A fire starts with just a spark.
Such was the case in 1781 when New London, Connecticut, burned to the ground. It had all the makings of a movie: a traitor (Benedict Arnold), leading a raid, set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War.
While that fire destroyed nearly all of the town, it didn’t snuff out the spirit here. You see, New London is a bit like a Phoenix.
You know the story, right? The Greek mythological phoenix that emerges from the ashes. That’s New London.
They’ve had their fair share of fires over the years: flames that took buildings and flames that seared spirits.
But these days, this New England city is forging a resurgence.
And what’s so interesting about this very storied city, is how its leaders and businesses are sculpting their renaissance. They are putting people first. Their people. They are honoring their history and setting their sights on the future. And because of that, New London is reinventing itself. It is emerging from the ashes once again: stronger, smarter, and ready to fly.
“Our history sets us apart,” explains New London Mayor, Michael Passero. “We are a seaport town. We are very diverse. We’ve been diverse for our whole history because of the nature of the city as a seaport town… A lot of people end up staying and settling here. So while we’re a small city, we’re an incredibly diverse city.”
“We’re known for our black history,” Mayor Passero says. New London honors that black history that goes back to the beginnings of the city in the 17th century. The city’s Black History Trail celebrates significant people and events. For example, the famed Amistad, a slave ship overtaken by the slaves aboard, was taken to New London after authorities discovered the ship off Long Island. Connecticut abolitionists paid to defend the slaves in court, and they were eventually freed.
“We celebrate our history going back much further than even that for thousands of years,” Passero continues. “We have a great relationship with the indigenous people who are still here. We are more and more recognizing the obligation that we have to the descendants of the tribes that populated New London before the colonies.” One of the biggest industries in the region is casino gaming and the A-list entertainment provided at the area’s two casinos run by the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes. While not in New London, Passero states that it’s a big part of the economy there.
“New London is the employment hub, the social services hub, and the healthcare hub of the region,” says Passero. “We’re the capital of southeastern Connecticut.” New London has 28,000 people, but the larger metropolitan area that they service has closer to 300,000 people.
Passero is quick to acknowledge– and deeply praise– the art scene in New London. “Arts and culture are big for New London,” Passero believes. “It kept the city alive during the dark years… When the downtown sort of fell out of favor, the artists and musicians kept the place going.” Sprinkled among the many smaller art galleries are two major institutions: The Garde Arts Center is a 1920s style-fully restored movie house. Last year, it received the 2022 Outstanding Historic Theatre Award from the League of Historic American Theatres. It also serves as the home for the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.
Hygienic Art is perhaps the backbone of the art world here. This non-profit group hosts events and shows throughout town and in their galleries. “The Hygienic movement energized the arts community. They adopted New London. And it’s been part of our identity ever since,” claims Passero.
Water, Water Everywhere
Water puts out fires. And in New London, water has been their savior more times than one can count. In the 19th century, New London was the second largest whaling port in the world. Their economy was steeped in whaling: the oil from the sperm whale was like gold. Everything revolved around the boats and crewmen: building ships, sewing sails, preparing provisions. But the success– and the money that came with it– was short lived. New machines made the coveted oil less desirable.
The blue economy, though, was here to stay.
New London’s deep water port is at the mouth of the Thames River. Over the years, that port served as a transportation hub. A state pier was built. The United States Coast Guard Academy took up residence. General Dynamics Electric Boat set up shop here to build submarines for the US Navy. Thames Shipyard services commercial boats and has a fleet of tugs at the ready. Cross Sound Ferry provides service to Long Island, NY, and Block Island, RI.
Beachgoers can enjoy the beauty of the water, too, at Ocean Beach Park. “It’s one of the biggest beaches in the state,” Passero boasts. “It’s actually been declared as one of the most beautiful beaches in the country.” In the summer, the beach sees 20,000 visitors on an average weekend.
That same water– full of history and industry– is the source of growth yet again.
