Former Best Buy store in Enfield on July 19, 2021. (Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie)
The Best Buy in Enfield closed early in the pandemic in 2020. (CTNewsJunkie photo)
SUSAN BIGELOW

My town’s thinking of banning marijuana sales, now that the legislature has finally gone and legalized it, and all I could do when I found out was just put my head in my hands and groan.

This town. This frustrating, beautiful, infuriating, charming town. I’ve lived here for 21 years and there are plenty of days when it feels like the place hasn’t changed at all. There’s a reason for that: Enfield is in stasis on purpose. 

In 1970, Enfield was named an All-America City. And why not? The coming of the interstate, the building of shopping malls and the transformation of the town’s farms and fields into sprawling suburban neighborhoods had created a place that was bursting at the seams with growth and possibility. 

Enfield’s growth had followed a pattern similar to many Connecticut towns: first the slow but fairly steady growth of a small farming community; then more rapid growth from industrial mill villages in Hazardville and Thompsonville up through World War II; then a sharp jump upward from suburbanization in the postwar decades. Enfield’s population tripled from 15,000 in 1950 to 45,000 in 1970, an absolutely astounding rate of growth.

From the urban core in Thompsonville, to the new suburban neighborhoods in Southwood Acres, to the charming village of Hazardville, to the rolling acres of farmland and forest near the border with Somers, Enfield seemed to have everything. Citizens looked forward to a bright future. By the year 2000, “Enfield will finally be recognized as a city that does contribute significantly to Connecticut’s economy,” a resident quoted in the 1977 book, “Enfield: The Challenge of Change,” edited by Ruth Bridge, said. 

And then, in 1971, the carpet mill that had been the heart of Thompsonville for a century and a half shut down. As the town grappled with what to do, plans for “urban renewal” in the old downtown picked up steam. 

Urban renewal was a phrase that came into vogue in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it was often used to describe massive projects that would bulldoze “slum” neighborhoods, where poor and minority residents lived, in order to build new, “modern” buildings and highways. Constitution Plaza in Hartford and the Elm Street Connector in New Haven are two of Connecticut’s most notorious examples. The federal government was eager to fund these projects, no matter how destructive they were. 

Enfield was left with a downtown that contained abandoned and dilapidated buildings, as well as all of the problems of a deindustrialized urban center: poverty, drugs, unemployment, and crime. But instead of tackling those problems in a productive way, Enfield, the All-America City, opted to flatten them.

A vast area around Freshwater Pond was marked for “renewal.” Hundreds of families were moved out of their homes. Streets were wiped off the map. Buildings came down by the dozens. What had been a decaying but intact urban neighborhood fell to the wrecking ball. Shops and homes opposite the abandoned factory on Main Street were torn down.

And what replaced everything that had been destroyed? In most cases, nothing.

No, really. The town did put up a grim 1970s housing complex on the east side of the pond, but for the most part they just … didn’t rebuild. Thompsonville was rendered unrecognizable. The only way I can tell what I’m looking at in old photos is the pattern of the streets; and even those have changed.

What about that breakneck suburban growth? That, too, was stopped. In 1966, fearing runaway growth that alarmed planners thought could bring the town’s population to 150,000 (!), Enfield adopted stricter zoning rules that would curb growth.

Which is too bad, because small, inexpensive but well-built homes are very attractive. I should know, I’m sitting in one. My neighborhood, Southwood Acres, was built in the 1950s, and is full of smaller ranch houses and capes on relatively small plots of land. By the 1970s, a neighborhood like this was impossible to build in Enfield.

Enfield’s Thompsonville section, annotated in red, in both 1952 and 2021, with Main Street marked in green. (Sources: UConn.edu aerial map collection and Google Maps)

The shock of deindustrialization, the disaster of urban renewal and anti-growth zoning changes drove Enfield’s population down. It’s recovered a little since, but by and large it’s hovered between 40,000 and 45,000 for fifty years. Enfield’s government, sad to say, seems happy to stay this way.

What does this have to do with marijuana shops? Well, there’s a reflexive conservatism that runs through town councils and planning boards in many Connecticut towns, born from a desperate need to not upset the apple cart. Freaking out about cannabis, which denies the town a very obvious source of revenue, is a symptom of this.

If Enfield wants growth, it can happen. Let’s redevelop the dying Enfield Square mall into an actual mixed-use town square, full of culture and life. Let’s build new apartment buildings in Thompsonville near the rebuilt train station. Let’s loosen zoning regulations and let smaller houses be built again!

And for goodness sake, let’s be less picky about the businesses we let into town.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.