A claw will descend on television screens statewide Tuesday night—and demonstrate how the logic of well-intentioned bureaucracy can destroy a neighborhood.
It’s a chilling scene. It takes place in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. It follows two years of efforts by renters and homeowners and their supporters to save a pocket of the neighborhood.
Their efforts made it to federal court. They lost the case but earned a remarkable opinion from a federal judge who sympathized with their plight and blasted the city even as he ruled in its favor.
But in the end the demolition claw came. In mere minutes the claw ripped apart a century worth of existence, one house at a time.
The scene takes place in an hour-long documentary called The Hill. The documentary, the product of years of labor by local filmmaker Lisa Molomot, airs on CPTV Tuesday at 10 p.m. Local screenings and discussions will follow in coming months. (Read about Molomot and another of her New Haven-centered documentaries here. The new film is co-produced by her husband, Jacob Bricca, and features music by Ted Reichman.)
On the one hand the scene is all too familiar to people who have followed New Haven’s urban renewal history. It occurred throughout the Hill a half-century ago, when city leaders determined to “eradicate poverty” tore down swaths of the neighborhood and downtown in favor of parking lots and highways and forbidding institutional buildings. Destroying neighborhoods, it turned out, didn’t save them. Bulldozers didn’t eradicate poverty; they just moved it elsewhere while eviscerating the community. Nowadays historic preservation and lively, mixed-use neighborhoods and pedestrian-oriented streets are the goal of much urban planning (even in the Hill!), not seizing homes and destroying them.
And yet ... as Molomot’s The Hill recounts, the best-intentioned planners and policymakers of a new generation can still make the same old deadly mistake. And get away with it. With few people in town, at the time, giving it a second thought.
The Hill brings us back a decade to when the episode took place. The city used eminent domain to throw 94 families, most of them African-American but also some Latino and Caucasian, out of their homes to clear eight acres of land, two and a half blocks between Davenport Avenue and Congress Avenue. It did so to make way for a sprawling campus for a new K-8 school, John C. Daniels, which replaced the old Prince/Welch School elsewhere in the Hill.
Margaret Harris, Trudy Carney (pictured), and others who fought to stay in their homes tell their stories in the film.
Before the claw arrives, Gloria and Leroy Hamilton speak from the front porch of the home they love, the home they paid off in full, believing they’d never have to go in debt again to live.
Two neighborhood pastors, Ruth Drews and Bonita Grubbs, who fought alongside them, appear in the film as well. So do volunteers who helped them from a group called the New Haven Urban Design League.
So does civil-rights attorney John Williams, who pressed their case in U.S. District Court.
Those interviews are at times inspiring, at times heart-breaking, as we see Harris relocated to a senior facility where she no longer lives with her children, or when we visit with Carney at her new home in suburban trailer park, shortly before she passes away.
Equally compelling is the hunt for the villains in this crime. That proved trickier.
The movie suggests one villain in Mayor John DeStefano. He didn’t agree to be interviewed on camera. So that made it easier. The film suggests he spent $1.5 billion (largely in state money) rebuilding schools not to give kids nice places to learn, but to burnish his image as a successful leader in the hopes of becoming governor. That’s too simplistic.
But the people who drew up and carried out his plan do appear in the film. When you hear them talk, you don’t see them as villains, whether or not you agree with them. They come across as humane and talented public servants with the best of intentions. I thought of them that way when I covered the story back in 2001 and 2002, even though I was deeply skeptical of their plan based on New Haven’s urban renewal history. I thought that again when watching The Hill. They had no hidden agenda, no evil intent.
Instead, watching The Hill, you see a less visible villain emerge, the logic, or illogic, of bureaucracy and government planning.
You see how the best-intentioned and most humane and public-spirited public servants can carry out a plan that makes so much sense to them at the time, step by step—and can look so horrific a decade later, with the benefit of hindsight.
We thus see not just a story that took place in miniature in the Hill at the turn of the century, but a larger story that took place in neighborhoods throughout New Haven—and across urban America—a half-century earlier.
If we want to stop repeating that story, the film can help us avoid the easy route of turning public servants into cartoon villains (as so often happens in urban renewal criticism).
In the film we meet Gina Wells, the hard-working principal of the Prince/Welch School. She speaks of how ceilings are falling in the decrepit old school building where the kids are trying to learn, how the kids and the teachers deserve to have a nice new school.
We meet Susan Weisselberg in the film. She oversaw the citywide school construction program for the city. She worked endless hours making sure rules were followed, people were treated right, contractors did what they said they’d do. She puts as much public-spirited concern and as many long hours into her job as do people who organize to stop her.
We meet Sam Foster. He grew up in the Hill. He still lived there and worked there for the city’s anti-blight agency. He saw rundown homes in the area, drug-dealing and prostitution and street crime and crumbling building. He speaks in the film of hatching a plan that he was sure would make his neighborhood a cleaner, safer, nicer place.
In the film, we meet some neighbors, but not all of them. We don’t meet the neighbors who gladly left.
The government planners met those neighbors at the time when they set out on this adventure. Many of the neighborhood’s renters were excited to get money to move elsewhere, to safer streets, they hoped. Some homeowners were pleased to get money to flee, as well. They were easy for government to find. I found them on random reporting visits to the streets, too. I didn’t find too many people determined to stay.
As the project proceeded, it acquired a logic of its own. It made sense to the planners to tear down buildings in order to build new ones—in part because the state would reimburse the city for even more money that way, rather than to renovate the old school buildings and improve the neighborhood around them. It made sense to clear more and more land, because kids would get a great field to play in.
