Willimantic: From “Thread City” to “Heroin Town” to Newfound Revitalization

Recently, I went to lunch with a friend in the neighboring village of Willimantic, Connecticut. Willimantic, which is located in the town of Windham, hugs Mansfield and Coventry, two quiet, quaint towns located in what was formerly known as Tolland County. According to the 2010 census, the population of Willimantic was 17,737 (United States Census 2010). Small and hardly noticeable, for the majority of my life, I rarely dared to enter it. Known as “Heroin Town,” with a dangerous reputation and run-down buildings, Willimantic is not exactly the kind of place you desire to find yourself in, day or night. That is why when I arrived at Not Only Juice, a recently opened restaurant on Main Street, I was pleasantly surprised.

Not Only Juice is a vegetarian and vegan restaurant with cozy wooden chairs, bright walls, and a friendly staff. The website markets itself in the following way: “our goal is to provide a healthy alternative to fast food that is fresh, local, and all natural…our prices are tax inclusive and reflect house-made prices and foods free of pesticides and refined sugars” (Not Only Juice, Menu). The menu reflects fresh, tasty options – ranging from $6 avocado toast, $10 cold-pressed juices, and $9 salads and smoothie bowls. According to the Yelp, other customers as well were impressed with this diamond in the rough: “Had a great, unique breakfast here! Love the eclectic mix of Main Street….” (Yelp 2015).

Not Only Juice store front, Main Street Willimantic
Not Only Juice store front, Main Street Willimantic

Willimantic, however, did not always have such favorable views. It has experienced drastic change since its incorporation into Windham in 1692. With abundant river waterpower due to its proximity to the Willimantic River, Willimantic was the heart of the cotton and silk production in the midst of the Civil War and up until World War II. This made it attractive to European immigrant groups like the Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans, Puerto Ricans, and Ukrainians who migrated to the United States in search of jobs (Windham Town Hall, 2015). Despite the industrialized nature of the area throughout the 1800s and most of the 1900s that led it to become known as “Thread City,” Willimantic’s economy crashed in 1985 when American Thread Company moved to North Carolina. A borough of Willimantic in 1833, a city on its own in 1893, and finally a borough again of Windham by 1983, Willimantic was no longer the prosperous New England mill town it once was by the late 1990s (Windham Town Hall, 2015).

Following the economic collapse, Willimantic turned to heroin and within decades, it became a major hub for buying and selling the drug, especially given that it sits between the large, prosperous cities of Boston and New York. The popularity of the drug in Willimantic was particularly noted when it was covered in the early 2000s by several newspaper articles like The Hartford Courant and news outlets like WFSB Channel 3 Eyewitness News. Willimantic ran rampant with drugs, unemployment, crime, and prostitution. It was only after such national reporting which took notice of the major issue that Heroin Town began to change.

Today, Willimantic’s Main Street is buzzing with restaurants just as successful as Not Only Juice. Main Street offers a eclectic offering of restaurants like Jamaica Me Crazy, Tacos La Rosa, Oriental Café, and Cafémantic just to name a few (Willimantic Downtown, Eat). The desire to revitalize Willimantic has created projects like The Willimantic Whitewater Partnership, which looks to improve the riverfront and organizations like Thread City Development, which works to enhance the Main Street area and business relationships within the town. In addition, the assistance of a federal grant and improved policing has led to a reduction in narcotics and prostitution arrests. Narcotics arrests reached 326 in 2008 and declined to 193 in 2010. Similarly, prostitution arrests reached 16 in 2007 and declined to 2 in 2010 (WFSB 2010).

View of Main Street
View of Main Street

The rise and fall of Willimantic’s Main Street mirrors the stories of the streets discussed in Zukin, Kasinitz and Chen’s Global Cities, Local Streets. While none of them exhibit exactly the same kind of circumstances and challenges that led to change in Willimantic, Willimantic does showcase commercial development from below as occurred in Shanghai. Likewise, while Willimantic is still approximately 70% white, it has begun to capitalize on its ethnic diversity through the installation of diverse shops and restaurants. While much is still to be done in order to bring returned prosperity to Willimantic, the assistance of local organizations, money, and improved policing has already made it a more pleasurable place to live and visit.

Isabel Monteleone ’16

 

Works Cited:

“About.” About. Willimantic Downtown, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

“A Brief History of Windham/Willimantic.” Town of Windham, Connecticut. 2015 Windham Town Hall, 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

C, Todd. “Not Only Juice – Windham, CT.” Yelp. Yelp, 25 July 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

“Eat.” Willimantic Downtown. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

“Menu.” Not Only Juice. N.p., 21 July 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

“Once A Drug Haven, Willimantic Sees Positive Changes 11-10-2010.” WFSB Channel 3 Eyewitness News. N.p., 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

“State & County QuickFacts.” Willimantic CDP, Connecticut QuickLinks from the US Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau, 2010. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

Zukin, Sharon, Philip Kasinitz, and Xiangming Chen. Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity From New York to Shanghai. Routledge, 2015. Print.

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