Enfield Looks to Reinvent Neighborhood with New Train Station

May 26, 2011

Earlier this month, Connecticut received $30 million for the New Haven to Springfield rail project from the federal government. As the money starts to trickle in, WNPR is checking in with a few towns along the line to see how they're preparing. The next stop is Enfield, where one neighborhood hopes the momentum of the train will help turn around the city's fractured reputation.

A lot of urban planners in Connecticut have this phrase: "good bones." That's what Enfield's Community Development Director Peter Bryanton uses often to describe Thompsonville, a one-square mile village in the city. It's here, in an area near the Connecticut River, where the city hope to build a transit center for the incoming New Haven to Springfield rail line.

As he drives down a narrow road abutted by overgrown trees and the train tracks, Bryanton points out two houses. One is boarded up; the other looks occupied. Both are hardly 15 feet from the tracks. "I'll tell ya, you see these houses here how close they are to the tracks? When that train comes by, you know it. Because it's buzzing through here at about 50 miles an hour," he says.

That train hasn't stopped here for over 30 years. Thompsonville grew up around carpet milling over 180 years ago. Hundreds of multi-family homes were built for factory workers and by the twentieth century, the village was the bustling center of Enfield. But the mill closed in 1971, and a failed urban renewal project soon followed. Historic structures were torn down and many families retreated to the suburbs.

Today, Thompsonville is one of the densest rental communities in the state. But with all those transient renters came a bad reputation. "You still come across people who have a specific idea about the people that live in Thompsonville," says Carrie Marek, chair of the advocacy group Voices For Thompsonville. "The idea is that they are drug addicts, they are on Section 8, the landlords don't care and the buildings are in disrepair," she says. "And it's unsafe, there are gang activities down there and people are shooting and raping and pillaging. That is the idea."

But Marek says that's just not true. Her group has been trying to fix that reputation for the last three years. She thinks the transit center could be the golden ticket to coax people back. "Thompsonville is such a diamond in the rough, if you will," she says. "And this will give it the shine and the attention that it needs."

But Enfield doesn't have much experience with transit. There is occasional bus service to and from Hartford each day, but otherwise people rely mostly on their cars. In the next few months, the city hopes to implement a circulator bus service around town. But like commuter rail, it will be an experiment.

The station site itself also has a long way to go. Right now there's a boarded-up, turn of the century mill building that they'll try to preserve. And the parcel also needs to be cleaned up -- there's still an old power plant and it's been a dumping ground for construction projects. Bryanton, the development director, says it will need some work. "It's not a very nice site, but it could be very nice and it could also provide the community some access to the river which we don't have right now," Bryanton says.

And there's another problem. Connecticut's Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) only identified the spot as a good place to build a station -- but it doesn't have money to put one there. At least not yet. All of the federal funds received thus far for the New Haven to Springfield project can't be used to install new stations.

Bryanton says they're hesitant to move ahead with the bus portion of the transit center if the train part isn't certain yet. Going forward, the state and city will have to coordinate on more than just funding -- including things like building design and parking spaces. "We have decided as a town, we don’t want the state to come in here and dictate how the station's gonna look," Bryanton says. "There was a plan that had 250 spaces right along the river and we said that's just, that's not gonna happen."

A ConnDot spokesman says it will continue to work with Enfield on  plans for the Thompsonville station. The department is currently finishing an environmental assessment of the site; some observers hope it's a sign the train will finally stop buzzing by.