Arthur Perry drove to the corner of Mueller Drive and Woodin Street as he has for 20 years, only to come upon a startling new sight. He suddenly had a clear view of the potter’s field previously hidden behind a fence sealing his town from New Haven’s West Rock neighborhood.
“I’m in a state of shock right now,” Perry, an accountant, remarked as he sat behind his wheel watching a crew from Atlas Fence Co. make quick work of a 10-foot high fence that Hamden had kept up for a half-century.
“I’ve never seen this fence down. When you have the unknown, it can be a little scary. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Perry knew the fence was coming down—eventually. He and his neighbors had fought to keep the fence up. They lost. With support from the federal government, New Haven’s housing authority decided to remove the fence, known as New Haven’s “Berlin Wall,” to reconnect Hamden’s Woodin Street to three West Rock public-housing developments in the process of being rebuilt as new.
In a dramatic public ceremony last week, a crowd of neighbors on both sides of the fence joined public officials and TV crews in watching officials take a symbolic first bite out of the fence, at a spot still blocked off by a temporary construction fence. (Read all about that, and the reactions of neighbors on both sides, in this story. Click on the video to watch the climactic moment.) Perry hadn’t realized that the fence would start coming down for real right away.
The New Haven housing authority did plan all along to commence the real tear-down on Wednesday. It happened fast.
Atlas plans to have an entire 1,400-foot stretch of the fence from Elliott to Thorpe Street gone completely by week’s end. By noon Wednesday, major patches of the fence were already history. The easy patches.
This time, no officials were on scene. No cameras. No groups. Just some construction workers, a couple of Hamden traffic cops, and the occasional startled passer-by.
At the site of last week’s symbolic removal, where New Haven’s Wilmot Road will eventually be extended to connect the newly rebuilt Rockview development with Woodin at Elliott, Atlas’s Mike Smith (pictured) had already taken down pretty much the entire 10-foot high chain link fence with ...
... his Bobcat.
It looked as though no fence had ever been there.
“This stuff comes down easier and faster than what those guys are working on down there,” said his supervisor, Joe Sullo.
Sullo was pointing down the road to the corner of Mueller Drive. The fence was coming down fast there, too, though not as fast.
Atlas’s Jim Rusnack (pictured) was using a demo saw to remove braces off a second, more fortified wire-mesh fence that Hamden had erected next to the original fence to prevent people from climbing over and cutting through.
“It’s all bracketed and welded” in those spots, Sullo said. “So we have to cut all the brackets off and rip everything out. Some sections have the unclimbable stuff on it. It’s bolted right to the chain-link fence. There’s still a lot of hand work. We still have to go behind there and rip rails down, cut rails down.” A small part of the section by Wilmot Road and Elliott had that more durable fencing, but much of it covers the area from Mueller to Thorpe.
Also at the Mueller intersection, Rusnack left standing an older, rusted wrought-iron gate that stood behind the fences. The gate opens to a field that once served as a potter’s field, where indigent people were buried without headstones. New Haven housing authority chief Karen-DuBois-Walton said later Wednesday the gate will remain standing for now; no decision has yet been made about whether to fix it.
“This is staying,” at least for now, Rusnack, pointing to the wrought-iron gate, informed neighbor Mike Colaiacovo (at left in photo), who stopped to take a look. Colaiacovo has lived his entire life on the Hamden side of the fence.
“I’m just doing my job, that’s all, you know?” Rusnack told Colaiacovo. “I watched it on the news, the whole nine.”
“You watch,” Colaiacovo responded. “You may be putting it back up pretty soon.”
Tony, a retired electrician who lived on the Hamden side of the fence since his birth seven decades ago, held onto that same hope—that the suddenly vanishing fence will reappear.
Tony (who declined to give his last name) sat stunned in the front seat of his Toyota Tundra after he came upon the unannounced fence removal Wednesday morning.
“I happened to come home and saw them taking it down. I didn’t realize it was coming this fast,” he said.
“It’s down. No question about it.”
Tony recalled when the property by the potter’s field was a poorhouse, before New Haven built the original Brookside and Rockview developments.
“My grandfather owned most of the property up here” along Woodin at one time, Tony said. “We saw it go from OK to where residents of the Brookside projects tore up the neighborhood. The New Haven housing authority never did nothing about it. Nothing. Now they make all kinds of promises” about screening tenants better, about organizing joint police patrols with Hamden and New Haven cops.
Tony’s not buying it. He mentioned that neighbors have hired someone to do a second land survey to confirm that the New Haven housing authority owns the property on which the fence stood and therefore can remove the fence. A recent New Haven land survey found that the property belongs to the housing authority.
“Take some pictures of the fence coming down,” Tony said. “I hope you can take some of it going back up.”
Arthur Perry held out no such hope. He noted that Hamden’s own mayor acknowledged that New Haven’s land survey was correct, that New Haven had the right to take down the fence. He also noted that, even if a new survey magically showed otherwise, Hamden still won’t fight to put the fence back up. That’s because the federal government has threatened to sue the town for discrimination if that happens; such a suit could tie up millions of the town’s federal housing dollars. Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson said his town hired its own surveyors, who determined New Haven was correct.
“It’s over,” Perry said. “We fought a good fight.”
(Mayor Jackson agreed: “Where are we going to put up a fence? In the middle of Woodin Street on the yellow line?” He said “the fence means something to people—some level of safety and security, and a reminder that this is a good place to raise families. What we have to do is to preserve those interests—which are no different from the interests of the residents of New Haven who share our neighborhood.”)
Like other neighbors, Perry said he’s worried about increased traffic on already perilous, winding, hilly Woodin Street. He’s not sure he wants his 15-year-old son to continue riding his bike there. And he said he’s hoping that crime problems don’t return, that the housing authority will indeed do a good job screening tenants.
“Prior to them putting up the [second reinforced fence], there were a lot of break-ins. A lot of people had a lot of problems. I’ve been here now for almost 20 years. They had people who would just cut holes through the [original] fence. They would go to Stop & Shop, bring their groceries, and leave their carts right here. I don’t know if it’s kids over there now, but there would be kids that would throw rocks. We had a young lady who lived up here, kids over there were throwing rocks and busted her windshield a few times on Woodin Street.”
That was the past. Wednesday morning, the future stared at Perry, revealing little except a green potter’s field. Eventually three new roads and some private driveways will link new Rockview homes to Woodin Street.
For now, people will be able to walk across the town line at different spots along the way. Those spots will change in coming months as the housing authority gets to work on demolishing the old Ribicoff Cottages and continues building new homes at the Rockview development. The walking path will be blocked at certain points from time to time—by construction fences, temporary fences. Fences that block only small sections of what was, until the world changed Wednesday, a barricaded border between a city and its suburb.