The redevelopment of the Allen-O’Neill project on Noroton Avenue has been looked at from the current residents’ perspective.
It’s been looked at from the neighbors’ perspective
And the Darien Housing Authority’s, and the town’s, and the state’s.
Still there’s one group that hasn’t weighed in yet — but they’re about to: 100-plus of them.
This Sunday, July 15, a special reunion will take place at the VFW across the street from the moderate income homes, as former Allen-O’Neill residents from all over the country drive, bus, and fly in to take one last look at their childhood neighborhood before it is gone forever.
Angie Risola Roberts is taking the red eye flight in from California just in time to join her old friends, and three siblings, at the party beginning at noon on Sunday.
The reunion, which took shape after friends connected on Facebook to share memories and photos, will include more than 100 former Allen-O’Neill residents, many of whom understand the need for change, but still find it hard to say good-bye.
For the Risola family, the good-bye to their former childhood home is even more emotional, as they recently lost their mother, who is tied inextricably to their memories of childhood at Allen-O’Neill.
Roberts said her brother and her sister are coming in from Florida, as well as another brother who also lives in California.
She’ll be staying with friends who still live in the neighborhood and haven’t yet been relocated in order to make way for the renovations.
The redevelopment, which would double the developments’ homes in density and received approval for $2.47 million of 9% low income tax credits from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority last year, kicked off in March.
The plan will double the current 53 single-family home units to 106 units.
Roberts said someone recently posted a photo of her family’s former home, and she was surprised at how emotion she got seeing it, and remembering her mother there.
“I started crying. I know things have to happen, but it’s sad. I’ve seen the plans and it looks like it is going to be nice, but it is hard to see the history of the place go away,” she said.
Former Allen-O’Neill resident and local historian Tom Kessel has taken more than 500 photos of his neighborhood and documented the current renovation process.
Until this past March, Kessel said he lived at 20 Allen-O’Neill Drive, the apartment building “that was formerly the mess hall for the Fitch Home for Soldiers.”
The veterans home relocated to Rocky Hill in the 1940s. The apartment building was the only structure that remained from the former home.
“Someone’s got to capture the rich history that goes with Allen-O’Neill Drive,” he said.
Some former residents shared memories with The Darien Times on Facebook.
Jodi Gerstenmaier said she “couldn’t have picked a better place to grow up.”
“Every Thanksgiving, you could go out to the greens with a football, and before you know it you would have enough kids and parents for a full-fledged football game,” she said.
Gerstenmaier said those who didn’t play sat along the sidelines and cheered on the game.
Curt Tota, another former resident, said the spot is the highest elevation in town and has been used since the Revolutionary War — he suggested the ground should be dug for relics and artifacts.
Robbie Ash Doherty said the neighborhood residents take care of each other “and raised each other in a fun, safe, comfortable and forever loving environment.”
Doherty said the renovation comes as a blessing in disguise as it serves as the impetus to gather old friends together this weekend.
“We are all gathering to rise up on the dirt piles that once were the sacred grounds of our secluded little safe haven,” she said.
Susan Vasone, a former Darienite who did not grow up in that neighborhood, said she was touched by the coming together of former residents.
“When I think of the Darien I grew up in, my thoughts and memories mirror many of what has been shared,” she said.
“How fortunate and well-thought out to have this reunion to congregate and truly acknowledge how far you have all come to share the pride,” Vasone said.
Former Allen-O’Neill resident Linda Palucci said she lived there for 18 years and “they were happy years.”
The group, which has gotten themed T-shirts for the event, comes together this Sunday, July 15 at the Darien VFW, which is the former chapel of the Fitch Home for Soldiers that was relocated across Noroton Avenue.
For Roberts, the day will be a mixture of joy and sadness, catching up with old friends and her family, and knowing when she leaves, she will be saying good-bye to her childhood home — that seemed to be fixed in time up until now — forever.
“Even the cracks in the sidewalk are the same,” she said.
Roberts said she does not envy old friends who still live there having to watch their childhood torn down before their eyes.
“It’s emotional for us. It’s the history of the place, that’s a lot of it. The old soldier’s home, the trees, the apartment building — the history,” she said.