West Side Story

Imagine for a moment that you are seeing Darien for the first time. A real estate agent is driving you through the village, past the immaculate green lawns and large colonial homes, pointing out along the way some of the community’s most attractive features. Here are Weed Beach and Pear Tree Point, the town’s toeholds on Long Island Sound. Over there, at the end of scenic Ring’s End Road, is Gorham’s Pond, where neighbors spill out onto the ice to skate in winter. And then there is Grove Street Plaza, a thriving social center anchored around a tree-shaded terrace and a tinkling fountain.

Grove Street Plaza? Okay, you probably missed that part of the tour on your original spin through town. That’s because up until this past November it was difficult to visualize the Grove Street area as anything more than a torn-up stretch of sidewalk wedged between Brooks and Day streets. Previously, it was marked (disfigured, some have said) by four somewhat dilapidated residences, two of which were rotating rentals, while a third projected all the aesthetic allure of an abandoned crack house. Add to that the forlorn-looking Darien Playhouse, shuttered for more than eight years after United Artists filed for bankruptcy protection, and this short patch of the Post Road west of the railroad tracks had come to resemble something of a black hole in Darien’s commercial district.

“What’s a worse blight on a neighborhood than empty spaces?” Sylvia Reiss, owner of Catherine Sylvia Reiss Prints and Framing, asks rhetorically in summing up the situation. The sense of decrepitude had become so dire that Evonne Klein made revitalizing the downtown a rallying point in her successful campaign for first selectwoman of Darien in 2003. The Downtown Darien Committee was formed soon thereafter. “We have a community that shops and dines in other towns,” Evonne notes. “They want to be able to do that here.”

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