John Wardlaw came to Hartford as football player and left it as one of the city’s most influential public figures. The man who reinvented the city’s concept of public housing and changed the very look of Hartford itself passed away at home last Friday, November 7. He was 72.
Wardlaw, a native of Asheville, NC, first came to Hartford as a professional football player. He later began working with city youths and then joined the Hartford Housing Authority (HHA) as Executive Director in 1978, a post he held until his retirement in 2005. By that time, public housing in Hartford had been completely transformed and the once popular phrase “The Projects” had been virtually eliminated from the city’s vocabulary.
Hartford’s major public housing projects, including Dutch Point, Charter Oak Terrace, Bellevue Square and Stowe Village were built during and shortly after World War II. The intent of city leaders was to provide quality housing for low-income families. But as manufacturing jobs began to leave Hartford in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the public housing projects began to decline. By the time Wardlaw took over at the HHA, “The Projects” had become overcrowded tenements beset by crime, poverty and despair.
In the mid-1990’s Wardlaw embarked on his radical plan to demolish the old housing projects and replace with new, less dense residential developments.
The massive Charter Oak Terrace Complex, which was located on the Hartford-West Hartford town line, was the first to go. Over 900 residential units were demolished and, in their place, the HHA built approximately 300 units in duplexes and single-family homes. The new Walmart Shopping Center was also built on the site of Charter Oak Terrace, as well as a new job training center.
Stowe Village, a North End housing project with over 30 building was also demolished and 100 single-family homes were built on the site. Bellevue Square, also in the North End, was transformed from 300 units to 127 apartments and townhouses. Dutch Point, in the Sheldon-Charter Oak neighborhood, was also demolished and is currently entering the final phases of its reconstruction.
In an interview with the Hartford News shortly before the demolition of Charter Oak Terrace, Wardlaw said, “I can build shiny new buildings, sure, but in a few years things will be back to the way they were...It’s not about buildings, it’s about people. We have to build hope as well as houses.”