So You Want to Live in ... Old Saybrook, Connecticut

A classic American Main Street and water everywhere, it's the kind of town you thought didn't exist anymore.

Old Saybrook,Connecticut
Photo: Carol Lundeen

"There's a sandbar right where the Connecticut River enters Long Island Sound," says Mike Urban, who lives in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. "A lot of us consider that sandbar a blessing. It prevented Old Saybrook from ever developing into a major seaport."

What developed instead was a tidy coastal New England town, where Main Street still has real stores, not just boutiques, and stately old hardwoods canopy the quieter avenues that meander down toward the sound.

Instead of attracting clipper ships and dockside warehouses, Old Saybrook draws such transplants as Mike, an executive editor at The Taunton Press in Newtown. Other commuters take advantage of great rail connections up and down the state's coast. Corporate offices in Hartford and New Haven are less than an hour away. Says local real estate agent Greg Young, "We even have a few New York commuters. The city is just two hours away by train."

That two hours must seem like a century and a half on Wednesday evenings in summer, when bands serenade Old Saybrook's town green. The concerts aren't simply an attempt to put a Rockwellian patina on a modern exurban town; instead, they exemplify civic spirit in a community that claims origins as a Dutch fur-trading post.

"Main Street is still a place where people congregate," says Mike. "They go there to shop and for holiday celebrations. We have a Christmas parade that brings out virtually the entire town, cheering the school marching bands and the local fife and drum corps."

There's a lot to march, or saunter, past in downtown Old Saybrook. Within a few blocks, it's possible to purchase hardware, furniture, auto parts, baby clothes, groceries, and Chinese takeout. You also can visit the bank, the dentist, and the hairdresser. All without a mall in sight.

You might interrupt your mercantile ramble with ice cream from a soda fountain installed in 1896. It's in the same building as Shelley Nobile's art gallery, which is next door to her Deacon Timothy Pratt bed-and-breakfast. "After school, the kids all stop in for sundaes and penny candy," says Shelley.

Can this town really be so idyllic? "My guests rave all the time about how friendly the people are," Shelley says. "They were the same way when I started the business. Shop owners were quick with their advice, and my neighbors were very supportive when I went before the zoning commission."

Nevertheless, getting the go-ahead for a B&B in the circa-1746 home on Main Street wasn't easy. "Things are scrutinized," Shelley says. But the wariness with which old-time locals view change is, after all, what keeps Old Saybrook from becoming ... well, new.

"When you mention Old Saybrook," says Mike, "people think water." Boaters, swimmers, and sunset watchers--few of them regret that well-placed sandbar.

(published 2002)

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