Thames River Apartments through the generations
New London ― Eleanor Magalis-Hempstead’s family was among the first to move into the C Building of the Thames River Apartments when she was 11.
“It was beautiful when it was new,” Magalis-Hempstead said of what was then known as the Winthrop Apartments.
Her seventh-floor bedroom overlooked the basketball court where she would play with her friends and sneak a cigarette.
Before the new apartments were built in 1967, Magalis-Hempstead said she lived in a two-bedroom home on Pierce Street next to a half-dozen other single-family homes. That home and road, as she described it, “disappeared off the face of the earth.”
Pierce Street was within walking distance of the Old Town Mill, on the northern end of Winthrop Cove, an area designated for demolition in the mid-1960s to make way for redevelopment of the city during a national era of urban renewal.
To provide homes for some of the families displaced, the city built the Winthrop Apartments, later renamed the Thames River Apartments. For five decades, it was a federally subsidized public housing complex on the edge of the city for qualifying low-income families. The housing authority determined who qualified and calculated rent, most often 30% of a resident’s adjusted annual income.
The outside perceptions of the buildings, high-rises made of brick and concrete, began to change and blur, stigmatizing the people who lived there — people who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.
The complex, over the decades, faced issues of crime, security and poor aging conditions as the revenue from rents and federal funding struggled to keep up with increased maintenance costs. The New London Housing Authority also had a history of mismanagement and being overwhelmed by its various properties.
In the early 2000s local lawyer Robert I. Reardon Jr. brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the residents at Thames River and pushed for redevelopment of the housing units or the relocation of the tenants.
But ultimately, in 2017, the city’s housing authority, alongside the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, would apply to demolish the complex. Residents would receive Section 8 vouchers so they could move into the private housing market.
The lot on which the apartment complex once stood is vacant and awaits its future as a commercial site. The area was rezoned after the housing authority closed the apartments in 2018.
This spring, as the high-rise apartments were demolished, The Day investigated the complex history of the apartments and met with the people who knew it best, and who recalled what it was like to be a part of the community, and spoke with them about their lives after the Thames River Apartments.
1960s-70s: Urban renewal
Six decades ago, the city had a dwindling tax base, a drained downtown retail center and a promise to the public to end blight.
The New County Historical Society and Connecticut College students, led by professor Anna Vallye, examined this chapter of history in a book titled “Urban Renewal and Highway Construction in New London 1941-1975” that was published in 2021.
The book indicates that in 1960, the state claimed entire sections of the city through eminent domain to make room for Interstate 95. As a result, the city’s taxable properties list, responsible for 70% of its revenue, grew smaller. Two colleges, Connecticut College and Mitchell College, and a hospital, Lawrence + Memorial, were already on tax-exempt land.
The highway dispersed some members of the middle-class and some commerce, pushing the city to consider urban renewal, a federal program of land redevelopment prevalent across cities in the 1950s and ’60s.
In an effort to remain the retail hub of the region, New London leaders saw urban renewal as an opportunity for progress even if it meant razing entire neighborhoods.
Magalis-Hempstead and a diverse community of Eastern and Southern European immigrants and African Americans lived in aging homes in the Winthrop Cove neighborhoods just south of the highway construction.
Outsiders saw it as a slum, but families had made it their home.
Magalis-Hempstead’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland and Finland. Her family owned a home on Pierce Street, which was off Main Street ─ now known as Eugene O’Neill Drive. The L-shaped road with homes belonged predominantly to white Catholics, she said. Her home was old-fashioned: The exterior looked like brick but was made of stucco, and the roof yellow.
She remembers playing with other kids in the neighborhood and going for Sunday rides in her step-father’s new Buick LeSabre convertible.
The proposed federally-funded, large-scale demolition project aimed to renew the area and the face of the city, promising luxury high-rise apartments, hotels, parking and a shopping center.
