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Finding beauty in bygone America

Martha Stewart probably has never driven down Route 15 in Connecticut. If she has, I’m guessing she didn’t set foot outside her car.

It’s not her corner of the state.

When I drove down the highway recently, I didn’t encounter Stewart’s genteel Connecticut of stone walls, Georgian homes, village greens and manicured gardens.

Instead, I passed through a grittier stretch — a glimpse of a bygone America along a bypassed road.

Interstate 91 now cuts a straight path to New Haven from Hartford. It’s as fast and dull as might be expected. Before it came about, though, its predecessor, Route 15, offered a slower — and in my eyes, more scenic — thoroughfare.

Not everyone would agree with me.

Others likely would have seen the carpet outlets, music stores, tattoo parlors, motel courts, pawn shops, tire and auto centers, ice cream stands, diners and hair salons as aging sprawl, nothing more than a hodgepodge of worn storefronts and cracked lots. I saw them as holdouts against modern conformity — and a surprise gift.

I just happened to be traveling on my birthday. As a present to her vinyl-obsessed spouse, my wife Michele pulled out her phone and looked up record stores in the region. She suggested we make a detour to a couple, and I didn’t put up much of a fight.

We were on the way to one in Wallingford, and I was in heaven, if the Pearly Gates lead to faded buildings, gaudy signs and other promising indications of thrift stores with boxes of 45s and other treasures.

“Look at all the rust!” I said. “This is my kind of town.”

But my record avarice aside, the survivors between the traffic lights on the four-lane highway appealed to me in their own right. The angular blue Olympia Diner sign perched on a chrome deco facade, a neon vision from the Eisenhower administration, pulled my eyes off traffic for a spell bordering on unsafe.

What can I say? I’ve got a thing for funky landscapes and retro Americana.

My wife is still amused by my reaction years ago during a Los Angeles trip. Driving to visit her aunt, we passed through an industrial zone of oil derricks, rail yards, warehouse and sun-baked overpasses between Long Beach and San Pedro. To most people, it would have been a wasteland, but I was delighted by my surroundings. They were straight out of the City of Angels noir films that captivate me.

Another year, Michele and I took our sons on a camping trip to the Southwest. We beheld mesas, canyons and other spectacular scenes, but I also found beauty along old Route 66 in roadside kitsch such as peeling 1950s motel cabins that resembled giant teepees.

Why am I drawn to what others might consider eyesores? It’s not as if I’m fascinated with real urban decay. There’s nothing romantic or intriguing about boarded-up buildings and crumbling interiors, just sadness.

I think my predilection for quirky structures, oddball environments or older commercial districts like on Route 15 comes from an appreciation that they still exist. They’re antidotes to the remorseless homogeneity of a corporate culture driven to spread box stores and chain restaurants so that towns become indistinguishable — at least where people shop and eat.

In contrast, idiosyncratic buildings and businesses, however modest or even scruffy, belong to a place and help define it. You’re only going to find an Olympia Diner or Pat Russo Music on the road to Wallingford. They may belong to a dying breed, but for now, they’re maintaining diversity — something we’re losing along North Atherton Street with the newest cookie-cutter strip mall in the works. I fear we will also lose a piece of our history and character when the Harner Farms apple orchards, a local fixture now downsizing from 102 to 30 acres, are eventually replaced with more of the same banks, pharmacies, phone stores and fast food joints.

Come to think of it, I love records for the same throwback individuality. They’re relics from an era when hundreds of labels, some out of their owner’s homes or the back of shops, produced music, not just a few mega-corporations. Part of the fun is learning about their histories and the artists they launched.

Plus, to find them, I need to go to some rusty places.

Send column ideas to Chris Rosenblum at chris