GET YOUR FIX
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Newcomers, we get it. Sometimes you miss home. Inside, your fellow big-city transplants offer a few suggestions for the next time you need a taste of life before the suburbs—or reminders about why we all love living here.
New York and L.A. sound like the coolest places to call home, but a steady stream of folks from these sea-to-shining-sea bookends settle in our quaint coastal town in Connecticut. OK, so “folks” may seem like a misnomer; maybe “trendsetters,” “hipsters” and “jetsetters” are more fitting labels for these big-city transplants. But when you meet some of them in this story and learn why they picked Westport, Weston or Wilton, what they love about these towns, and how they’ve adapted—both personally and professionally—you will find they mesh quite nicely with the folks around here. They also infuse the unique flavor of their cities into our towns, creating an irresistible combination of New England charm and urban flair. Whether you are a new arrival here or an old-timer, read on for insider tips on getting your East Coast or West Coast fix right here, as well as appreciating those places and experiences that are quintessential to this area.
FINDING THE ’BURBS
People are drawn to these parts for all different reasons; just visit Compo Beach, our public schools, or Main Street, and a few of the obvious ones will be as clear as the blue sky over Long Island Sound.
Actress Melissa Joan Hart (Westporters know her as Melissa Wilkerson) and her husband, musician Mark Wilkerson, had no ties to Westport when they decided to leave L.A. in 2009 and raise their family here. They looked at Nashville, the North Shore of Long Island and Fairfield County. They had friends in Darien and Stamford, but Westport won. “We wanted new construction, a community feel and, of course, good schools,” explains Hart. “I loved the downtown area, the river, the shops and restaurants.” The housing crisis made selling their house in L.A. difficult, so the Wilkersons had time to visit Westport in every season. “It was the dense trees, fireflies and snowfall that really warmed my heart,” she says.
The Burmeisters moved from L.A. to Westport in 2014 when Paul was offered a job as an anchor for NBC Sports Network in Stamford. “Our move was really last minute,” says his wife, Anne. “We lived in a beach town in California that had a really strong public school system, and people there universally recommended Westport—also a beach town, with people who are active outdoors and support the public schools.”
Jodi Schoenbrun Carter and her husband, Brian Carter, an actor, had a tough decision to make when she was offered the role of managing director at Westport Country Playhouse. They weren’t really ready to leave New York City, but they discovered a culturally rich community here. “Westport has such an active life in the arts,” says Jodi. “We realized we aren’t suburbanites, but we are Westporters. It has a small-town feel, but you get New York too. It’s ideal.” The couple also found that a yard and beach is especially nice if you happen to have five dogs.
“Granola Bar and Organika—those feel very close to the every-street-corner kind of places in California. Border Grill—similar to the taquerias there. The Farmer’s Market and anywhere that serves local food, like Bill Taibe’s restaurants and Lobster Burger. It’s not the same food, but the notion that you can source locally is very L.A.”
Laura Maged, owner of the boutique West in Westport, went from Long Island (where she grew up) to L.A. to New York to Westport. Her husband grew up in Manhattan. “Everyone told us Westport,” says Laura, who also was drawn to the town’s “strong arts heritage.” The beach sealed the deal. “The water is my happy place. We visited Compo and I thought, OK, the kids can play on the beach. It felt right.”
Megan LaBant Abrahamsen, owner of Blue Star Bazaar grew up in Wilton and gradually worked her way back here after ten years in New York. “My husband, Mark, our dog, and I were sharing a one-bedroom apartment,” says Megan. “We wanted to raise our kids with more space and a green environment. We took baby steps, though, and moved to Stamford before settling in Wilton.”
Hart says Westport’s government website (westportct.gov) was an essential tool for planning their move and new life. Hart pictured herself rowing on the river and did for several years at the Saugatuck Rowing Club. Now she enjoys tap class and is taking Italian through Continuing Ed at Staples. Hart loves that their friends here hail from the South, Mexico, Scandinavia, India… “L.A. feels like a small town because everyone is in the same business,” she says. “Here you have people from all different walks of life and all different countries living in a small town.”