According to the Connecticut College research, in a high turnout referendum, about 80% of New Londoners approved the Winthrop Urban Renewal Project in 1962. The city, to receive federal funding, had to ensure “safe, decent and sanitary housing” to all displaced families.
About 125 of the more than 450 Winthrop Cove families did not have housing accommodations, leading to the construction of three high-rise buildings on Crystal Avenue. The nine-story buildings were unlike any other residential development in the city at the time.
The apartments were also the first racially integrated subsidized development in the city. Of the first residents, about 65% were white families, a percentage which would have been higher had it not been for the involvement of New London’s NAACP. The NAACP “extracted a pledge from the redevelopment agency that no segregated housing would be built under the Winthrop project,” according to the research.
Magalis-Hempstead said it wasn’t long after they moved into Thames River that pests started to move in as well. She also remembers times when her family would be stuck in the elevators, looking back and laughing at it now. Her family moved out within a month or two as her mother’s parents purchased a home for them in Waterford.
Urban renewal officially came to a close in 1975, leaving behind a complicated legacy. As quickly as the wrecking ball came to demolish the Winthrop Cove area, so vanished the ambitious ideas as the project went through different planners and changes.
As a kid, Chris Silva remembers walking outside in the mornings to see maintenance workers Jesse, Russ and Ms. Lenora raise the American flag on the flagpole, then move onto other tasks.
Silva moved into the apartments in 1976, at the age of 3, with his mother and grandmother. He lived in the A and B buildings during his time there.
The grass was mowed and when urine showed up in the elevator it was cleaned up. Security guards came through and police patrolled. The buildings had an incinerator or a dumpster. The garbage truck came by twice a week. Dogs were not allowed. There were mice, but they were not as common as they would become later.
Silva made many friends, some of whom he is still “tight with to this day.” His friends lived on his floor, and they would play games in the hallway, baseball in the field or go to the Community Resource Commission’s center in the C Building where they could play four-square or Foosball.
Their mothers became good friends, and would play cards on Fridays and Saturdays. All but one of his friends there was raised by single mothers.
“Crystal was a village. Everybody looked out for everybody,” Silva said.
One of his friends from the apartments is Ray Johnson, who was also known as “DJ Free” or “City Ray” for his role as DJ during the many summer block parties. The weekend parties were in the lot adjacent to the buildings where Fulton Park is now, and Johnson would play music under a cement pavilion.
“Hip-hop was fresh and new,” Johnson said. “People came from out of town. It was a good time for everyone to get together.”
Silva and his friends knew they didn’t live as privileged a life as the students their school bus would pick up on Ocean Avenue.
“They’re jealous,” they would say, proud to be from Crystal Avenue.
Silva also knew about the preconceived notions outsiders had about people living at “the high-rises,” or the “towers” as they were called.
“If you lived at Crystal you were the ‘slum,’ from back then all the way to the building’s end,” Silva said.
That image didn’t improve when the crack epidemic became widespread across the United States during the early ‘80s, disproportionately affecting impoverished communities. Silva said when drug sales were shut down by police on Tilley Street, the Thames River Apartments became “prime real estate” for the drug trade. He was 14 when he was pulled into selling the drug.
“It was a quick and easy way to make money at that time,” Silva said. “At that age, you’re rebellious. You didn’t want to see your parents struggle. My mom worked 50 to 60 hours a week and would still end up broke. I would go outside for four hours and come back with $1,000.”
Customers came from all over the city and elsewhere, he said.
Two years later, Silva said he straightened up and got a job when he started to see friends go to jail. He couldn’t see himself going, especially as his mother started getting sick with AIDS. By this time, Silva’s mother had married and her husband, who used drugs, had given her the disease.
He left home at 17 to live with his girlfriend. By the time he was 19, Silva's mother had passed away and he took custody of his two younger brothers. He had two kids of his own, and his household of four became six overnight. Silva worked to support them and his girlfriend played a big role as a mother figure.
Maribel Gray pulled a photo from an old album of her two daughters laying on a mattress with their father asleep next to them.
