Growing Up In Stamford

We may all call this city our home, but few of us can claim childhood memories in Stamford from before it became the City That Works, when people who-knew-it-then tell us it was quieter, less hectic, and made up of close-knit neighborhoods. To hear the stories, though, taps into our collective nostalgia, and because of our familiarity with the area, we too can envision how it might have looked, felt and sounded. Definitely different—but still familiar.

We came to this conclusion after turning to the ten residents we called on to share their recollections. This being a main feature of our anniversary issue, our intent was to look back and enjoy a walk down memory lane; our storytellers certainly did. But with talk focused on the past as experienced by the people who lived it, we were also taught that growing up in Stamford was special for the unique reasons described. And with that comes not only shared pride in these pictures of the past but also a feeling of inclusion in the always evolving story of this town. It all certainly explains why we live here, and why so many who have known this city all their lives made it a point to come back.  —Camilla A. Herrera


Bobby Valentine, 64

The Valentines lived in a four-room house on Melrose Place, about as far as you could go in Stamford without landing in Old Greenwich. Back then, little Bobby Valentine played on the street with the neighborhood kids until he was old enough to ride his bike to Southfield Park. “Southfield Point was the place to be,” Bobby remembers. “I’d try to round up my cousin Donnie, who was the exact same age as I was, and I’d put as many baseball gloves as I could find on the handlebars and go. We’d play baseball, Wiffle ball, football, kickball. Anything with a ball.”

When Bobby wasn’t playing ball, he attended the old Ryle Elementary—where condos now sit on the corner of Southfield Avenue—then went to the old Cloonan Middle School, when it was on Henry Street. Then he moved in with his grandparents so he could attend the shiny new Rippowam High School.

A standout memory? Eating chili hot dogs and chili cheeseburgers at Al’s Dog House. Al Lopiano not only made the best chili in town, Bobby says, he was a bus driver who often took the Babe Ruth teams on the road. “When I was growing up, there was the legend of Little League and Babe Ruth players who traveled outside the city. Guys like Mickey Lione traveled to California and Texas to play ball.”

When they grew older, “the legends,” who were in their twenties and thirties, played in the twilight league at Belltown field, where Bobby would rush to watch their games after attending Mass at St. Clement’s, and before dashing to his grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner.

It wasn’t long until Bobby was traveling to play baseball as well; the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him in 1968. No matter how far baseball took him, Bobby tried to make it back to Stamford as often as possible, especially for the Old Timers Athletic Association dinners. He’d hope to catch a glimpse of his idol, “the legendary one and only Andy Robustelli,” who grew up on the west side of Stamford and played pro football for the Giants and the Rams. “Every year everybody would hold their breath to see if he would be able to maneuver his schedule to be there. He was the greatest person to look up to. He did everything the right way and defined right and wrong. Everybody in the community, especially the Italian community, followed his gospel.”Bobby Valentine, a former professional baseball player, manager, and former ESPN analyst, is the athletic director at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.


Jennifer Segovia, 32

Few spots appealed to Jen Segovia as a little girl more than Cove Island Park. Time there meant a great big family feast, with her dad making his famous ceviche or his equally famous pernil. “Everyone would pitch in and bring something, and we still do it to this day,” she says. Her dad, who is one of eleven children, was born in Ecuador but grew up in the South End. Her mother’s side, the Scaleros, trace their roots in Stamford beyond her grandparents. For both sides, growing up in Stamford truly meant spending time with family.

Jen grew up on Custer Street a self-proclaimed “princess” with three older brothers, Kevin, Sean and Jason. When she wasn’t tagging along to her brothers’ soccer tournaments, she was dancing. “I’ve danced all my life; my mom got me started when I was three years old,” she remembers. She danced and danced at STEPS Dance Studio, which at the time operated out of the basement of the Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church on Hope Street and now is based on Turn of River Road. Jen left Stamford for college and danced with a professional company, but her heart remained in her hometown. When her late brother, Keith, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, she came back for good. She’s even living back home.

“The neighborhood hasn’t changed much, even though some of the neighbors have,” Jen says. “It’s still a small town where everybody knows everybody. The people you grew up with, they don’t end up moving. I still have a lot of elementary school friends here. You grow up with these people, you create these bonds and you realize your friends are all you have.”

