Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

Life At Dutch Point Slowly Fades Away

As demolition looms for the bleak housing project on the southern edge of downtown Hartford, some tenants are happy to get out. But others fear they might end up someplace worse.

September 26, 2004
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

Her friend Beba sits next to her, idly pulling on her hair and trying to decipher a word scramble involving world capitals. Next to them is a dozing cat named Scarface that usually can be found roaming the alleyways, preying on the mice that have populated the project for years.

These days, the mice far outnumber the tenants. All but a few dozen families have been moved out of Dutch Point, the city's last large-scale public housing project. In a few weeks, the project on the southern edge of downtown Hartford will be demolished to make way for modern apartments and townhouses.

Dutch Point, like public housing across the country, was built on the theory that the poor could live happily and safely in high-density complexes. Now, the thinking is that dispersing low-income people to scattered neighborhoods and smaller projects is a better idea, and people such as Tasha and her family ultimately will bear out whether that's true.

Demolition of the bleak project and several nearby buildings is forcing the relocation of 186 families at government expense. It may improve life for the people of Dutch Point. It will remove an eyesore just a few blocks from Adriaen's Landing - the city's latest multimillion-dollar dream of revitalization aimed at drawing conventioneers and tourists to Hartford.

Most Dutch Point families have been happy to leave, hardly sentimental about a place where space was often so cramped that couches doubled as beds, doorway stoops served as desks, windows functioned as doors. At night, the sound of shouting matches and gunfire - byproducts of a persistent drug trade - often forced parents to keep their children inside at night.

But for the last families, leaving Dutch Point has not been such an easy proposition. Some have had a hard time finding a place they can afford. Some don't want to move to other neighborhoods, particularly in the North End, that they perceive as more dangerous. Others simply haven't taken any steps to move.

Yet signs are everywhere that change is unavoidable, as more and more windows are boarded over and courtyards that once teemed with people are barren. For those who remain, Dutch Point has become a quieter place where space, once so short in supply, has become abundant.

On this September afternoon, Tasha and Beba's moment of peace is shattered when a group of men, some teenagers, some older, walk by the stoop and one of them asks the girls what they are doing.

Tasha pours out an angry stream of profanities at them, her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing. "What do you care what we're doing?" she growls.

The boys, momentarily startled, gawk for a second and then break out in awkward laughter. Their laughter suggests they aren't intimidated, but they walk by without a response - which is the reaction the girls wanted.

Just then, a younger boy named Jorge Diaz struts up to the stoop and is greeted by more profanity. But Jorge smiles gently and jokes that the girls are lucky to have a guy like him around. They're his friends, and once he dishes out his own verbal assault, the girls can't help smiling slightly as he sits next to them to distract them.

"I'm already done with my homework," he brags. "You want help?"

"Hell, no," replies Beba. "I don't need your help."

But Jorge stays, and the girls return to their studies. At Dutch Point, Jorge and the girls have learned to find the warmth and friendship hidden behind rough exteriors, and to savor them without having to acknowledge them.

Iron Bars And Flower Pots

Contradictions are everywhere at Dutch Point. It was built in the early 1940s as temporary housing for defense industry workers, but it became one of the city's most enduring way stations for the poor.

Until the eruption of drug traffic and urban decay in the 1970s, Dutch Point was held up by city planners as a model of what could happen when the government extended a hand to people in need. Residents on low or lower-middle incomes clamored to live there because of the clean, grassy expanses between rows of well-kept, barracks-style buildings. Tenants felt comfortable leaving their doors unlocked. Everyone watched out for their neighbors' kids.

"Everyone wanted to live here," recalls Margaret Green, who has lived at Dutch Point for more than 30 years. "It was a nice place to live, it truly was. Nothing like what we have today."

Now the yards are choked with weeds and heavy chains bar the doors and windows of empty apartments. Graffiti covers the walkways. It's hard to make an apartment feel homey when the windows are protected by sloping iron bars, but some tenants have tried by installing flower pots inside the bars or cultivating small gardens outside their doors. Stray cats and dogs, many of them abandoned by departed tenants, use the bars as places to sleep.

Matilda Sanchez, who moved to Dutch Point when she was 12, remembers when the project was gripped by gang violence, when it was not uncommon to hear gunshots even during the daytime or to find out that a neighbor had been killed. Even though there hasn't been a homicide reported at Dutch Point in more than five years, Sanchez still hears occasional gunshots from the streets outside.

Despite the crime, dirt and noise that have plagued Dutch Point for years, some residents remain skeptical about the city's ability to find them a better place.

Sanchez tries to put those people at ease in her work for Housing Opportunities Unlimited, the contractor hired by the city to make sure all Dutch Point tenants are moved out by the end of October, when demolition is set to begin. Every day Sanchez tries to make contact with tenants who have not arranged to move, offering to show them a range of housing options and reminding them they will not have to pay for the move themselves.