“This is when we first moved in. We just had a mattress on the floor,” Gray said, during an interview in July at Jake’s Diner on State Street. “As you can see, the mattress was nasty but we were happy to move in and (be) out of our parents’ home.”
Gray lived at the Thames River Apartments at two different stages of her life ― as a child and a young mother. Born on the island of Puerto Rico, Gray moved to the apartments in the early 1990s with her mother, step-father ― who she considered her only father ― a brother and three sisters. They lived on the eighth floor of the A Building.
Gray’s perception of her childhood there has changed as she’s matured. As a young child, she did not know her beloved father was into using and selling drugs. Gray said her mother tried her best, but was not emotionally there for her children.
“I just thought it was always warm until I grew up and put two and two together,” Gray said.
Most of her good memories from the apartments involve the time she spent with the Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership (L.E.A.P.) program when it was active in the community room of the C Building. The staff would help out with homework. They raised money by selling candy to visit places like Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
“It was definitely my getaway. And reading. I’ve always been a good reader,” Gray said.
Things took a bad turn when Gray lost her step-father to AIDS and her grieving mother attempted suicide. Her family left the apartments when she was 8 or 9 and moved to the nearby state-subsidized Winthrop Square townhouse apartments.
She returned to the Thames River Apartments around 2005 as a 17-year-old mother of a 2-year-old with a baby on the brink of turning one. Gray spent the first two years living with the father of her children before she said he physically abused her.
“I had to cut ties with him because my kids are my priority,” she said.
As a single mother, Gray worked as a manager at McDonald's and was paid about $12 an hour. At the time, she paid $600 for a two-bedroom apartment and had to be cautious with how much she worked. The more money she made, the more she would have to pay in rent.
Connected by a shared address
“Crystal” is viewed by its former residents through different lenses, some of which stand out more than others and change over time. Those lenses are formed on the basis of their economic situation, interpersonal relationships and experiences, which were sometimes the consequence of underlying social issues.
They are connected by their shared address. Whether they liked it or not, Crystal was home, and residents relied on each other and the social programs that swept in and out of the community.
Silva today owns a t-shirt print shop in Taftville called TSS Print Shop. He became its sole owner after his original business partner left during the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson, his long-time friend, has worked with him for years. Silva lives in Oakdale now in a home he rents with his wife and three of his four biological children.
Shortly after leaving home to be on her own, Magalis-Hempstead found herself living in subsidized housing again as a resident of Winthrop Square for several years. She’s raised five kids and been married a few times. She graduated from Mitchell College in 2015 and retired as a kitchen worker from Mystic Aquarium in 2018 at 62 for medical reasons.
Three years ago, Magalis-Hempstead purchased a home after she remarried her first husband. When they divorced again, she wanted to keep the home. She has found it difficult to keep the house running with just her retirement checks, so her niece’s family moved in with her recently.
Magalis-Hempstead is looking for a home she can afford, and is already on the waiting list for a couple of 65+ properties such as the Mohican and Poquonnock Village.
In the early 2010s, Gray left the Thames River Apartments and graduated from Stone Academy in East Hartford as a medical assistant. She co-owns Desmond Auto Detailing alongside her husband.
Gray and her two daughters visited the high-rise apartments in February as snow fell on the partly demolished complex. Gray said seeing the apartments come down was sad and bittersweet.
She prays the site will be replaced with something beneficial to the community. She said the high-rises were something more than “a project” to a lot of the residents.
“We were a family, a community within itself, and for myself, a stepping stone to a better me.”
The historical reflections and statistics in this article are from news stories in The Day archive, interviews and an in-depth digital and print collaborative project among Connecticut College faculty, staff and students in 2020 and 2021 on the urban renewal era in New London.
To learn more about New London’s urban renewal era, visit Connecticut College’s digital portal.
Editor’s note: This version corrects the status of Silva’s relationship with a girlfriend at age 17.
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