by Kristin Nord
Downtown New London is easing into this late-winter’s morning, with passengers arriving and departing from the H.H. Richardson-designed Union Station and locals bursting through the front door of the funky Muddy Waters Café, just a short walk away. Across the street, Hygienic Art is open, with founder Jim Stidfole, an Arlo Guthrie look-alike, perched on a stool at a once-active counter, his elbows on Formica worn smooth by the coffee mugs of many generations. Saved from the wrecker’s ball in 1994, the Hygienic (79 Bank Street) has evolved from an outsider arts outpost into a foundational city pillar, fostering mural walks and gardens and an ample dose of street theater.
This grassroots response to urban blight generated a buzz early on — and has continued to fuel many creative spin-offs. An estimated 200 visual and performing artists, musicians, artisans and designers now live and work in this scruffy seaport. While in some ways New London remains true to its history, in other ways it mirrors the state’s shifting demographics.
“I sleep in Groton, but think of myself as living in New London,” said Guido Garaycochea, executive director of Expressions, a nonprofit organization established to work with New London’s burgeoning Latino population. Working with the low-income families of this group, Garaycochea, a Chilean and civil engineer by training, is relishing his role as educator — employing the arts as a vehicle for teaching math fundamentals. In addition, through annual residencies offered to professional artists from central and Latin America, Expressions Cultural Center (84 Bank Street) is exposing its students to the vibrant arts traditions brought from their families’ countries of origin.
Interdisciplinary work is similarly at the heart of programs offered to schoolchildren by New London’s Flock Theatre, a troupe of professional actors and master puppeteers known for re-enacting local history as well as for productions of Shakespeare in the Connecticut College Arboretum. “I’ve always called New London the eccentric capital of the world,” said Derron Wood, Flock’s artistic director, addressing the city’s diversity. Largely because of the city’s cast of characters, “amazing things are happening, and I hope it stays this way.”