Halfway through a presentation on the many ways that the Hill neighborhood has changed over the past 100 years, architect-in-training Jonathan Hopkins paused to ask the question that everyone in the audience had been considering for the past hour and a half.
“Why the city chose the site they ended up choosing for the new John C. Daniels School, I’m not quite sure,” he mused. “Because there were obviously people living there. We just watched a documentary about them.
“On the one hand, I can understand why the city wanted to remove vacant buildings from the neighborhood. But the school project simply didn’t accomplish that.”
A few dozen New Haveners gathered at the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op last Thursday night to consider this very question, as well as the history, consequences, and motivations of city-led construction projects. The catalyst for the conversation was an encore screening of The Hill, a 2013 documentary directed by Lisa Molomot about eminent domain and an extended fight between the city, the Board of Education, and neighborhood activists in the early 2000s.
Eager to use movies about New Haven as an entry point for discussions with friends and neighbors about the city’s history, Martin and Hopkins organized an encore presentation of The Hill after the first screening earlier that week played to a capacity crowd at the co-op of around 45 people.
“It’s great to be able to use this space for something completely different than what normally happens here,” Martin said before the screening, sitting beside shelves stacked to the ceiling with spare tools and parts for fixing up bicycles. “To use the co-op to foster a safe and respectful conversation about something I care so much about.”
On Thursday night, that topic of conversation was the relationship among urban planning, eminent domain, and the persistent fight for safe, affordable housing in New Haven.
As part of its 15-year, $1.6 billion school construction and rehabilitation program, the city identified an eight-acre parcel of land between Davenport Avenue and Congress Avenue as an appropriate location for a new K-8 school, which in turn would replace the Prince and Welch schools elsewhere in the neighborhood.
The one problem was that this parcel was not vacant. It was residential, and the city sought to exercise eminent domain to demolish over 100 houses and relocate 94 families (primarily African-American and Hispanic) to make way for the new school. The movie documents the struggle between the city and a select group of Hill residents who brought their case to federal court in an attempt to block the demolition of their homes and the scattering of their families.
After the closing credits rolled, Hopkins walked the audience through a PowerPoint presentation he had put together on the historical context in which this fight took place. Scrolling through slide after slide of maps, photographs, census statistics and city plans, Hopkins helped an audience mostly unfamiliar with the history of the neighborhood understand how and why the city and these activists had come to such an impasse.
As one of the people in the movie points out, “the Hill has traditionally been a neighborhood where people have lived because others in the city have not wanted to live with them,” Hopkins said. He stood in front of a map from the early 1910s that showed the Hill as the primary residence for many railroad employees and factory workers in New Haven.
“But I would more accurately describe the Hill, especially early on in its history, as an open neighborhood. Regardless of your income level or your ethnicity, you could find affordable housing in the Hill, whereas many other neighborhoods in the city were closed to most residents who didn’t make enough money. I wouldn’t say that the Hill was ever the dumping ground of the city, but that it was open to everyone, which is still true in many ways today.”
Hopkins then traced the many changes that have affected the Hill over the past century: its calamitous history with urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s; its variable demographics, from a place that was rapidly losing population in the 1990s to one that was slowly growing in the early 2000s; and the alternating paths of blight and restoration that have affected different buildings throughout the neighborhood depending on the negligence of the landlord or the willfulness of community groups.
Hopkins avoided indicting one party or another, focusing instead on the many questions that surround the history of this neighborhood. Why are property values in the Hill lower than property values in other neighborhoods? Why are some buildings designated as historic and others abandoned and demolished? Most important for Thursday night’s discussion, why did the city choose to build this new school in an area where so many people still lived?
The answer, somewhere between the city’s mandate to improve the quality of life for neighborhood residents and the Yale-New Haven hospital’s desire for a sanitized corridor around its facilities, remains opaque. But Hopkins managed to capture the general mood in the room with his initial response to the movie before he even began his presentation.
“Well, that was pretty devastating,” he said, looking out at the crowd after the final credits had rolled. The audience before him, eager to learn more about the story behind the story presented in the movie, certainly agreed.
Click on the audio player below to listen to an interview with The Hill director Lisa Molomot on WNHH’s Deep Focus radio program. Jonathan Hopkins and John Martin are planning on hosting two more screenings in this New Haven documentary series at the Bradley Street Bicylce Co-op in the upcoming weeks. The first screening will be of a movie about local artist Winfred Rembert; the second will be by Yale architecture professor Elihu Rubin. Find out more about upcoming screening dates on Facebook.