While many of her friends are the same, their hangouts have changed. That old Pitney Bowes factory where Jennifer’s father worked? Now it’s hopping Harbor Point. “All the new apartments and businesses are attracting everybody to the area,” she says. “My friends, we’re trying different places to eat. Before, there weren’t that many places to go. But now— just the bar scene alone—it’s amazing.”

 

Dannel P. Malloy, 58

Life was bustling in the blocks around Fifth Street and Revonah Avenue, where Dannel Malloy grew up. He and his cousin Tom, just four months apart, did their exploring together. When they weren’t attending Franklin School (now Inspirica), they’d wander into Sears, or buy comics at the Ridgeway Shopping Center, or stop for a soda at Penn Drug or Syl-May’s.

“They both had soda counters,” the governor remembers, “and for ten or fifteen cents they made it with syrup and seltzer, and they mixed it right in front of you.” Fully refreshed, the pair headed to Woodside Park (now Scalzi Park). “In those days, the rec department ran a summer program there. We played horseshoes and checkers. I was in youth football programs there. And that was also the place I learned how to drive.”

Driving came in handy by the time Malloy was in high school. He was able to walk to Stamford High for his first two years but then was redistricted to a brand new Westhill High School, from which he graduated with the first class, in 1973. In the meantime, he worked in Stamford’s bustling mom-and-pop retail trade. The governor started as a stock boy at The Squire Shop on Atlantic Street, and soon moved out to the floor where he sold men’s suits. That was before the mall came to town.

“I remember the New York Bakery, where the mall is now. You went to Mass at St. John’s then picked up your sweet things or your hard rolls. There were a lot of small businesses. There was Greenberg’s and Sarner’s. It was a very different city, not the urban center that it became. There were movie theaters, gorgeous theaters, that got torn down. We had five movie theaters, and you had your choice of which big screen to watch.”


Cristin Marandino, 41

If you grew up in the Marandino household on Bentwood Drive in North Stamford in days past, you were always on the move. Four kids attended four different schools, with sports and activities beckoning from all different directions.

“My mother spent her life in the car,” recalls Cristin, the youngest of the brood, who was schlepped to the corners of Stamford, Greenwich and beyond, often tagging along to ice-skating practice with her sister, Kim, a gifted skater. Cristin did not mind, for being such a trouper had its rewards. Namely, trips to Forty Boutiques, a mall within a mall in the Ridgeway Shopping Center.

“It was literally forty boutiques,” Cristin recalls. “I remember getting tchotchkes, like the little bears that opened their arms if you squeezed them. And Smurfs. I had more Smurfs than Smurf Village.”

Favorite spots for a bite to eat were Long Ridge Tavern and Chimney Corner. “Probably more for convenience than the food,” she laughs. “North Stamford wasn’t exactly bustling with nightlife.”

Little Cristin headed to the Montessori School on Long Ridge Road for nursery school and kindergarten, where Miss Scarvalon fostered her love of learning. More than thirty years later, Cristin heard from her former teacher. “When she read that my mother had passed away she found me and sent the loveliest letter, sharing memories of her friendship with my mom,” Cristin says. That teacher, Virginia Scarvalon, now runs the Canaan Ridge School in the same location.

Cristin spent her youngest summer days attending Long Ridge Day Camp on Erskine Road, literally around the corner from her home. She wasn’t the only family member at camp. “Our dog would run away to the camp and steal sandwiches from the kids. They all knew Natasha. She was a big white Samoyed.” Once a bit older, Cristin moved on to Longshore Sailing Camp in the Cove. “I first learned to sail Puffers on Holly Pond, which was so shallow if you capsized you risked your mast getting stuck in the mud.”  

When Cristin turned sixteen, her mother happily handed over the keys. Cristin found herself navigating the hairpin turns of Farms Road, which links Stamford with Greenwich, where she spent eight years at Greenwich Academy. “It’s a crazy winding road,” she says.

“Back then there was this little bridge that was big enough for only one car. It was kind of a rite of passage when you learned how to navigate the bridge. When you were OK with Farms Road, you were good.”

 

Mia Schipani, 47

Set in the Westcott Cove section of The Cove lies Wallack’s Point Park, a private beach on the shoreline where Mia Schipani grew up cavorting with the neighborhood kids. “It’s still the most pristine neighborhood,” Mia says. “Nobody knows it’s there.”  

The tiny beach association, governing fewer than two dozen homes, served as enforcer and social director, planning annual summer-kickoff pancake breakfasts, Christmas parties, softball games, moonlight waterskiing, Easter egg hunts and more. “For the Fourth of July, the barge was right in front of my beach,” Mia remembers. “You used to be able to moor a boat there.”

