Archive for Connecticut

Created Equal: The Planned Integrated Community of Village Creek, Conn.

Village Creek: Shelley Shaw and Ellen Dewhirst, 1960For America’s Independence Day, here’s a little-known chapter in the history of American anti-racism. Following the Second World War, progressives founded a dozen planned integrated communities across the country. While working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I learned about one of those communities — a section of Norwalk Connecticut directly adjacent to where Johnson and Krauss lived, and where they both had several friends. Its name is Village Creek.  It was and is a fully integrated community. Here’s how it began.

In 1948, city planner Roger Willcox was looking for a home within commuting distance from New York.  He and about thirty other people, most of whom were veterans and sailors, wanted waterfront property where they could raise their families and go sailing. As Willcox recalled, when discussing the kind of community they would like to have, they decided that “one of the basic principles” was that there should be “no discrimination because of race, creed or color. The world is made of all colors, creeds, and if we’re going to build a community that we want families to grow up in, and have it recognized in the world, it ought to represent the kinds of people who live in the world.”1 In July of 1949, when they bought the land just across the creek — Village Creek — that would become the Village Creek cooperative neighborhood, they drew up a covenant prohibiting discrimination “on account of race, color, religious creed, age, sex, national origin, ancestry or physical disability.”2

Village Creek: map of lots, 1952

To ensure that it would remain an interracial community, the rules of the Village Creek Home Owners Association specified that Village Creek had to be one third black-owned and two-thirds white owned. To keep the ratio intact, anyone wishing to sell their property had to sell it back to the community. When one of the former residents told me about this ratio, I thought, “Ahh, they’re keeping it two thirds white to placate the whites in the surrounding community.” He said, no, “if we didn’t have this covenant, then if anybody wanted to sell, the real estate agents would immediately go to a black family and say you can move in here because there’s a lot of black people living here. And, of course, then it would start to become a black community. The whites would move out.” And the whole point was to keep it integrated.3

Village Creek: children playing, 1953 or 1954

At the time, integrated communities such as Village Creek were virtually unheard-of: this was the first in Connecticut, and, at the same time it was founded, across the United States veterans with similar goals were creating eleven other co-operative communities — some integrated, some simply co-operatives. Although Johnson and Krauss approved of Village Creek (and likely would have bought there if it existed when they moved to Connecticut), many Norwalk residents were suspicious. Detractors called it “Commie Creek” and claimed that the houses’ roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.4 But Village Creekers united against such adversity. When local banks refused to underwrite mortgages on Village Creek homes, Village Creek property owners either built their houses themselves or sought mortgages from New York City banks. When real estate agents would not show Village Creek houses to white families, Village Creekers helped sell houses by word of mouth.5

Although it was not “Commie Creek,” Village Creek did attract many progressive residents. Philip Oppenheimer, one of Village Creek’s founding members, met other founding members through their mutual support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.6  Some other early residents included Doxey Wilkerson, African-American professor of Education and Daily Worker columnist; Frank Donner, civil liberties attorney, AFL-CIO lawyer, and active critic of Anti-Communist witch hunts; and Antonio Frasconi and Leona Pierce, artists who (along with their two children, Pablo and Miguel) would become friends of Johnson’s and Krauss’s.

Village Creek: Leona Pierce, Antonio Frasconi, Yolanda and Doxey Wilkerson, 1987

When Village Creek parents wanted to set up a cooperative nursery school for their children, they asked Norma Simon to help her do it. Norma — whose students inspired Krauss’s A Very Special House — and her husband Ed had moved up to the area in 1952. She had attended the Bank Street School, and by 1952 was teaching at the Thomas School in Rowayton. Norma Simon, with the help of her husband and Village Creek parents, transformed the basement of Martin and Sylvia Garment into the Community Cooperative Nursery School — which would become another place where Ruth Krauss would visit, talk with children, listen to children, make notes, and transform their ideas into children’s books. Founded on Bank Street principles, the Community Cooperative Nursery School was a progressive nursery school; enrolling the children of Village Creek, it had black children, white children, and children of many nationalities. Suspicious of its liberal founders, detractors dubbed it “the Little Red Schoolhouse.”7

In a way, this was hardly surprising, since such detractors also thought that all Village Creekers must be Communists, and even went so far as to say that the modern architecture of Village Creek houses were in fact signals to enemy planes. Norma, whose first children’s book (The Wet World) was published in 1954, soon discovered that her association with “the Little Red Schoolhouse” led to an unofficial blacklist: a PTA would invite her to speak, discover that she was director of the school, and, instead of accusing her directly, would then phone up to say, sorry, but the meeting had been cancelled, no need to come.8

That’s a bit of Village Creek’s early history, most of which had to be cut from my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). To the best of my knowledge, no one has written about these post-war utopian experiments. Here’s hoping someone reads this post and writes a full history, or a children’s book. 65 years after its founding, Village Creek is still going strong.

