Once A Company Town, Always A Company Townby
It used to be called "The City of Hardware." Today, after urban renewal and the closing of 9 out of 10 of the old hardware companies, some locals say New Britain, Conn., is just "the City of Highways." State Route 72, a six-lane expressway, slashes through the heart of downtown--an unmistakable signal that the real action is down the road a piece, in nearby Hartford or, perhaps, in Boston. Along the highway stand the shells of old factories.
The old urban center is a shadow of its former self. Except for the Florentine-style City Hall, Main Street and West Main have become an agglomeration of modern glass-and-stone structures--many vacant--and older buildings draped with the kind of facades thought stylish in the 1960s. Where Germans, Italians, WASPs, and Poles--whose large numbers gave the town the nickname "New Britski"--once competed for dominance, a new wave of Latin and black immigrants has arrived. Two blocks away from City Hall and the Civil War monument is Island Treasures Restaurant, a paper-plate-and-plastic-fork kind of place that serves jerk chicken and ginger beer to a Caribbean clientele. Bodegas with such names as Los Nuevos Cubanitos dot the cityscape.
Still, one of the original manufacturers that gave New Britain its identity remains operating and in good health: the Stanley Works. Known across America for its high-quality tape measures, hammers, and hardware, Stanley is this year celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1843.
ROSY GLOW. To the outside world, Stanley is New Britain. One much-aired Stanley television spot shows a paperboy bicycling past green lawns, the spires of two churches, and New Englanders at work and play. It describes New Britain as the kind of place where folks "live in the same houses their parents lived in, worship in churches where their grandparents worshiped, and work for the company their great-grandfathers built--the Stanley Works." But that video montage is a less-than-accurate rendering of New Britain today: It shows no urban decay or minority faces. And it is hardly the case that all New Britainites work at Stanley: The company employs only 2,000 in a town of 75,500.
Still, Stanley is the largest employer and, with local property that is assessed at more than $61 million, the largest taxpayer. And Stanley still wields tremendous influence. A couple of years back, when a local businessman tried to open an off-track-betting parlor near the Stanley Center, site of stockholders' meetings and other events, company execs only had to shake their heads. "I wasn't going to do anything to upset Stanley," then-Mayor William J. McNamara told the local newspaper, presumably genuflecting as he spoke.
GOOD RAPPORT. Mostly, I'm told, Stanley's role has been for good, and few locals will say an unkind word about the company. "They are really a very community-minded company," reflects local librarian Arlene Palmer. "Stanley has a homey feeling," suggests Albert Murr, a Machinists Union representative who worked at the company for more than 20 years. "The rapport between them and the
union is very, very good."
What happens to Stanley affects almost all New Britainites in some way. Take Stanley's steam-plant whistle. After some 80 years of sounding off each day at noon, the whistle fell silent in 1983. Generations of local residents had known it as an integral part of daily life: When the noon whistle sounded, women living nearby knew it was time to put lunch on the table, and kids playing in the neighborhood knew to hightail it home. Even the fruit vendor near the plant knew that it was time to get ready for the workers who would soon be passing by his stand.
The silent whistle was yet another sign of hard times. "It wasn't broken, we just quit using it to save money," says Bob Beaupre, head of Stanley's utilities department. "You know, it used steam, and it was like blowing money out the door." Neighborhood residents immediately felt the loss.
Far worse was the 1991 takeover attempt mounted by Newell Co., a maker of do-it-yourself products based in Freeport, Ill. Newell began purchasing Stanley stock and suggested merger talks. Stanley turned the coldest of shoulders, fighting back what it regarded as a hostile takeover with an antitrust lawsuit and by having its Employee Stock Ownership Plan raise its stake in the company. Meanwhile, as Stanley's stock price shot up and Standard & Poor's Corp. placed its debt ratings under review, locals held their breath.
"A lot of our employees have relatives who worked for companies such as Emhart, which was acquired by Black & Decker, and now their employment is one-tenth of what it used to be," says Ed Palasek, human-resources vice-president for Stanley's Hardware Div. and a lifelong resident of the town. "There was tremendous relief when the issue disappeared."
Stanley has had its share of cutbacks, too. Now a multinational with production facilities in 16 countries from Thailand to Poland to Australia, Stanley has eliminated some 3,000 jobs here since the 1970s. In 1990, the company opened an automated, $20 million factory near Richmond, Va., at a cost to Connecticut of an additional 100 jobs. (More recently, the company has hired about 70 or 80 people in New Britain, says Murr.) And Stanley Chief Executive Richard H. Ayres has been a critic of the high cost of doing business in Connecticut. In 1991, Stanley received $1.8 million in tax abatements and a $400,000 grant to renovate its older buildings in New Britain. But, says Ronald F. Gilrain, the company's vice-president for public affairs: "The area is basically noncompetitive."
Even as employment has dwindled, Stanley has remained the community's major patron. The company continues to earmark a disproportionate amount of its charity--funds for education, health, housing, and the arts--for New Britain, although only about 13% of its work force worldwide is located here. Last year, the company gave $200,000 to the local hospital, and, in 1993, $50,000 to the public library for a computer system. And a heavy emphasis is placed on volunteerism, with employees taking part in high-school tutoring programs and offering literacy tutoring to adults, including fellow workers.
ARTS AND BETTORS. The company also has supported the New Britain Museum of American Art, housed in a mansion built in 1907 by then-Stanley President William H. Hart. The museum has an impressive 5,000-piece collection that includes paintings by Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keeffe, and five Thomas Hart Benton murals, known as the "Arts of Life in America" cycle. A sign mounted nearby notes that the murals depict "everyday people involved in pleasures, hobbies, and work"--in other words, gambling, singing, dancing, smooching, listening to hellfire preachers, and posing for beauty contests.
While Stanley is an active participant in Vision 2000, an organization puzzling out New Britain's future, the focus lately has been on the past and on the hardware maker's 150th anniversary. Company publications encouraged veteran employees to send in accounts of their personal experiences at Stanley. More than 200 responded by turning in stories, photographs, and old Stanley wares. A June anniversary party drew 5,000 employees and locals to Willow Brook Park, where they were treated to a barbecue, fireworks, and concerts by the New Britain Symphony and local opera performers.
The celebration brought forth lots of memories and created, for a moment, a feeling that New Britain might yet avoid the fate of the Lowells and Fall Rivers, the New England mill towns that never recovered from the loss of old manufacturing jobs.
WHISTLE STOP. One reassuring sign has been the return of the Stanley whistle. A local veterans association began asking the company to revive the tradition of blowing the whistle on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Stanley tried, only to find that the whistle no longer worked. "It had deteriorated because it wasn't being used," explains Beaupre of the utilities department.
Beaupre telephoned a New Jersey trade school he had read about in an engineering magazine to ask if they knew how to fix it. The head of the school was delighted and volunteered to make the repairs free of charge. "It became a labor of love for him and his students," recalls Beaupre.
The whistle blew again last Veterans Day--and it has sounded at every noontime since. That first day, people came out of the surrounding buildings, startled because they hadn't heard it in such a long time. The familiar two tones--it begins as a bass and, as the pressure builds up, becomes more of a tenor--can be heard from as far away as a mile --even farther on days when the weather is clear.
With the whistle's revival came lots of memories for New Britain citizens. "People said it sounded like the good old days, when Stanley and the town were booming," Beaupre says. "It brightened everybody's day--it brightened my day. I feel we need tradition today, because we've lost a lot of things. It helps to bring the old Yankee spirit back."