Mia’s babysitter, a woman with five children of her own, would stop her boat to pick up Mia on the beach, then take everybody out to Potter’s Island (now called Vincent Island) in Westcott Cove to spend the day. “There was a guy who took it upon himself to maintain the island,” Mia remembers. “You could walk on the rocks. We would sleep there, barbecue there. It was an adventure. Now it is taken over by geese.”

When she wasn’t in the water, Mia was on her bike, a purple Schwinn with a floral basket. She rode it all over town, often to Cummings Park, stopping on the way at the penny candy store Tack Wagon for provisions like wax lips and candy dots on paper. Sometimes she found her way to the Girls Club in Glenbrook, where she worked on her baton-twirling skills and went to art class. “I have vivid memories of going there after school,” Mia says. “My mom would put me wherever there was art or sports.”

Afterward, Mia retreated to her clubhouse in the attic, “The Sunshine Club,” she called it, where the kids would hang out in the scorching summer, only to cool off again outside. “I used to sleep in a [so-called] tent in the front yard. I would tie a string between two trees and hang a blanket to make a tent. I would bring a TV outside with an extension cord and watch it.”


David Cingari, 53

Working for the Hyatt Hotel Group, David Cingari could have traveled far and wide for work and never found his way back to Stamford. But when his friend Bobby Robustelli walked across the fairway at the golf course where they were both playing and invited David to return to Stamford and run the Robustelli family’s Spring Street restaurant The Assemblage, David accepted and came back for good.

His roots already extended deep in Shippan, where David’s parents, brother and sister still live. Grandpa Salvatore Cingari started it all with a garden in the neighborhood. During the Depression, he bought an old school bus, cut out the windows and sold his produce from the makeshift mobile farmer’s market. Before long, he’d saved enough money to buy a tiny store at the corner of Shippan and Wardwell. Then he bought the apartment building above the store. “All of his kids lived in the apartments,” says David, who lived there until he was three years old, when his parents bought their own house down the road.

“The best part was the Ocean View Beach & Tennis Club. Probably five or six acres on the East Side of Shippan looking toward Darien. I can specifically remember being old enough to take the bike there by myself and fishing on the rocks for hours and hours. We spent all day there, all summer long,” David remembers. “They had old wooden lockers and a tether ball and a big grass lawn. Every Saturday my father would get out of work, bring down burgers and dogs and we’d have a cookout, like the majority of families in the neighborhood.”

It was a sad day for the Cingaris when the beach club’s owners decided to sell their land to developers, who lined Ocean View Drive with homes where the club once stood.

David set out on his skateboard for new adventures. “I was a California dreamer. Skateboards, unicycles, motorcycles. Anything with wheels,” he recalls. He paid for his wheels by working at the family store, Grade A, which moved into an old ice cream factory on Cove Road and Shippan Avenue, where it stands to this day.

On the Saturdays that David worked alongside his dad, he and any other siblings who’d been working at the store would accompany their Dad to the Star Confectionary for lunch at 1 o’clock.

“Oh my God! The Star Confectionary! It was wonderful,” David remembers. “It was your classic luncheonette. Like a Friendly’s, but privately owned by George Robotti, who was my father’s best friend. He made his own ice cream and he had racks of candies. It’s also where we learned to drive. We’d get out of work and drive to The Star Confectionary.”

 

Joan Kikta Romano, 78 and Renee Bornstein, 55

There were some logistical reasons behind little Joan Kikta skipping the fourth grade. At Bangall School, the one-room schoolhouse she attended on the corner of Westover and Roxbury roads, each row was devoted to a single grade. “I would have been the only student going into fourth grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Dailey, said that if I could do fifth-grade work she would skip me to that row. And that way she wouldn’t have to teach fourth grade.”

The Bangall School district included the twenty-one-acre farm on West Hill Road where the Kiktas lived and worked. Joan’s grandfather, John Butkovski, built the big house out front where her family lived for a while before they moved into the little house in the back. They shared the land with pigs, cows and a giant garden. “It was good country living,” Joan remembers. “Fred Mueller’s place was nearby. He was an auctioneer and he had a big barn with all kinds of antiques. That’s been replaced by Westhill High School.”

Joan and her family didn’t spend much time in downtown Stamford. “When I was in high school, Bedford Street was like Stamford’s Fifth Avenue” in New York City, she says. “You could go and look, but you couldn’t buy.”