Notes

  1. Roger Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  2. Roger Willcox, “President’s Report: Welcome to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 1.
  3. Martin Garment, telephone interview with the author, 24 Sept. 2002.
  4. Philip Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000. p. 13.
  5. Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  6. Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 13.
  7. Norma Simon. Telephone interview with the author. 20 June 2002; Martin Garment, telephone interview, 24 Sept. 2002.
  8. Simon, telephone interview, 20 June 2002.

Further Reading

Source for photographs

Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000

Comments (4)

A Very Special House

74 Rowayton Ave. (house number)This past Friday, I spent the afternoon at Crockett Johnson’s house — 74 Rowayton Avenue (Rowayton, Connecticut), where he and Ruth Krauss lived from 1945 to 1973. Though I wrote their biography and had seen (and photographed) the house from the outside, I’d never been inside. I’ve seen all of their homes from the outside, but — hesitant to intrude on residents’ privacy — not actually been into the homes themselves. Since I was in town to give a talk that evening, Gil and Kim Kernan (the current owners) kindly invited me to spend some time in their home. My visit was one of the happiest events occasioned by my Johnson-Krauss biography.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014

The experience put me in mind of Richard McGuire’s innovative six-page comic, “Here” (1989, and forthcoming in a new book-length version later this year), in that I was aware of multiple moments in time. Building upon comics’ ability to spatialize time, “Here” presents many moments simultaneously — all of which take place in the space occupied by a single room. McGuire displays scenes from 1957, and from later and earlier years; across the course of the comic, you piece together some of the lives of those who passed through the place. (Click on pictures for a larger image.)

Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 1 Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 2

Nina Stagakis, floor plan of 74 Rowayton Ave. in 1950s (drawn from memory in 2001)Upstairs at 74 Rowayton Ave., standing in the front bedroom, I thought: this is where Maurice Sendak stayed, when he came up from New York City on the weekends, to work on Ruth’s books. Downstairs, I sat out on the front porch where, in 1951 and 1952, he and Ruth worked on A Hole Is to Dig — and Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) refereed. Thanks to Nina Stagakis’ sketch (drawn from memory) of the first-floor layout, I could see exactly where, in the front room, sixty years ago, Dave sat while he created dummies for Harold and the Purple Crayon, and noticed that he could easily have looked over his shoulder and seen eight-year-old Nina, at her desk, drawing. When she was eight, her father died. She and her mother Phyllis Rowand — who were already friends and neighbors — grew even closer to Dave and Ruth. Dave built her a Nina-sized desk, and put it in his office, allowing her to draw at her desk while he drew at his. Shortly after, Dave began working on Harold and the Purple Crayon.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Crockett Johnson's desk was here, 1945-1973

Crockett Johnson’s desk was here, 1945-1973.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: view of where Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was, from Crockett Johnson's vantage point, 1954

Desk of Nina Rowand Wallace (now Stagakis) was here; from vantage point of Crockett Johnson’s desk.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was here in 1954

Nina Rowand Wallace’s desk was here in 1954.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)While drawing Harold and the Purple Crayon, if Dave looked up from his desk and out the front window, he faced not only water (a key plot element in the book), but boats (another key element). I don’t know how much of Harold he created during daylight hours (like Harold himself, Dave often worked at night), but the windows of his office looked out onto the Five Mile River, where he docked his own boat. Today, construction partially obscures the view, but in 1954 he had a clear sight line.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "After he had sailed long enough, Harold made land without much trouble."

The house is and is not as it was. The kitchen is now open to the adjacent room. What was Dave’s office is now the dining room, and what was dining room is now the living room. The third floor is now finished, and would be an ideal studio for Dave. Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)The basement — where he painted — still floods in a storm, although perhaps less than it once did (the walls have been painted with sealant). When it does flood, Gil told me, water shoots out from the front wall. The basement ceiling is also a little low for a man who was nearly six feet tall. (Dave’s head would have cleared the ceiling by about six inches.)  I see why, in 1973, Dave and Ruth moved to their Westport home, where he could paint in a studio above the garage.

I also see why Ruth and Dave chose 74 Rowayton Ave. It’s cozy. Not unlike the house in which I currently live, you can stand in the living room, and look out windows on all four sides of the house. Its many windows bring in lots of light. Sitting on the porch or one of the front rooms, you can look out at the Five Mile River. Jackie Curtis — a photographer and friend of Dave and Ruth’s, who was also there on Friday — mentioned that Dave enjoyed sitting out on the porch, drinking a martini.

 Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 Gil and Kim Kernan on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 1959; Gil and Kim Kernan, 2014.
Nel_mimics_CJ1959_web Front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Yours truly, 2014; absence, 2014 (with 1959 photo on table).

