Landmarks finds history in urban geography
New London Landmarks, the persevering preservationists who raise a righteous fuss when the city's historic real estate is at risk, recently turned their attention to buildings that lost the fight a half-century ago.
The phantom houses were in a low-income neighborhood east of Huntington Street. Even the roads disappeared when urban renewal bulldozed the neighborhood. New London Landmarks has recognized that an outsized percentage of the displaced were African Americans, and that the loss of their homes began a story still playing out with the closing of the Thames River Apartments.
Homeowners who got too little for their houses to afford new ones became renters. Some 250 fewer housing units were available. Blacks had a hard time getting mortgages and couldn't cross "redlined" areas. Many moved into the apartments on Crystal Avenue — the towers that closed this summer after years of poor living conditions.
Landmarks gets it that history isn't all schoolhouses and lighthouses. Using urban geography to teach a chapter many may have missed, the organization recently led a walking tour on "Discrimination, Urban Renewal and New London's Lost Neighborhood." Its partner was the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, and one of its guides was Lonnie Braxton II, a prosecutor in the state's juvenile court system and vice president of the Norwich chapter of the NAACP. A Connecticut Humanities grant underwrote the tour.
New London's Winthrop Cove Urban Renewal project was directly influenced by federal policies meant to keep social class and skin color roughly equivalent. As the divisive politics of the past few years unearthed racism and class bias, many white Americans have been shocked. Blacks have not been.
Urban renewal was part of a post-World War II national push to get rid of "blight" and widen narrow city streets for commuters. Where there were shops and a grocery store in downtown New London there are parking garages and wide, sterile streets.
In the 1920s, New London had zoned itself by drawing a line on Willetts Avenue. North of Willetts was for multi-family rentals. South was to be developed as single-family housing. The sturdy 1925 house where my children grew up is in one of the neighborhoods built south of the line. Until the Landmarks tour, attended by a diverse crowd of about 70 people, many of us had never made the direct connection.
Many Americans aren't aware that the GI Bill delivered far fewer benefits of home ownership and tuition to blacks than it did to whites, but the evidence is in our neighborhoods and our careers. The Defense Department recently announced restrictions on length of service qualifications to share GI Bill education benefits with family. Given the sorry history and the large percentage of minorities in the all-volunteer military, the Pentagon should lean the other way and qualify as many as possible.
That brings us to 2018. The class action lawsuit that finally succeeded in closing the dilapidated Thames River apartments correctly identified the failure of the New London Housing Authority to adequately maintain them. But the federal government, which paid the bills to build high-rises around the country, had a policy of ordering developers to use the least expensive materials. They were doomed to breakdowns.
As tenants left the highrise buildings, the city's attempt to provide new housing through a public-private partnership had stalled. Tenants got Section 8 vouchers to use where they could. If the partnership ever does proceed, quality of construction, a sense of neighborhood and nearby food shopping and transportation are important. Learn from experience.
Kudos to New London Landmarks for this new take on its role as New London's infrastructure conscience, and for listening to those who know the stories.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.
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