Sanchez is reluctant to move herself. A single mother, she has built a convenient life, shuttling her two kids to nearby schools every morning, shopping at local stores and seeing local doctors.

The life she shares with her two daughters - Shawntee Rivera, 12, bookish and thoughtful, and Jacquelin Borrero, 7, chatty and bubbly - is based on routine. On one recent weekday morning, Sanchez prepared breakfast sandwiches in the family's small kitchen while the girls hustled to get ready for school.

The apartment, like others at Dutch Point, is short on style, long on function. The living room is compact and square, with plaster walls, and the girls' bedroom barely has room for a pair of beds and a dresser. When Sanchez stumbled on an imitation fireplace that a friend of hers was planning to throw out a few years ago, she refurbished it and made it a centerpiece to give her apartment some individuality.

"It helps to be creative because you never know what you can do with stuff that's just laying around," says Sanchez, who also adorns her home with images of angels. "That's something I try to pass on to my girls."

As proof, both Shawntee and Jacquelin show off drawings they've been working on. Shawntee, an eighth-grader at nearby Burr School who was once named student of the month in her class, says she struggles to draw her own images and would rather trace the lines of a print. Jacquelin, a second-grader at Kinsella School, has no such problems, freely taking her crayons wherever she wants them to go.

Sanchez is still trying to figure out where she will live. She may move to Massachusetts for a better-paying job. Failing that, she hopes to find a quiet apartment in the Hartford's South End, where a soon-to-open Wal-Mart will be hiring at the end of the year.

"We've been pretty happy here," Sanchez says as she herds the girls outside to drive them to school. "If we weren't being forced to leave, I'd rather stay at Dutch Point."

`Ain't Gonna Be Like That'

Rayshawn Ledbetter sits back on a kitchen chair in his family's apartment, talking confidently about the path before him. Once he graduates from college, he says, he'll go into business - first a line of clothing stores, then department stores. He'll snap up success like a quarter on the sidewalk.

Smiling warily at her son, Sylvia Ledbetter brings him back to reality, reminding him that he needs to get started on his homework. Rayshawn, 17, frowns and rolls his eyes, but knows he has no choice.

"I'm just holding on to the day I see him walk across that stage," says Sylvia, who has lived at Dutch Point for about 30 years, raising three children along the way. "When he graduates, I told him, I'm gonna throw a bouquet of roses at him, and he said, `Please, Mom, don't do that in front of everyone.' But I'm gonna do it anyway."

Her dreams have kept Rayshawn in school - he is a senior at Bulkeley High School - even as many others dropped out. At Dutch Point, she says, most people use their poverty as an excuse when their kids fail to graduate, but Sylvia kept after her son even when she wasn't sure where their next meal would come from or how to pay for his school clothes.

Now, Rayshawn says, it's his own dreams that keep him going.

Growing up in the cramped confines of Dutch Point, Rayshawn says he always wished he had more money for nice clothes and other comforts, a wish that translated into an interest in fashion design.

As he walks to school every day, Rayshawn says he sees kids his own age who have dropped out and are selling drugs on the street or aimlessly hanging out.

"They're angry because they think people owe them something, but no one owes them anything," he says. "That's motivation for me. I ain't gonna be like that."

Growing up at Dutch Point has meant getting used to the sound of gunfire at night and the spectacle of police chasing drug dealers between buildings and down alleys. Rayshawn says he's stayed out of trouble by avoiding the shadowy corners of the project and its walkways where desperate addicts sometimes wait to jump someone for drug money.

His mother is hoping to move the family to Mary Shepard Place, a smaller complex in the North End. If the city can find room for them there, Rayshawn says he will still go to Bulkeley, crossing Hartford by the city bus. He says he's maintaining a passing average at school, and he wants to keep it that way.

"I'll do what it takes," he says as his mother, standing behind him, nods her head.

"You're damn right you will," she says back with a laugh.

One Man's Trash

It's a drizzly, humid afternoon at "The Point," as some tenants call it, and hardly anyone is out walking around or hanging out on the stoops. But one woman and her young son are scrounging for food and furnishings in the Dumpsters near the entrance to the project. With so many tenants moving, a lot is being tossed out, and this woman is taking advantage.

The woman and her son are from Liberia, and the woman wears a colorful head-wrap and dashiki as she pulls discarded clothes and towels from the Dumpster and places them in a plastic trash bag. Her son sits in the weeds next to his mother, playing with toys he has pulled from the trash.

The boy and his mother and father, none of whom speak English, live a block away in an apartment house that's not being torn down. The mother takes a stuffed plastic trash bag and places it on her head for the walk home, and the boy totes a bag of his own. As the rain seeps into the bags, the smell of trash rises around them and their hands become soaked in the pungent juice that drips out. Yet when they get home, they proudly present their loot to the boy's father, who nods approvingly as the mother empties one of the bags on the floor.