74 Rowayton Ave is a private home. So, don’t go knocking on the door expecting Gil and Kim to let you in. Do, however, swing by the Rowayton Historical Society (177 Rowayton Ave., just down the street from the Johnson-Krauss house) and check out Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, an exhibit devoted to the “Creative Culture of 1950s Rowayton” — Johnson, Krauss, Sendak, Jim and Jane Flora.  It runs through the end of November.

Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, Rowayton Historical Society, 2014

Jane Flora: "Non-Consenting Adults," "Family Jewels," "Pet Hen" (all c. 1974)

It’s lovingly curated, child-friendly, and it taught me a few things I didn’t know. According to Jim Flora, Alexander Kerensky lived in Rowayton in the 1940s. I knew that several left-leaning folks moved to Norwalk (Rowayton is South Norwalk) during that time — including Johnson, Krauss, and George Seldes. But I’d never heard about Kerensky (Prime Minister of Russia’s provisional government, in 1917).

Also, I saw this great photo, taken at a 1958 Rowayton Public Library event celebrating National Library Week.

National Library Week, Rowayton Public Library, 18 Mar. 1958 (courtesy of Rowayton Historical Society)

Back row, top left, is Fred Schwed Jr. (author of Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?). Third from left is John Sharnick (journalist, TV producer). Third from right is Crockett Johnson, and far right is Jim Flora (creator of children’s books and album covers).  Front row, left to right: Phyllis Rowand (artist, illustrated some of Ruth Krauss’s books), Carl Rose (cartoonist for New Yorker & others), Ruth Krauss.  I’m not sure who the other people are, but one is probably Leonard Gross, whose God and Freud had just been published and was at the event.  If you have any guesses as to who the others might be, please let me know.

Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Jim and Jane Flora, Maurice Sendak, Phyllis Rowand, Fred Schwed, Carl Rose, and all the rest are gone. But the library and 74 Rowayton Ave. are still here. The town is more developed than it was. But it’s still here. Time changes much, but traces of the past linger on.

Related posts:

Credits: first two black-and-white photos from The New Haven Register, 1959; third black-and-white photo courtesy of the Rowayton Historical Society; all color photos taken by Philip Nel. Richard McGuire’s “Here” appeared in RAW 2.1 (1989) and is © Richard McGuire. Nina Stagakis’ sketch of the 74 Rowayton Ave. floor plan — published here for the first time — is © Nina Stagakis.

Thanks to Gil and Kim Kernan for their hospitality, and to Wendell Livingston and Chris Penberthy (of the Rowayton Historical Society) for inviting me. Finally, special thanks to the University of Connecticut (especially Terri Goldich and Kate Capshaw) for underwriting both the Rowayton Historical Society talk and my University of Connecticut talk, earlier last week.

Update, 8:45 pm: Thanks to Wendell Livingston, I’ve replaced my photo of a photo with a scan of the original photo (of the 1958 National Library Week event).

Comments (2)

Purple Crayons in Connecticut: Two Talks This Week

People of Connecticut! This week, I’ll be giving two talks on two children’s-literature luminaries of the Constitution State — Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  One is free and open to the public, and the other is $5.  Both are lavishly illustrated.  Here’s what you need to know:


Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 4:00 pm

Not So Simple: The Genius of Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon

“Not So Simple: The Genius of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon.”  Co-op Bookstore at Storrs Center, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.

I’ve since changed the title to “How to Read Harold: A Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson, and the Creation of a Children’s Classic.” Yes, that’s a nod to Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Fantagraphics, Nov. 2014), the book-length version of their classic essay, “How to Read Nancy” (1988). In this 50-minute illustrated talk, I offer 14 ways of thinking about Harold and the Purple Crayon. My goal in doing so is to consider how complex an apparently simple story can be, and, in so doing, offer a case study in what we miss when we underestimate, trivialize, or simply fail to look closely at children’s literature.


Friday, September 26, 2014, 7:30 pm

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

“Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature.” Rowayton Community Center, 33 Highland Ave., Rowayton, CT.

In other words, I’m giving the talk based on my biography in the town where Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss lived for nearly 30 years.

Leave a Comment

“If I like what I’m doing, the kids will like it, too”: Marc Simont (1915-2013)

Marc SimontWhen his roommate, Robert McCloskey, wanted to study ducklings for his next book, Marc Simont let him adopt a whole group of them. McCloskey followed them around their small Greenwich Village apartment, sketching each one from all angles — work that would help make his Caldecott-winning Make Way for Ducklings (1941) a classic.  Simont would win his own Caldecott for A Tree Is Nice, written by Janice May Udry (1956). He won two Caldecott Honors, one for Ruth Krauss’s The Happy Day (1949) and the other for his own The Stray Dog (2001).  And he illustrated so many other classic children’s books (over 100!), from James Thurber’s Many Moons (1990) to Marjorie Sharmat’s Nate the Great series (1972-1998).

