Hartford Closing The Book On Ill-Fated 1940s Public Housing
November 21, 2010
Rarely has the road to hell been paved with better intentions. Seven decades ago, as the world was preparing for war, Hartford rolled up its sleeves to build new housing for workers and their families. The new housing projects were great for a time, model communities. And then, gradually but inexorably, they became as bad or worse than the slums they replaced.
This era comes to an end Tuesday with the groundbreaking for new housing that will replace last of the city's early 1940s housing projects, Nelton Court, in the North End. It will be an emotional day for Hartford Housing Authority executive director Alan E. Green, who — like so many prominent and successful people in the area — grew up in public housing in its early decades.
Green, whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, is a student of history. He pored through the records of the city's drive to build nearly 2,000 apartments in the early 1940s. There was such hope
Most of us think of the projects as they were in their last years: squalid, run-down, hopeless, violent, drug-infested rat holes. Stowe Village, Dutch Point, Charter Oak Terrace and Bellevue Square, as well as Nelton Court, became synonymous with crime and urban decay. If any of the people who built these projects lived long enough to see what they became, they must have cried.
The second annual report of the Hartford Housing Authority, for 1940-41, describes people doing God's work. The authority was eradicating slums, giving people who before couldn't afford decent housing the apartment of their dreams, improving the city. The projects, Green observed, were all built near schools, so the families could educate their children and help them get ahead.
And it worked, for at least a generation. So many people of all hues and creeds have spoken lovingly of growing up in these projects in the years after the war, the great sense of community, the friendships, the feeling of safety. One is Alan Green. He and his family lived in Rice Heights, the smaller project across from Charter Oak Terrace in the southwest part of the city.
He recalls that on Saturday nights in the 1950s, the dads in the project would get a screen or a sheet, a projector, some chairs and some food, and show movies on the lawn. And he remembers seeing the dads walking to work — few owned cars — at the nearby typewriter factories. "It was a wonderful life," he said. But after a decade, Alan's dad got a better job, which put the family over the income limit. They had to move. He was sad to leave.
What went missing, as the years went by, were two parts of the story: "work," and not long after, "dads."
The loss of those manufacturing jobs down the street, at such places as the Royal and Underwood typewriter factories (explain to your kids what a typewriter is), may be the major reason the projects went bad, but there were a host of others.
Welfare rules and civil rights legislation worked to keep multiple generations of families in the projects, Green said. Suburban flight took middle-class neighbors, many businesses and even some city churches to adjoining towns. The housing project buildings, built quickly and sometimes cheaply, began to decay. Congress lowered the rents at federally funded projects in the late 1960s, making it harder for local authorities to keep them up.
The projects were intended to be transitional, as they were for Green family. When they ceased to be that, when they began to be multi-generational residences for the very poor, they changed. With no jobs, family structure broke down and the illegal economy wormed its way in. One of Green's predecessors, John Wardlaw, called the projects "concentration camps for the poor."
That was in the 1990s, when Wardlaw and Mayor Mike Peters began taking down the big projects. Green now finishes their work. The last tenants at Nelton Court were moved out a month ago. The demolition of the 120 units in the worn, two-story brick buildings will begin about Dec.1. The project will be replaced by a less-dense 80 units, in attractive, side-by-side townhouses or two and three stories. They will be rental units for people with low incomes, essentially the people who live there now.
So the five big federal projects from the early 1940s will all have been replaced by new housing. It's all an improvement; the housing at the former Dutch Point project is gorgeous. Will it make a difference in the end, or will a new set of city officials be tearing it down in the late 21st century, wondering why it went bad?
Or, are whole parts of the city becoming like public housing projects, home to very poor people with few options other than the illegal economy?
Green is increasing the resident services part of his work, to help people get an education and a job. But are jobs going to be there? Hartford's 15.8 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the state. What are the typewriter factories of Hartford's future?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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