“It’s about time!” William Tucker exclaimed after watching a barrier fall Monday—a barrier that kept “his side” walled off from New Haven.
You may not have expected to encounter a thumb’s up on Tucker’s side of the fence. The cheering mostly occurred, as expected, on the other side.
Amid the cheers and jeers, a nuanced story was revealed that both reflected—and in some ways contradicted—popular notions about geographic, class and racial divisions in 21st century Greater New Haven.
Tucker (pictured at left) was standing Monday on Woodin Street with fellow Hamden homeowners. They gathered to observe operators of two Volvo rubber-tire excavators demolish the first 30-foot segment of a 1,500-foot, 10-foot high fence that has separated Hamden from New Haven’s West Rock neighborhood for a half-century.
New Haven’s housing authority—which recently discovered that it owns the land on which Hamden had erected that fence—plans to remove the entire fence in coming weeks as part of a larger $200 million-plus rebuilding of all four public-housing developments in the West Rock neighborhood. It plans to build a housing authority-owned extension of Wilmot Road and a couple of new private driveways to connect to Hamden’s Woodin. It plans to construct two other nearby road extensions later this summer. (Read about that, and about the attendant controversy over land ownership and road extensions and driveways, here.)
The world didn’t end as excavator operator Romyson Damasceno (pictured at right) lowered his bucket around 11:30 a.m. Monday and tore down a 30-foot segment of the “notorious” fence. But with the evaporation of a half-century-old barrier, the possibility of a different relationship between city and suburb emerged. (People won’t be able actually to walk through the property for some weeks as construction continues.)
Hamden began erecting iterations of the fence in the middle of the 20th century. (Precise dates vary depending on whom you ask.) It erected the barrier to keep out the crime that used to infest the West Rock developments. The fence came to be seen as a version of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of urban-suburban divisions in Connecticut.
Monday’s event (click on the play arrow to watch it) unfolded to some extent according to the symbolic script. Some of Tucker’s neighbors continue to oppose the fence’s removal, plan to seek new ways to stop it. But as Tucker’s reaction demonstrated, the underlying reality was more nuanced, as it has been throughout the saga.
Nuance one: The fence went up, then stayed up, during decades when the Brookside, Rockview, and Westville Manor projects descended into blight and crime, isolated warrens in the shadow of West Rock where CT Transit feared sending buses after dark, where an estimated half or more of children went home to adults struggling with substance abuse. The public-housing tenants there were almost uniformly black. Homeowners on the Hamden side were largely blue-collar or middle-class families who had made it a step up, who didn’t want to live amid crime and blight. Today, as the fence starts coming down, it’s the New Haven side that has the newer, more spacious homes. As at other “new urbanist” style makeovers of New Haven public-housing developments like Quinnipiac Terrace and Elm Haven, the homes at the new Brookside (pictured above) ...
... and Rockview Terrace look like colorful middle-class stretches from the set of The Truman Show. The housing authority is building six of its most impressive new townhouses, to be occupied by homeowners, right on the property fronting Woodin Street. That’s where the housing authority plans to build new driveways and an extension of Wilmot Road onto Woodin, plans Hamden recently refused to consider approving. The refusal led to a threat of a federal discrimination suit, and the decision by Mayor Toni Harp to just go ahead and tear down the fence.
West Rock Alderman Carlton Staggers (pictured) acknowledged the reversal of architectural fortune in remarks delivered at a Wilmot Road press event prior to the fence-segment-removal Monday morning. “We’re going to take this fence down, and charge you to come to this beautiful place,” Staggers said, addressing invisible Hamden neighbors (who were instead gathered down the road at the fence rather than up the road at the press event). “Look at it!”
Meanwhile, Hamden neighbors speak about crime they live with now—crime that has existed with the impenetrable fence in place.
Nuance number two: While the West Rock tenants are mostly black, the Hamden neighbors are by no means all white. Many are black. And their views vary. Some, like William Tucker and neighbor Felecia Jones, used to live on the West Rock side of the fence. They lived near each other in the old Brookside apartments. Twenty years ago, around the same time, they bought homes off Woodin Street in Hamden.
“It’s about time. It’s about time!” Tucker said Monday. “They’ve taken down fences in South Africa. We still had a fence between New Haven and Hamden. There’s something wrong with that picture.”
“Fences are coming down all around us,” agreed Jones.
To be sure, many of the Hamden neighbors remain livid, and fearful, about the fence removal. New Haven and Hamden officials have promised joint police patrols to ensure that crime doesn’t seep across either side of the border. Mike Colaiacovo (pictured) has lived on the Hamden side for the entire existence of the fence. For now, he said Monday, his biggest fear isn’t crime. It’s all the new cars he expects to see driving through.
His son, Mike Colaiacovo Jr., represents the neighborhood as a Hamden councilman. He said he expects the Legislative Council Monday night to vote to authorize an independent land survey to check whether New Haven’s housing authority indeed owns the land (a claim that Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson said his town’s attorneys have confirmed). “We’re going to do an A-1 survey, which is lot more accurate,” Colaiacovo Jr. said. “I’ve got the surveys in the car.”
Then there are neighbors like Mark Hill, who said he had “mixed emotions” watching the fence start to come down: “I don’t know how the area is right now. I know there used to be [crime at the] old Brookside. I’m not sure if things have changed drastically or not.”
On New Haven’s side of the fence Monday, the nuances had more to do with how cities and regions develop.
The fence has caused people living in public-housing developments in West Rock to travel as long as an an hour and a half to get half a block to the other side in order to reach to friends or stores or jobs. The removal of “this notorious fence,” as housing authority Executive Director Karen DuBois-Walton (pictured) put it, reflects a broader new approach to public housing. She called Monday “a day to celebrate fairness and equity ... We don’t believe the way to solve problems is by segregating” people.
Her subsequent remarks tacitly acknowledged that New Haven played a role in that segregation, in the way it built a mini-city of public-housing complexes cut off from the rest of town.
In demolishing all the old housing developments and building new ones (never will they be officially called “projects”), her authority has crafted mixed-income, less crowded communities, combining renters with homeowners, DuBois-Walton noted. The new designs are intended to end the isolation of people living in people housing, she said. So is the removal of the fence, which took place over the objections of Hamden neighbors on the other side.
“One day we will look back at this and wonder what the fuss was all about,” DuBois-Walton said.
“Today I am very excited that the fence that has separated and inconvenienced and intimidated residents all these years is coming down,” declared Mayor Toni Harp (pictured, between the housing authority’s DuBois-Walton and Jimmy Miller, ceremoniously cutting tape that blocked access to the fence). “Today I am very excited by the prospect that we will begin stitching this community back together again. As New Haven’s new mayor I have less interest in why this fence was built than I do in why it now must go. New Haven is the hub of a vital region – Hamden is a vitally important component of the region we all call home.”
Among those listening to Harp speak was Dilias Ratchford, who moved into one of the new Brookside homes in January. Ratchford, who works at Yale-New Haven Hospital, grew up in the old Brookside apartments, and chose to return to the newly rebuilt ones. “It’s peaceful,” she said. “I can definitely see a change.” The housing authority says it screened tenants carefully.
Ratchford (who declined to be photographed) said she hopes at some point to buy her own home. “That doesn’t make me better than anyone else,” she said. “We’re all breathing the same air.”
William Tucker made the same point Monday on the other side of the crumbling fence. He made that same transition two decades ago, from Brookside tenant to nearby homeowner. “If you’re able to own your own home, that’s the difference between being on this side of the fence and that side of the fence,” he said. Then he corrected himself. That was the difference.