According to the New York Times, Simont passed away on July 13th. He was 97.

When researching my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (published last year), Simont was one of the first people I spoke to —  back in July of 2000.  At that time, I thought it was only going to be a book about Johnson, and so I didn’t ask him as much about Krauss.  But we did talk a little about her.

Marc Simont: … Of course, Ruth, as I say, was somebody I knew much better.  She was a difficult writer to work for…

Philip Nel: Because…?

MS: For instance, she interfered a lot.  I say “interfered” because I don’t like people to get to close to me when I’m working.  And she would have none of that.  In other words, she wanted to see roughs.  And every rough, she would have comments to make.  And it was very funny.  But, you know, thinking back on it, she was quite good.  She had made a real study of children, very intellectual, being emotional at the same time.  She wasn’t cold about it.  But she really got into it.  She had gone to Bank Street, and they had a course there, they had a place where they brought the kids and they couldn’t see they were being observed — a kind of voyerurism.  And she was quite good.  And I could see how she and Maurice Sendak would hit it off very well.  Because he was very much a children’s artist and author.

PN: You mean, in the way he observed children, and got the details of their movements down….?

MS: I knew Maurice when he started – we had the same publisher, Ursula Nordstrom.  He would talk about the kids in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, and how he watched them.  One little girl – she was the boss, and she ran the show, and all the kids played together.

PN: You can really see that in the illustrations he did for Ruth’s books — especially A Hole Is to Dig, Open House for Butterflies.  The personality really comes through.

MS: Exactly.  A lot of them, in my case, I don’t do any of that at all.  I go by the fact that I used to be a child myself, and there’s something always left, and if I like what I’m doing, the kids will like it, too.

Of working with Ruth, he later elaborated:

MS: … They [Krauss and Johnson] were people that I saw, I was delighted to see them when I saw them, but we weren’t really that close.  With Ruth, of course, professionally.  And, most of the time, I was put off by her.

PN: Well, she seems like she was fairly difficult to work with, from talking to people but also from reading — I was reading her letters at HarperCollins a few weeks ago.  I think she required extra maintenance on the part of those who worked with her.

MS: But, as I say, as I look back on it, she was very sound.  Her remarks were very good.  The thing is that anybody trying to hold my hand, even if they’re on the right track, if they try to hold my hand while I’m working, causes me to want to shake, to shake [them] off.  And, she also had a little bit of the political correctness thing.  I remember once I did an illustration of a primitive guy, and I had a beard on him like a Stone Age man, and she said “well, no we can’t have that because that implies that he was Stone Age, that he was primitive, that he wasn’t intelligent.”  I couldn’t believe it that she would say things like that.  And now people are saying it all the time.

PN: She was a bit ahead of the curve on the political correctness issue, I guess…

MS: Yeah, that’s true.

PN: That’s interesting.

MS: I’m sure she was ahead of her time on the feminism, too.  I’m sure she was.

Ruth Krauss and Marc Simont, The Happy Day (1949)In addition to The Happy Day, Simont illustrated three other Krauss books: The Big World and the Little House (1949), The Backward Day (1950) and the new edition of A Good Man and His Good Wife (1962; originally illustrated by Ad Reinhardt, 1944).

He was extraordinarily kind to me.  After our chat, he FAXed me copies of correspondence with both Johnson and Krauss, including Krauss’s typed manuscript for The Happy Day, with her notes on where the text should be placed on each page!  Indicative of his generosity, along with this correspondence, he took the time to amend what he said about Ruth: “I was glad to look through my correspondence and find the letter I remembered as criticism which wasn’t at all.”

One more anecdote, since it got cut from the bio.:

I remember once we went to a party in Greenwich Village, where a group of young men were doing a farewell party for Truman Capote.  And big signs saying “Caio” and so forth and so on.  And Truman Capote didn’t show up.  (Laughs.)  I think Ruth and Dave took me to that thing.  But I know I never kept up with any of the people at the party.  It was just a one-evening thing.  If it hadn’t been for that detail of the party for Truman Capote and Truman Capote didn’t show up, I probably wouldn’t have remembered it.

Marc Simont, The Beautiful Planet (2010)The “Dave” in the above reminiscence is Crockett Johnson (his given name was Dave). I guess my editors thought it superfluous to mention a farewell party for Truman Capote at which the guest of honor failed to show. And they may be right.  I, of course, thought it was funny. And so did Simont.

It seems that, every month, another giant from the field of children’s books leaves us. That said, Simont evaded this sad inevitability for longer than most. 97! And still working in his final years, too. His most recent picture book, The Beautiful Planet, was published in 2010. Remarkable. My thanks to him for his gifts to the art of children’s books, and to lending a hand to a neophyte biographer. Godspeed.

More about Marc Simont:

Comments (5)