New London is on the cusp of being the launchpoint for offshore wind energy. The State Pier is being transformed into the new base for offshore wind power and other marine innovation on the East Coast. In the very near future, it’s going to be the assembly and shipping point for offshore wind turbines installed along the Outer Continental Shelf. Passero explains: “Developers of three wind farms have already committed to shipping well over 100 turbines from New London starting this year.”
In addition, the US Coast Guard is currently building a $150 million museum on the waterfront, right in the heart of downtown New London. “That will be a huge tourist draw,” Passero states. “We’re going to have, for the first time, a major tourist attraction.” Opening for the museum (the first one for the US Coast Guard), is slated for the end of 2024.
At one point, New London was the wealthiest city in the state of Connecticut. “It didn’t last long,” Passero laughs. “But while it did, there was whale oil that brought in a lot of money and made people rich.” Much of the downtown is a reflection of that era. “The buildings and architecture are beautiful. And a lot of them right now are getting renovated and repurposed,” he adds. The upper floors are turning into residential housing, replacing former empty office spaces; the first floors are opening up new shops.
“We already have a thriving restaurant economy downtown,” continues Passero. “We are very optimistic that our downtown will be the new center for our brick and mortar businesses. There are some great projects. We’re looking forward to having a brew pub by next summer, along with a vinyl record store. Things are looking up.”
Some of that new development is happening on the Fort Trumbull Peninsula (a hotly contested piece of property that created a firestorm in and of itself 20 years ago). After portions of it sat vacant for decades, it’s finally being developed.
Bringing people together is a surefire way to build community. And New London has been slowly working on this goal.
The city is breaking ground this month on a long-awaited Community Center. The YMCA closed up shop and moved out of New London during the 1980s. “Since then,” Passero says, “the people in New London really had no indoor recreational opportunities… the dream has always been to replace that lost YMCA.” That dream is coming to fruition in the form of a 60,000-square-foot, $40 million new building, run by the city. It features an 8-lane competition swimming pool, 2 basketball courts, fitness rooms, and meeting rooms. “It’s going to be a very nice amenity for the city. Everybody’s been waiting quite awhile for that,” reflects Passero. The Community Center is slated to open at the end of 2024.
The Docks, a 137-unit complex with harbor views, opened in 2021. “That project is on a parcel of land that was cleared in the late 1960s for urban renewal. It sat vacant for something like 40 years,” Passero says.
That development launched a housing boom. “We’ve got so many projects right now in the pipeline,” Passero gushes. “We have easily 1,000 to 1,500 units that are either under construction, completed, or in the planning stages.”
The city is also finally filling in a blighted hole that’s been downtown for decades. In the 1980s, fire struck again. It burned one of the buildings, leaving a narrow, empty space. In a row of buildings, the lot stood out. “We refer to it as the missing tooth,” continues Passero. “It’s been vacant for 40 years.” That tooth is finally getting a crown: “It’s under construction,” Passero reveals. “We have a five-story building – it’s a unique and modern building method that makes it actually possible to fill that space.” It will provide more much-needed housing in the form of 20 new units.
For the last 10 years, New London has been renovating its sidewalks. “We have hundreds of miles of sidewalk. You can walk anywhere in this city,” Passero attests. “We are a bikeable city. We have bike lanes. New London is an attractive place for a lot of people. They want to live here because they want to get away from their automobile. You don’t need one in New London. We also have a bus that circulates just inside the city that works just like Uber.”
Because of its affiliation with both the US Coast Guard and the US Navy, Passero explains that “lots of military people end up retiring here… between seeing the historic sites, taking in the arts, culture, and music scene… there’s a lot to occupy you in the city.”
The downtown just gained an infusion of more youth, too. Connecticut College partnered with a developer who turned one of the larger older buildings into a dorm. Passero loves this. “It brings some of their upperclassmen to live in the heart of the downtown,” he shares. “Which of course, brings a lot of new life.”
It’s that new life that’s redefining New London as a cultural, innovative haven.
If you listen closely, you can hear it. It’s the sound of resurgence. It’s the sound of community.
It’s the sound of wings.