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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    New London Landmarks working on new programs about city housing project, Puerto Rican migration

    New London ― Spencer Lancaster moved to Bates Woods from Main Street in the mid-1950s so that he and his wife would have a better place to raise their children― a place with a yard and less traffic.

    Lancaster’s family would be one of the first Black families to integrate into the apartments then owned by the New London Housing Authority.

    Ruben Santiago called the Thames River Apartments, or the “Crystal Ave high rises,” "the Mecca" of New London. He grew up there in the 1980s and saw drug dealers as role models.

    As an adult, Santiago would start the Keeping Kids Out of Prison program.

    Former City Councilor Curtis K. Goodwin grew up at the Winthrop Square Apartments, commonly known as “State Pier,” mostly in the 1990s and it inspired him to get involved in politics and in local nonprofits.

    New London Landmarks is bringing forth these and other untold oral histories of those who lived in the city’s various federal and state subsidized housing projects throughout different decades. The historic preservation organization is also creating a 30-minute documentary this summer on the history of Puerto Rican migration to the city.

    Landmarks Executive Director Laura Natusch said the two programs were inspired in part by the Thames River Apartments being closed in 2018 and demolished in 2022, but she had been thinking about them longer than that.

    Natusch said some of the housing sites date back to the ‘50s and she would like to see those that remain registered as historical places. The collected interviews might help with that.

    “It’s a beautiful way to honor what people tried to do through urban renewal and relieve stigma for those that grew up in low-income housing,” she said.

    The audio interviews will be put into podcasts and video clips that will be shared at a free in-person program likely to take place late this spring. Natusch said she hopes to have a speaker or panel at the event.

    Natusch is working with a team of young interns on the programs. New Jersey-based non-profit Eleven-plus provided funding to pay for two college interns last summer: Zeraiah Ramos and Leslie Ann Melendez. Natusch said Ramon Carillo Martinez, a Connecticut College student, will also join Landmarks soon.

    Ramos returned to the University of Connecticut last fall but Landmarks continues to employ Melendez, a student at Middlesex Community College.

    Natusch said, with their help, she has been able to collect 20 audio interviews so far, including an interview with Ramos’ father who grew up at the Winthrop Square apartments.

    Natusch said most of the people they spoke with had fond memories of living in the housing complexes such as multi-family cookouts, children playing baseball and knowing that lots of adults were looking out for them. She said there were tougher stories as well and several people spoke about the prevalence of drugs and gang violence in the 1980s and early 1990s.

    Melendez also grew up at the Winthrop Square apartments; she was interviewed and also interviewed her sister and aunt. She said interning with Landmarks has been a great opportunity to learn more about the city, specifically where she grew up.

    “I’ve got to listen to amazing stories of wonderful times, the hardships and the history of what life was like,” she said. “I am just so happy that voices of housing project residents will be heard. It’s really important to change the stigma many have on apartments like State Pier and Crystal, especially within our own community.”

    Melendez, an aspiring filmmaker, will put together montages of footage she took during different interviews, Natusch said. She will also play a big role in creating the documentary on Puerto Rican migration in the summer.

    Natusch said the work has helped Melendez develop her skills and Landmarks explore a history it hasn’t been able to tell until now.

    j.vazquez@theday.com

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