I think there were 15 or 20 of us: cousins and aunts an uncle or two, all on my mother’s side. Most of the uncles stayed home to work, of course.

Private beaches in Connecticut back then more than now, seemed to reflect the demographics of the cities where we grew up and like the various Catholic parishes and Protestant and Jewish communities, the beaches were more or less segregated by ethnicity.

The WASPs, I’m sure, held the properties in places like Greenwich and Madison and Old Saybrook where Katherine Hepburn lived and where we would visit the marina to see, as aunt Mary quipped, “how the other half lived.”
Other ethnic groups had clusters of cottages in various shoreline towns where the more affluent families among them had purchased properties, which they would then rent to relatives and friends for a week or two at a time. The practice ensured that each of these well-established enclaves retained an ethnic characteristic charm or ambiance.

Sound View beach was inhabited primarily by families of Italian descent and because Sound View was one of the few beaches that had a business zone with bars and eating establishments, amusements and sundries, the ethnic flavor was enhanced, primarily by the food being offered for sale at little shops and outdoor restaurants: fried dough and calzones, grinders and gelati, Sicilian pizza, cannoli, pasticciotti and Italian bread at the bakery which was run by an old Italian couple - they were in their eighties for at least twenty years that I knew of. Across the street we would buy fresh doughnuts from the doughnut shop  that was open only on Sunday mornings and you had to get there early, before they ran out.

Sound View was the only beach that I knew of that had this kind of a very, very, little, Little Italy –where there was actually a nightlife and where people strolled down the main street, Hartford Avenue, after dark taking in the night air or trying to find a wayward son at one of the many arcades that line the street.
The El Morocco is the Stone Building
With Yellow Awnings Over Arched Windows on the Left
It also had at least three bars or nightclubs, a sleazy hotel called the Branmore and rumors of call girls. I was fascinated by one of the nightclubs because of its somewhat exotic architecture: a stone and mortar building with arched windows and a big sign “EL MOROCCO” spanning the length of the building. In my young adult years, when it was closed and run down, I thought I should buy it and turn it into a great Italian restaurant. As far as I know, it remains empty to this day as the whole business district is practically a ghost town.

The beach community back then had a seemingly decadent, earthy atmosphere. It also had its own summer "seasonal" Catholic church. Which made perfect sense.
The Sound View beach itself was no more than six or seven hundred feet at most – the little village, about three or four neighborhood blocks wide and maybe a quarter mile in length from the state road to the high water mark. The Sound View village, and I use the term loosely, was flanked by two other beach associations, both of which were entirely residential.
To the west is Miami Beach – a name I always thought pretentious, and the residents there were also mostly Italian-Americans back then. In contrast to their neighbors, they wanted privacy, peace and quiet, and mostly looked down on the more gritty Sound Viewers. The Miami folks frequented the businesses on Hartford Avenue for recreation and commerce nonetheless, while at the same time gating their streets to prevent any deliberate or accidental crossover in the other direction.

Further west was Hawk’s Nest, another private beach association whose residents also came over to Sound View for the amusements and food.
To the East of Sound View was Old Colony beach, a community of cottage owners who were mostly of Jewish ethnicity and who, although they also frequented Sound View for the food and fun, pretty much kept their beach even more private than the Miamians. We almost never strolled down their streets but we did cross over to their beach.

The cottages we rented back then were no palaces. They came with old pots and pans, mismatched dishes and assorted utensils, forks, spoons and knives, lumpy beds, old living room furniture, unusual lamps, a stack of board games for rainy days, a stove, and a broom. There was running water, a bathroom and usually an outdoor shower stall. I think renters had to bring bed sheets and towels.

Our families packed as if for a cross-country caravan: food for a week that included the mandatory meatballs in tomato sauce (no, we NEVER called it “gravy”), towels and clothes, beach blankets and inner tubes, beach umbrellas and coolers. Beer, wine and booze were way down the list, if they even made it at all. Ours was not a drinking family. Ours was an eating family.

I loved being at the beach. There were very few chores and they were shared by so many that even the chores were fun. Washing and drying the dishes, taking out the garbage, hanging towels on the clothesline, sweeping the sand out of the cottage a couple of times a day. There wasn’t much else involved as aunts did all the cooking unless we kids took charge of the outdoor grill. I once witnessed a seagull swoop down and snatch a full chicken leg and thigh off a hot barbeque grill, fly up to the cottage roof and proceed to swallow the whole thing in a gulp.

Despite the beach rules (PROHIBITED: Littering - Alcoholic beverages – Pets - Motorized vehicles - Glass containers - Ball playing - Open fires / grills - Watercraft tied to any buoy line – Fireworks - Loitering - Camping, sleeping on beach after dark - All containers may be subject to inspection - No lifeguard on duty - swim at your own risk - Beach open sunrise to sunset) we managed to have fun. During the day we played in the water, swam, built sand castles, floated in our inner tubes and invented games involving water, seaweed and sand.