Anne Burmeister started volunteering at her boys’ schools as soon as she arrived but craved a deeper connection to the community. “The cool thing about Westport is that people our age are quite politically and civically active,” she explains. “I found that really inspiring. I started volunteering at Wakeman Town Farm, and I immediately felt like that was my place and I was invested in the town. Wakeman is a place that demonstrates sustainable living, so that pulled from my experience in Southern California, and the farm part goes right back to my youth growing up in Iowa.”
“If I’m looking for that NYC vibe plus food, I go to Kawa Ni. If I’m in the mood for something quieter, but with outstanding food, I’ll sit at the bar at The Cottage. I can’t get enough of their brisket buns with kimchi.”
Paul Burmeister adds, “Annie and I had moved from Iowa to Philadelphia to Los Angeles before, but going from L.A. to Connecticut was the first time we had made a move as a family of four. Our son Ben tried out for a baseball team the first week we moved, and the parents of that team were our first friends, welcoming us into the group right away. Both boys made friends quickly at school and that paved the way for us to settle in. The exclamation point for us has been Annie’s relationship with Wakeman Town Farm. Her connection to that place and their people has meant as much to our happiness here as anything.” (Paul seems to have zeroed in on the key to settling in anywhere: Happy wife, happy life!)
Kristy Gordon, owner of The Hair Genies, moved from the city to Westport and then to Weston a few years ago. “We wanted to build a house and found great land at a good price,” she explains. To settle in, she joined Weston Women’s League. “It was a great way to meet other people,” she says.
George Venizelos, who grew up in Manhattan, comments about raising his son, Greg, in Easton and Weston: “There is this Zen-centered calm compared to growing up in a major city. You can always live in the city later.” His wife, Michele, was fighting cancer when they moved out of the city. Becoming actively involved with the EQUUS Foundation helped George settle in during a tumultuous time. Sadly, Michelle passed away in 2008. Venizelos, now a Westport resident, kept giving back and went on to sponsor Moffly Media’s Light a Fire contest for six years.
Laura Maged was attracted to the artist scene in Westport. She got involved by sitting on the board of the Westport Arts Center for eight years.
“Lera Jewels, my favorite jewelry, has an L.A. vibe—[designer Ronit Tarshis] does a lot of Red Carpet events. Joy Ride also has an L.A. feel. Zaniac for ‘Palo Alto meets Westport’—I take my kids there for coding, math, chess, STEM.”
—Melissa Joan Hart
Kelly Coveny, chief innovation officer at Milk advertising agency in SoNo (as well as an author, singer and poet), grew up in Greenwich but lived in Chicago, London and New York before venturing back to Connecticut. “We rented in Westport initially,” she says, “because I wasn’t sure it would work not being two blocks from everything. We had the warmest reception when we moved onto our street. Half our neighbors came by with cookies and said hello. Westport is such an arts-centric place and full of individuals doing creative things. It’s the closest to New York without being in New York. It was an adjustment, but I don’t miss living in the city at all.” The Covenys do family overnights in New York a few times a year to soak in the culture and museums there.
TAILORING A CAREER
Jodi Schoenbrun Carter and Paul Burmeister both came to this area due to job offers, but others had to make adjustments in their careers due to their move (and Jodi eventually would too). The big adjustment for Brian Carter, as an actor, was the commute to New York, but he found a silver lining: “It’s great to have the train ride in to look over scripts and prepare for auditions.” Brian has added director and instructor to his wheelhouse and has found Westport to be a perfect hub. His first short film, Night Monster, was shot right here in Westport, and as an acting teacher for Triple Threat Academy (founded by Westport native Cynthia Gibb), he has discovered a wealth of talent in our artsy towns.
