Understanding the Sense of Place

By Geary Danihy
Fairfield Citizen-News aug. 31, 2007

Rita Papazian hasn't lived in Fairfield for several years, but the town still holds a special place in her heart.

That's why, when Pat Hines, the editor of the Fairfield Citizen~News, passed along an e-mail from The History Press seeking book proposals from writers, Papazian immediately thought of Fairfield its history, its style, and the people who have lived in the town and made it what it is.

Papazian put together a proposal for a book about Fairfield and sent it along to the editors at The History Press, and almost before she could catch her breath, the publisher gave her a go-ahead. The result is Remembering Fairfield, which has just hit the local bookstores.

"I know Fairfield very well," Papazian said in a recent interview at the offices of the Citizen~News. "I moved here in 1971 and I raised my three children here, and over the years, as a reporter, I did a lot of stories on the history of the town."

She had also written articles for a commemorative magazine about the founding of Fairfield that was published in 1989, so with old tearsheets and the magazine in hand, and the publisher willing to accept a certain amount of pre-published work in the book, Papazian was confident she had sufficient material to at least make a start.

"I wasn't really surprised that I got the go-ahead," said Papazian, a regular contributor to the Fairfield Citizen~News. "I just have this great love for the town and I think that came out in the proposal."

There have been several books written about the history of Fairfield, but Papazian believes her book is unique. It is, she readily admits, not comprehensive, and she doesn't claim that it contains new material, but it is the book's format, and perhaps the ardor with which it was written, that she believes makes it stand out.

The soft-cover book is a slim 127 pages, but within its pages, Papazian believes she has captured the essence of Fairfield, not only its history and style but also what makes the town unique, or at least what makes her love it so.

"The book serves a lot of purposes," Papazian said. "It can be used to introduce the town to people thinking about moving here, or as a reference for people who are already living here who just don't know the town's history. It can also be used as a tour guide a self-guided tour -- because it has a section on places of interest, and teachers can use it as the basis for a class on local history. It has a section on legends and lore stories people may not know about."

The book briefly chronicles Gustave Whitehead's assault on manned flight did he, in fact, actually lift off the ground in the Tunxis Hill area of Fairfield before the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk? Then there is Caleb Brewster, a whaleboat captain who became an integral part of the Culper Spy Ring, one of Gen. George Washington's spy networks during the Revolutionary War, and Mary Fisk Stillman, who lived with her husband, Gold Selleck, in a house that still stands on Jennings Road. Their house was assaulted by Tory firebrands in 1779 and Gold Selleck was kidnapped, an event that was quickly followed by the torching of Fairfield by the British on July 7 of the same year.

As Papazian spoke about the book, one got the sense that economic gain was not high on the list of reasons for its creation. She has a strong sense of what Fairfield as a town, as a place to live, as a place to create has been and what it might be in danger of losing.

"I wrote this book," Papazian said, "as a kind of reminder I don't mean to be preachy but as a reminder well, you see what's going on in this town with the building of MacMansions and I guess one of the book's themes is an understanding of a sense of place."

Over the years, Papazian has written articles about people who have found Fairfield a sanctuary that allowed them to muse, to ponder and to create the authors Anatole Broyard, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark, composer Richard Rodgers, and conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and she posits the idea that the town, its quiddity, not only gave shelter to these people but actually fed their creative process. She worries that this might be changing.

"The new generation," Papazian said, "the young families, they don't know about all of this."

Papazian praised the publisher for the design of the book, including the choice of the cover shot of Greenfield Hill and the dogwoods, but quickly came back to her idea of a sense of place and the fear that new arrivals to the town do not have a sense of where they are residing or the history that might lie heavy on a now nondescript street, lane or corner.

"There's been a lot of changes in the town," Papazian said. "There's been a lot of tear-downs, specifically in the beach area. When we moved here my children were six, four and one we wanted a neighborhood where our children could walk to everything. We wanted a very traditional neighborhood."

That traditional neighborhood, as Papazian perceives it, has started to change, and she is not happy about it.

"If you drive around the beach area now," she said, "they're demolishing the old homes, the ranches and central-hall colonials. They're changing the landscape and the architectural feel of the area. It doesn't have the 'look' that it once did. You drive down the road and all of a sudden there's this four-story home, very modern. It just looms. They had to take down the trees to build these houses."

What Papazian bemoans is the cri de coeur of many preservationists; it is the 18th century staring into the eyes of the 21st, with the question of which will blink and give way Gen. Washington versus washing machines; carriages versus Camrys; the accretion of history versus the accumulation and display of wealth.

"I want people to be aware of the town's history," Papazian said. "When you drive or walk down Beach Road, be aware that the British marched up this road and they burned the town; be aware that people died in houses along this road; be aware that the colonists were able to save this town and build from the ashes. It's a sense of appreciation and respect."

An understanding of the spirit and sense of place that's what Papazian hopes she has captured in her book. She is not a wild-eyed reformer nor is she someone who wishes to hug every tree and rock merely because they are within the confines of Fairfield, but she has a deep sense of what the town of Fairfield means to her and, she hopes, what it means, or should mean, to its residents, whether old or new.

"I hope the book makes us respect and appreciate what Fairfield is on many different levels," she said. "Perhaps it will also make us want to contribute to the town in our own way, to make the town a little better, to make our lives a little better and to share a sense of place with our children."

Papazian will be participating in a reading and book signing at the Westport Barnes & Noble on September 6 at 7 p.m., and at Borders in Fairfield on September 15 at 7 p.m. She will also be giving a reading at the Fairfield Public Library on Oct. 13 at 3 p.m.