Her daughter, Renee Bornstein, remembers one place in particular that held a bit of magic and mystery: C.O. Miller’s on Bank Street, where a white-gloved elevator attendant ushered customers up to each floor, sliding the metal gates and working the levers to get from department to department. Renee and her buddies spent more time at the Farm Shop on Hope Street, especially on Saturdays after football games. In the summers, they all headed to the beach at Cove Island.

These days, though, Renee’s back downtown. “There are many more restaurants and there’s more variety. It’s a melting pot, so that’s fun to see as an adult,” Renee says. “There’s more nightlife, more young people and more cultural activities happening than when we were kids, that’s for sure.”


Richard Redniss, 65

There used to be a little cut-through from Maitland Road in Glenbrook, where Rick Redniss lived, to the Stamford Museum in Courtland Park, and Rick and his grandmother headed day after day over that cut-through so that little Rick could explore the outdoors. “As a little kid I used to collect butterflies. I was always doing outdoor things. One of the earliest memories I have is of my grandmother not being happy with me climbing a tree inside the grounds. And the other vivid memory I have—besides I-95 being built—is there used to be snake pits in the grass with just glass covering them.”

When the highway came through in the 1950s, it swallowed six of the park’s eight acres and the museum had to relocate, moving to its current site at the North Stamford estate of retail mogul Henri Bendel, at High Ridge and Scofieldtown roads. “When the museum moved up there you packed a lunch,” Redniss remembers. “Watching your neighborhood change gave me an appreciation for change being traumatic in people’s lives
when it comes to land use.”

Rick, his brother, Ray, and his buddies liked to climb up the water tower on Blachley Road. “We used to pull the chains and it would spin us the other way,” he remembers. That was before Daycroft School, and then the Clairol headquarters, and then Chelsea Piers and NBC Sports Group moved in.

Come the time he was a teenager, Rick drove to work at Caldor’s on Broad Street in his 1960 Corvair. “Downtown was a little different then. You had Pacific Street with all the old shops, like Cousin Shapiro’s, where you got your hip clothes like blue suede shoes. Goodies was the big hangout on Broad Street.”

After Rick headed to college, Landmark Square arrived during the 1970s, and the mall followed in the 1980s. “It’s funny—you go to some places and it’s barely changed. For example, my street is very, very similar to when I grew up. The downtown, though, there are obvious big changes there. It’s always a balancing act to try to preserve
and protect and to cope with growth,” he says.


Robin Selden, 48

Robin Selden grew up at the end of Echo Hill Drive. Her house stood in Stamford, the backyard in Pound Ridge. “We thought it was so cool to stand in the backyard and say ‘We’re in New York!’” Not as cool as tooling around the streets on her roller skates, though. If there were ever to be an Olympic event in roller-skating, Robin and her friends were training for it. “My neighbors and I had blue-and-white striped sneakers attached to skates. Old-school skates and scrunchy socks. We’d do dance routines on our street every day.”

When the skates came off, Robin and her friends wound their way by foot down curvy Old Long Ridge Road to Lee’s Country Market. “They had the best deli there. My parents had a charge and we’d get an ice tea or a soda, some kind of snack and just put it on the charge that my parents paid off each month,” Robin recalls. “Does anybody even do that anymore?”

Many of Robin’s memories are tasty ones. “There was a restaurant on Newfield Avenue, Ettorucci’s, that now is a bank. And the Lakeside Diner. When I was in high school we would go there for lunch. It was amazing and is still there. We used to go to the Ground Round. They played movies and served peanuts. That was a fun place to go,” she says. “Another fun restaurant was The Sittin’ Room, where the Bull’s Head Diner is now. There was an early-bird special and the old ladies would go [there] and take their bread home.”

Robin’s grandparents’ house might have been the best place for food. Her grandmother was Miss Cuba when she captured the heart of a Jewish dentist from New York. “She was an amazing cook who made incredible food,” Robin recalls. Her culinary prowess stamped its influence on Robin’s mother, Marcia, who started a catering business. Robin and her brother, Jeffrey, often tagged along on jobs, working as dishwashers or buspersons. Robin took her pay from those catering jobs and added it to her stash from working in the (now defunct) housewares and bedding department at Lord & Taylor. When she was sixteen, she bought herself a car, the better to cruise around with her other free-spirited friends, especially to sneak off to the falls off Riverbank Road. Those stories, however, are best left for another day.


 

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