Henry Park

Chris Powell: Renaissance of old town depends on love

Patriots don't always come in military uniforms. Sometimes they wear no uniforms at all, or just the fluorescent yellow vests of road-maintenance crews, the uniform of a platoon of patriots in Vernon, Conn.'s deteriorated Rockville section. No place could need them more. A special edition of the old Rockville Journal from July 1898 called the little city "progressive and prosperous" and described its bustling factories, magnificent public and private buildings, and civic and business leaders.

Of course, today the factories that remain from that era are either decrepit hulks or have been converted to apartments. Many of the magnificent other buildings that remain are creaky and crumbling, having not gotten the necessary maintenance after a century of wear. The same with much of the ordinary housing, many of whose occupants are impoverished, the children among them fatherless.

Parts of Rockville might not look out of place in Haiti.   Enter Ken Kaplan, owner of Rockville Construction Co. and a motorcycle fancier who has been renovating one of the old factories as a motorcycle museum, implausible as it seems.

He has assembled the Rockville Construction Volunteer Community Service Team, two dozen people and growing, who meet weekly to clean up the neighborhood under the general supervision of the mayor and police and public works departments -- removing litter, abandoned cars and discarded furniture; erasing graffiti; repainting; straightening street signs; and, maybe most important, showing that someone is home and not demoralized.

"I love Rockville," Kaplan says. "I see a lot of beauty in this community…. I see not what it is but what it's going to be…. It's a beautiful little town, and if you give it the love and attention it needs, it's going to be amazing."

This may be dismissed as mere local boosterism. But no one should dismiss it without first climbing to the observation platform of the War Memorial Tower, 72 feet above Henry Park on Fox Hill, and looking north over the old city. (In the summer the tower is open Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.) From that height, amid the spectacular landscape and remnants of a glorious past, the peeling paint doesn't show but the potential does.

Of the work already done by the volunteers, Kaplan says, "If we can accomplish what we did with 24 people, imagine what we could do with 250."

Yes -- if, if, if. ... And yet, as G.K. Chesterton argued in Orthodoxy, written a century ago, when Rockville was still "progressive and prosperous," it has happened -- and exactly as Kaplan imagines it. There were slums back then too, such as the Pimlico section of London, about which Chesterton was writing. They only inspired him as well:

“Our attitude toward life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism; it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable.

“It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it.

“The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.

“All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.

“Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing -- say, Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful.

The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved.

“For decoration is not given to hide horrible things but to decorate things already adorable.

“A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck.

“If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.

“Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great.

“Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well.

“People first paid honor to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.’’

The Rockville patriots meet Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at the former Hockanum Mill, now the New England Motorcycle Museum, at 200 W. Main St. After each patrol there's pizza, and a better neighborhood.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.