Where To Go?

Carlota Beardsley lives with her family in a brick apartment building right next to Dutch Point on the corner of Norwich and Stonington streets - the epicenter of the project's crime problems. The building is one of seven slated for either demolition or refurbishing as part of Dutch Point's revitalization, and her family will have to move, too.

In the five years she's lived here, Beardsley says, conditions have deteriorated to the point that cockroaches have infiltrated her kitchen and leaking water seeps constantly through her ceiling from the apartment above.

As bad as it's been inside, she says, the scene unfolding in front of the corner store is often worse. Looking out her window, Beardsley points to a crowd of 20 people. The cops had busted five people for dealing or buying drugs the night before, but people are back on the corner, and a fight quickly breaks out.

A woman and a man are shouting at each other as the people stand around watching. About a block down on Norwich Street, a Hartford police officer assigned to patrol Dutch Point sits in a parked cruiser finishing a report, and he does not move as the exchange gets more heated. After a few minutes, the two people calm down and walk away.

Beardsley's 10-year-old son, Jose, looks on from a seat near the window. The TV is on, but he and his mother are more interested in what's going on outside.

"This happens all the time, and there's usually gunshots," Beardsley says through an interpreter. She is from Puerto Rico and speaks passable English, but prefers to speak Spanish. "That's why I don't let my son go out at night, because of everything going on down there."

In the apartment above her, Carmelo Caldero has been living on his own for five years, attending services at his local church so faithfully that he was recently named parishioner of the year. Most of his family still lives in Puerto Rico, and he keeps in touch with steady phone calls.

Caldero says that despite the roaches and the decaying roof, he would rather not leave. He says he has met with city housing officials to find a new place to live, but so far he has not heard whether they have found anything for him.

"I guess I'm supposed to move, but I don't know when it's going to happen or where I'm going to go," he says, also through an interpreter. "I like living here because it's close to my church."

Wanda Bilbraut-Moore, the Dutch Point director for the Hartford Housing Authority, who has been overseeing the relocation effort, says tenants such as Caldero will be placed in suitable new apartments by the end of October. She says Caldero and many other remaining tenants are difficult to assist because they have not attended tenant meetings to learn about the relocation.

"It's a big enough job trying to take care of all the people who have contacted us, but there are still lots of people we need to reach out to, and we will," she says.

Moon Over The Point

As night falls on the project, Lumen Velez, a whirling dervish of a 7-year-old, resists calls from his mother to come inside and pulls the trigger on a toy machine gun. On the other side of a chain-link fence, a heroin junkie walks into a row of tall weeds where, over time, Lumen has lost countless errantly thrown balls and toys. The junkie gets his high, emerges from the weeds and walks away. Lumen's mother steps out of the apartment and pulls him inside.

In a neighboring rowhouse, Maritza Pelletier, the vice president of the tenants association, keeps her door open as she sits on her stoop to watch the moon coming up. At a nearby courtyard, shadowy figures walk back and forth across a crumbling asphalt path, including one woman who stops to cry softly to herself, her shaking form captured in silhouette against the backdrop of a streetlight.

Pelletier, who has lived in Dutch Point for 17 years, was key to making sure the city didn't abandon Dutch Point's residents. She helped secure an agreement that will give tenants first rights to buy or rent the new apartments and townhouses that are coming.

Many tenants will not be eligible because of criminal backgrounds or poor credit histories, but Pelletier meets all the requirements, and she hopes to buy one of the townhouses when they open up. Meanwhile, she's hoping the city will be able to find her family an apartment at the Martin Luther King Jr. housing complex next door to Dutch Point.

One of Pelletier's strongest allies in the fight to protect tenants is Carol Coburn, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition to Strengthen the Sheldon-Charter Oak Neighborhood, Inc.

On her way to visit another family, Coburn stops by to say "Hi" to Pelletier, taking a seat on the stoop and thanking her for the work she's done for other tenants.

"I didn't do anything," Pelletier says, lighting a cigarette and following the antics of a puppy the family has just taken in.

Behind her building, a block away on Norwich Street, customers are driving up to the corner near the convenience store, making drug buys and screeching off.

In a windowless room in the second floor of Pelletier's apartment, her 10-year-old son, Oscar Diaz, is playing Monopoly with his best friend, 9-year-old Jaznay Davenport. They roll the dice and move their pieces around the board, oblivious to the shouts echoing from Norwich Street.

Pelletier says she never lets her son out after dark because of the drug dealing, and looks forward to the day when she will own her own home in a revitalized part of Hartford. The city's dream has become hers.

"I've actually enjoyed my time here, mostly because of the friends I've made," she says, snuffing out her cigarette and heading back inside. "But it's time for a change."

| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?