Jodi redirected her career in 2012 and launched her own talent management company, 1022m. “It’s named after the 10:22 p.m. Metro-North train,” says Jodi. When working on productions in New York, she said, “I’d tell the actors they could do whatever they wanted after shows, as long I made the 10:22.” That train no longer exists, but Jodi now maintains a more flexible—though nonstop—schedule. “I work seven days a week and all holidays, but I split my time between home and my office in midtown.” Jodi is also a producer, and one of her films was shot at Burying Hill Beach.
Back to Nature
“My brother happens to own the Schoolhouse Restaurant in Wilton…for a full Connecticut experience, there’s nothing like dining in an old one-room schoolhouse. Also, as a family, we spend a lot of our time on weekends hiking in the local forests.”
Melissa Joan Hart didn’t let her new base interfere with her starring role on Melissa & Joey; she just flew back and forth between her family here and her job in L.A. for the first five years they lived here. Not surprisingly, she says, “I didn’t really settle in until after that.” But over time, Hart discovered “there are a lot of entertainment people in this town.” She found an agency with a major hub in New York, and she has built up the production company, Hartbreak Films, she owns with her mother, Paula. They have shot two Christmas movies in Connecticut (and cast several Westporters). Hart also has begun directing. Getting to Wales to direct Anjelica Huston in Watcher in the Woods was easier from the East Coast than it would have been from L.A.
When Laura Maged encountered a lot of local women complimenting her on her L.A. wardrobe, she thought, “People here really like my California style, so why don’t I bring it here?” Her store West, which opened in 2016, brings “a piece of the West to Westport. I try to carry brands others don’t, so it feels fresh and new, with a West Coast vibe. The clothes are less seasonal.” Maged is big on the “high-low” mix: “pairing a very chic expensive blazer with a ripped-up rock-n-roll tee, for example.” Laura owns a home in L.A., so she has a bicoastal perspective on trends.
“My secret spot has always been Burying Hill Beach. I love to bring my book to this quiet beach for a long read, and also to watch the older swimmers who come for their daily swim, as they have done for years. My other favorite place in town is Wakeman Town Farm. It’s one of the last remaining pieces of farm property in an area that was once an agricultural hub. It’s a special place where residents can come to feel like they are part of a small town.”
—Christy Colasurdo (a New Yorker turned twenty-year Westport resident)
When Megan and Mark Abrahamsen moved out to Weston, they both were still commuting to New York. He’s in finance; she was working in fashion on the corporate level. After they had their first son, Megan decided to take a year off. She then launched her own business, initially with online sales, trunk shows and pop-up events. Six years ago she opened Blue Star Bazaar in Wilton. “It has an eclectic vibe,” say Megan. “I carry a lot of lesser-known, up-and-coming brands. I’ve had people say the store reminds them of Brooklyn. It’s in an older building, with wide-plank floors and fireplaces.”
Stephanie Webster, founder of the blog CTbites, came to Westport from Manhattan via Seattle. “I had been out of the workforce for too many years. I enjoyed volunteer work, but I wanted to create and build something,” she explains. “When I arrived in Westport I wasn’t sure if I was going to love it or hate it…hence the ‘Bites’ part of CTbites. I’ve always been marginally food obsessed, and while living in Seattle, we ended up doing a deep dive into the local food scene. The proximity to farms and vineyards (not to mention Asia) gave chefs the resources to create some really interesting food. The environment got me engaged in food in a serious way.”
The West Coast also made an indelible impression on Tracy Yost, who spent three years in Santa Cruz. “I just absolutely loved it, mostly because of the pedestrian lifestyle,” she says. The former Greenwich Country Club fitness director returned to Connecticut, chose Westport for its “vibrant downtown and beachy influence,” and decided to start her own business. “Westport Bike Rentals is my attempt at bringing the chill West Coast spirit to the East Coast,” she says. Her company rents out beach cruisers (delivered to your home) and runs bike tours.