Berlin Wall Falls; World Doesn’t End

Paul Bass Photos“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.

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posted by: hamdenite on May 12, 2014  3:46pm

As numerous people including this article linked to below have pointed out, New Haven put up the fence originally. New Haven also chose to put economically disadvantaged people in an isolated area. Stop making Hamden the “bad guy”

posted by: Noteworthy on May 12, 2014  5:02pm

Rubbing it the face of Hamden and working to launch federal investigations is not how you stitch a region together, as if it needed to be put back together.

posted by: Seth Poole on May 12, 2014  9:23pm

The fence had to come down, and we will all be better because of it.  It did not prevent anyone from crossing the border into Hamden; it just made the trip to get around longer.  I am not sure if the folks in Hamden have seen what has been built on the other side of the fence. 

They should be invited over for lemonade and real slice of pizza.

posted by: canadachris on May 12, 2014  9:52pm

Bravo Mayor Harp!!

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 13, 2014  11:31am

There was a massive housing shortage after World War 2 so the government enabled funding for housing to alleviate some of that strain. Initially, Rockview and Brookside were filled with working families with a range of incomes. However, as homeownership became highly incentivized through government subsidy, the better off tenants opted to move out in favor of single family homes, while the less well-off remained to be joined by increasingly poorer neighborhoods.

At the same time, New Haven’s manufacturing base was eroding beneath the feet of the working class. The new service economy had found its home in suburbs like Hamden is office parks and shopping centers, which were inaccessible to West Rock neighbors due to the fence.

Without even knowing what Brookside and Rockview were like in the 80s and 90s, it wouldn’t be difficult to guess what would happen given these circumstances.

The fence wasn’t the only factor in West Rock’s decline, but it certainly was one. The redevelopment of the West Rock housing complexes into more mixed-income residential communities has helped to address many of the issues that plagued the previous projects. The fence removal will address another issue, and expanded/reorganized transit service to connect residents to both downtown New Haven and Hamden’s employment areas will go a long way to ensuring the West Rock thrives. The last piece will entail further mixed-use development that provides jobs, services and goods within close proximity to residents in the neighborhood.

posted by: Bob Solomon on May 14, 2014  2:45pm

Well, it’s nice to see the fence come down, but some of the descriptions of the history are off. First of all, Rockview and Brookside, when built, were different in critical ways. Rockview was federally subsidized low-income housing, while Brookside was state-funded moderate income housing. They were built on very different models - Rockview was rolling terrain, curved roads, and attempt to suburbanize public housing. Brookside was laid out more traditionally, with familiar street grids. Most of the opposition to Brookside came from the real estate community, which felt Brookside presented unfair competition. Brookside residents had higher incomes, and in the early years, there was a great deal of conflict between Rockview and Brookside residents. It was only after Brookside defaulted on its loans that the Housing Authority became the owner, and the criteria for admission merged. The fence came later. When Rockview opened in 1952, residents had to sign loyalty oaths to the United States. The federal government did not cut through the road to meet Wilmot, but claimed that it would when vehicular traffic justified it. However, the feds also told Hamden that it would have veto power over any cut-through. For years, that’s the way things stood, with twenty-five feett of grass separating New Haven and Hamden. Hamden built the fence later, and I have no idea why it was built on New Haven land. That part is pretty ironic. As for John DeStefano, I can attest that he tried to have the fence removed. When I was at the Housing Authority, we met with the Hamden Mayor, without success. This was an important issue to Mayor DeStefano.

posted by: tonyotto8878 on May 16, 2014  10:05pm

Where can I find old photos of the Rockview and Brookside developments? Doesn’t seem to be anything via google regarding Rockview besides one very small picture of a boarded up unit.

I’d like to see how the neighborhood has changed from the past to the current layout in West Rock. I’m surprised HANH hasn’t posted more before/after pictures to further compliment the dramatic change.