Legacy of Progress Gone Sour
The country's smallest urban renewal project destroyed historic Moodus village
By Ken Simon
In the 1960s, the old center of Moodus was shopworn, had limited parking, and sometimes smelled of sewage. A town committee was formed, consultants were hired and a plan was hatched to secure "free" federal urban renewal funds for redevelopment.
A public relations campaign to sell the project to residents was begun.
It was a successful campaign.
In 1967, East Haddam residents voted to destroy the heart of the Village of Moodus -- in pursuit of something more modern..
Despite rosy predictions of economic progress, it didn't work out so well.
How it started (top) and what we got (bottom) after a disastrous renewal project of Old Moodus Center.
Residents lost the historic village and gained an ugly and small aluminum shopping plaza. How the town came to this decision is the subject of an award-winning newspaper series first published in 1982 in the Lyme Gazette. The series was updated and published in 2016 in the East Haddam News.
East Haddam had such a dream 50 years ago. How that dream turned into a nightmare makes for a cautionary tale as the town prepares to undertake the revitalization of the old Town Office site. The outcome of that development will impact the local sense of place and economy, Town residents hope for a better outcome this time.
Conditions in the historic village were not, according to board minutes, “as good as might be desired.” Despite initial misgivings, town officials soon decided to look into “free” federal urban-renewal funds. The catch was that the urban renewal program heavily favored a bulldoze-and-rebuild mentality.
Project funding was only available to “blighted” areas. How the initial traffic issues grew into a declaration that Moodus was a slum not worth preserving -- and how town residents were persuaded to approve the town’s “renewal” -- is the topic of Part 2.
So far in the series, we saw how Moodus residents were systematically sold a bill of goods using a swanky model of town center perfection and the lure of state and federal funds to pay most of the cost of the project.
We've seen in the preceding installments how the Moodus urban renewal project began to fall apart. While efforts to modernize downtown Moodus continued to limp along, residents endured a five-year dispiriting construction mess all over the renewal area.
We've seen how as the ill-fated project continued to unfold, personalities, financing problems, non-binding agreements and other setbacks continued to undermine the promised benefits of urban renewal.
This installment looks at alternatives to federal urban renewal, and how Chester, a nearby town in a similar state of disrepair, embraced and enhanced its historical charm to become economically viable in the modern world.
This installment caps the story of how this misguided 1967 urban renewal project brought the historic Moodus business district and surrounding residences to the ground. Townspeople, who had approved the project after years of planning, PR campaigns and public meetings, were promised a modern village center.
The ill-advised attempt decimated the heart and unique character of the old mill village. Longtime residents still miss old Moodus and speculate on what the business district could have become with a more selective approach.