Editor's Note: Author Jennifer Alexander, co-founder of the and of KidCity Museum, allowed Middletown Patch to reprint this article, which first appeared in the Eye on Aug. 11.
I was proud to call Vinny Amato my friend, but it’s not something I could have predicted. He was 40 years my senior, a businessman and a Republican — I was a alum who’d stayed in town, a self-professed do-gooder and activist. If we were in Congress, we would have been on opposites sides of the aisle.
Instead, in Middletown, we found ourselves around the same table — united by a love of Main Street and a belief that it offered a unique stage for the individual to create something lasting and worthwhile.
On committees, at Chamber meetings and running into each other on Main Street, I often heard Vinny’s views on how we could protect our downtown from decline. He started each month with a Thursday morning meeting in the Chamber basement, discussing collaboration between the business community and the city.
He worked to create a special taxing district, so that the businesses themselves could get extra services and grow. And as his health was declining, he participated in yet another multi-year parking study, serving as the voice of the small business owner.
On that project, he worried out loud that we were making a mistake in creating a parking department rather than an independent parking authority — how would the interests of government not dominate the needs of customers? Though the votes weren’t there to create an authority, he wasn’t dissuaded from arguing for what he thought would be right for the city.
Many years ago, after a night of swing dancing up at Wesleyan, my spouse and I walked a darkened Main Street, taking advantage of the last hour of babysitting before we headed home. We stopped in front of the old vacant storefront where the original Amato’s toy store had been before it moved across to the JC Penney building. Wouldn’t it be the perfect place to hold dances right on Main Street?
Could it be a place where people would come to socialize in a healthy way and learn a new skill? The next day, Mark Masselli called Vinny and asked if we could use the old store to create a community dance hall — and without hesitation, Vinny said yes, saying that he remembered how much fun it had been to go dancing when he was younger. I’m not entirely sure that we really got his permission on the name, but that’s how came about.
I came to rely on Vinny as an uncompromising voice of common sense that gained in wisdom over the years. He was our institutional memory, reciting in astounding detail every revitalization effort that has been tried in Middletown. He was never afraid to consider new ideas, and he had the courage to speak his mind without being disagreeable. In short, he was a citizen, in the full meaning of the word.
I remember, shortly before Vinny became ill, having a chat together outside his store. He was unusually expansive that day and he talked about how there had been so many times over the years when he’d had the opportunity to move the store out of town.
“It was foolish,” I remember him saying, “but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave Main Street.” What he meant was that from a pure business perspective, and from the direction that his peers and competitors were taking, it didn’t make sense to keep the store on Main Street, where parking was a problem, where customers would have to mingle with the occasional down-and-outer on the sidewalk, and where his destiny was tied to the dwindling pool of neighboring stores rather than a shopping mall management team.
I remember looking at him and saying that I hoped he knew that his decision to stay was the foundation of his prosperity and wasn’t a mistake at all — how many of those old competitors were still in business today? He agreed that most weren’t, but it seemed like he still felt that perhaps he’d allowed sentiment to outweigh reason in that choice. At the core, it hadn’t been a business decision at all. He gestured down Main Street and said, “I just couldn’t leave the people.”
As one of those people who gained so much from knowing Vinny Amato, I’m grateful that he didn’t listen to reason and head for the mall. Without his contributions, our Main Street would be a lesser place.
In the years to come, I hope that those of us around the table will do credit to his example. Let’s do our best to help business thrive, but sometimes, let’s allow our hearts to lead.
Vinny was right — it’s the people that make our downtown unforgettable. He will long be remembered in this community, and not only because his name lights up, one letter at a time, over Main Street.