And the city claimed it followed all the rules, posting legal notices (that everyday people rarely read), hiring kids to leave flyers at everybody’s doors to technically give neighbors a chance to register objections. As far as the city was concerned, everybody who had an opinion was on board. The project moved ahead. Houses emptied out. Fewer eyes were on the street. The neighborhood decayed even further—building the case that it was “blighted” and destined to disappear.
It turned out some people didn’t want to leave. They liked being close to Yale-New Haven Hospital. They liked being in the city. They liked their neighbors. They liked being around family. They liked their own homes; one couple had paid off the home and no longer planned to be in debt for a place to live. Some had made their homes attractive places to live.
But as in too many impoverished neighborhoods, those neighbors hadn’t been particularly organized. They didn’t have much access to decision-makers. They didn’t have a lot of timely information about decisions being made downtown. Political leaders and government planners didn’t know them. They didn’t see them.
By the time the neighbors and their advocates began speaking up, the city was already steaming ahead with the project. Even as new information made the project seem less essential, it turned out enrollment figures were no longer making a new big school necessary; plenty of space was available at another nearby school, Vincent Mauro, to house neighborhood kids. And it turned out the city had a big vacant piece of land not far away in the Hill that could easily accommodate a new school. No need to tear down anyone’s house. No need to negotiate with recalcitrant property owners.
But it was too late. The project had formed its own rational inevitability. Each step in the decision-making process made sense to those overseeing it.
City officials expressed concern for the stragglers. They organized public events to try to link those neighbors—people with whom City Hall had been so disconnected when it had counted before—to after-the-fact relocation assistance.
The project’s logic triumphed after the neighbors and advocates made a last-ditch stab at preserving their homes in U.S. District Court, with the help of attorney Williams.
It was a momentous trial. The judge, Stefan Underhill, at one point drove from his courtroom in Bridgeport to the Hill to view the landscape for himself. He was visibly moved in court by the testimony of the neighbors. He wrote a scathing opinion when it was all done. He spent pages excoriating the city officials for heartless decision-making, for devaluing the lives of the neighbors and their neighborhood. He exposed the idiocy of not just building the school on the vacant nearby land instead, if they were so determined to build a new school.
Like people on all sides in this episode, Underhill proved himself an honest, dedicated, intelligent civic player. Which ultimately made his decision so tragic. He was intellectually honest; unlike, say, certain U.S. Supreme Court judges who come immediately to mind, Underhill didn’t try to contort the law to make it fit his preferred outcome. He wanted to rule for the neighbors. But he couldn’t in all honesty do that.
He ended his largely anti-city opinion with a verdict—in favor of the city. Under a legal doctrine known as “laches,” the city had a right to move ahead with the project if enough time had elapsed since it first notified neighbors of the eminent-domain plans. It took the neighbors too long to organize. By the time they did, the project was too far along. Under the legal doctrine, the “harm” done to the government, with all the money it had spent to date and the planning done to move schoolchildren and teachers to a new location, outweighed the harm considered done to the neighbors. (Click here to read his decision.)
During the course of the trial, Williams and others pointed out that some of the planners who pushed the project lived in middle-class New Haven neighborhoods that would never allow dozens of homes to be bulldozed. But that’s equally true of some of the opponents as well. The finger-pointing about who has standing seemed beside the point, too common an occurrence in New Haven controversies: People who choose to remain in the city to make it better end up pointing fingers at each other’s motives or personal lives while ignoring the broader social and political forces—and villains—that prey on New Haven. The true villains include predatory lenders, out-of-state real-estate speculators and flippers and mortgage fraudsters, legislatures and courts dominated by the white and the wealthy, the corporate and the suburban. A film like The Hill can help us instead probe why and how people in New Haven make decisions in trying to improve neighborhoods or build the tax base within the constraints facing urban America.
The film also shows the consequences of the lack of existing community organization in too many poor neighborhoods; no matter how well-intentioned and capable the government we elect, it too often fails to do right by a neighborhood that’s not ready to articulate and fight for its own interests.
This fight started too late. Still, some good may have come out of it.
Attorney Williams and Rev. Grubbs suggest as much in the film: It’s always a triumph, they argue, when the dispossessed make their voices heard. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Grubbs tells the group on the eve of the trial. “But we’re better off for having stood up in individuals in a position of power.”
Patricia Johnson prevailed on the city to leave her home standing, albeit with the surrounding neighborhood evaporated. The preservationists at the Urban Design League convinced the city to preserve a historic row of century-old brick townhouses known as the “Three Sisters” at the other end of the project, on Congress Avenue. The city had the buildings renovated and sold to new families. (Read about that here.)
Another positive outcome: People who care about cities now have a tale to contribute to the quest for more humane, successful urban revitalization. Filmmaker Molomot was struck by the enthusiasm of the film’s distributor (the Cinema Guild) and the early reaction from people in other communities. “It made me realize this is not just a film about New Haven,” she said in an interview this past week. “People really do care about other people.”
And the kids, most of them from outside the neighborhood, many from outside New Haven, did a get a beautiful new magnet school. Although it turned out their old home wasn’t so hopeless after all. A charter organization, Achievement First, did just fine moving a school of its own onto the premises (though it is building a new home for the school on Dixwell Avenue).
“I feel we did achieve something good for the neighborhood, for the families,” Sue Weisselberg tells Molomot at the end.
Call it progress. Planners called it that during the heyday of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s. And they did in one pocket of the Hill in the 21st Century.