After dinner we would “go for a walk down the avenue” to check out the arcades but rarely were we permitted by our elders to actually go inside where the pinball machines clinked and chimed temptingly and where all manner of delinquency was apparently taking place.
We’d go instead to the Carousel – we called it the Merry-Go-Round – and we would ride around until we ran out of money or got tired of it. I was too chicken to reach for the brass ring for fear I’d fall off my horse. We’d end up at Vecchito’s Italian Ice, where the grouchy proprietors begrudgingly sold us lemon ice. We called it lemon ice no matter what flavor: “Can I have a root beer lemon ice, please?”

I found crossing the lines between the beaches interesting. If you were renting a cottage, you were expected to stay on your respective beach: Miami, Sound View or Old Colony – at least that was where your blanket and stuff would be located. There were definite lines of demarcation.

However if you were walking or swimming you could cross the lines with impunity and “visit” the neighboring beach. If you wanted to swim out to The Rock, a large granite attraction for kids between the ages of ten and sixteen, about a hundred feet off shore, it was much easier to go over to Old Colony and swim perpendicular to the shore rather than swim the longer diagonal distance from Sound View.

Miami beach had nothing like The Rock or anything else of much interest, so while we might walk over there once in a while, we would regularly cross over to Old Colony to swim to The Rock.

The contrast was what always struck me. On the Sound View beach, people were sprawled out on blankets, there was sand on the blankets, on the towels, inside kids swim suits. The young women and girls were slathered up with baby oil desperately trying to out darken one another. The kids were wet and kicking sand every which way and everyone was eating something: sandwiches, cookies, chips, fruit, ice cream. Mothers were clad in last year’s one-piece swimsuit, or more likely one purchased the year before or the year before that or when they were still single. They were all talking and wiping melted ice cream from their kids’ mouths while attempting to read some Harlequin romance. Jewelry among the Sound View women consisted of simple gold crosses on delicate chains, tiny engagement rings and generic gold wedding bands.

On Mondays the hairdressers in bikinis and wearing heavy gold chains with Sicilian Cornuti (horns) would occupy a section of sand in front of the Pavilion, a bar. That was back when there were still male hairdressers and even gay men were bold enough to wear bikinis. Other, macho young men in cut-offs who were going in and out of the bar, as well as their girlfriends, were all a bit rough and casual.

A fence and the rope that ran across the sand and out to a buoy in the water marked the boundary between Sound View and Old Colony. The water and the sand were identical but the contrast in the beachgoers on the two pieces of real estate was stark.
On Old Colony beach, women’s skin was several shades lighter than the Italians at Sound View. They wore fashionable, flashy, colorful swimwear, even if the fashions did not flatter their somewhat plump and fleshy bodies. Strings of large pearls or heavy costume jewelry hung around their necks, flashy earrings hung like fishing lures from their earlobes, and gaudy rings adorned more than a few fingers. They sat under large beach umbrellas, in beach chairs, often around a small table, playing rummy or some other card game while their children played neatly along the shore.

The older teenage boys over at Old Colony all looked bored, maybe because their girlfriends were too concerned about their hairdos to actually get wet. The younger kids would tease their brothers and sisters, swim out to the rock and generally behave a bit more like the kids across the border. Crossing over, it seemed to me like a foreign country.

After The Rock, I was always glad to get back to my beach.

The beach makes me happy. It always has.

6 comments:

Russ Manley said...

Good memories of a real place, gritty and honest, not the plasticized, artificial, and franchised fun we have now.

Stan said...

It's a lot like that here in New Jersey too when it comes to beach segregation. There are miles and miles of wealthy communities that have private beaches that you can't access. And what's left are public beaches in towns that you have to PAY to get on. The further south you go there is free access but you have to drive over an hour to get there. Such a rip off.

Mitchell is Moving said...

I love your stroll down memory lane. I've always found those public beaches with no access angering. Homeowners along the Southern California coast regularly try to stop the public from swimming in "their" private ocean.

But, the beach has always made me happy, too.

J. Alfred said...

As an Italian growing up in the New Britain of the 50's, I was shocked to learn that there existed beaches OTHER than Sound View. I wish my memories were as vivid as yours, but by the time I was eight my parents had found another beach in Westbrook (and a cottage Hurricane Carol subsequently blew across the street) and my days at Sound View came to an end. Probably just as well—I can see the opportunities to get into all sorts of trouble there. Thanks though—it was nice to go back there for a few minutes. Great postcards too.

C. Glines said...

I grew up at Old Colony Beach. My first visit I was 6 weeks old. Extended family had cottages right on the beach. All us kids would have a blast. When I got older The Ocean Spray was a place I visited way too much but it was fun. My cousins still have the cottages at Old Colony. Very good memories.

tuffigirl said...

I grew up in Wethersfield... we used to rent cottages at Old Colony and Hawk's Nest, but my best friend went back and forth between her mom in town and her dad, who owned a house at Sound View on Portland Ave and that's where all the fun was. I couldn't wait till school was over to go spend the summer there.. I don't know how many hours I wasted sitting my butt on the big window sill at the arcade waiting for the crowd to make our nightly plans. My teenage years were in the 70's and 80's... I can still here Bad Company coming out of the jukebox. :) I know this post is 2 years old but I am so glad I found it!

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