September 2 - 9, 1998

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Book Review
Charter Oak Terrace Story: "A Trip Down Memory Lane"

by Stephen B. Goddard

Historians and pundits understandably look to Washington when writing about government programs that succeed or fail - after all, such initiatives are often named after their national sponsors. But it's in thousands of cities and towns across America, not in Washington, that housing, education or job programs ultimately rise or fall.

Capitalizing on this fact, a community organizer with Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) has written Charter Oak Terrace - Life, Death and Rebirth of a Public Housing Project, a book that not only chronicles a well-known local institution but mirrors the tumultuous history of public housing in America over the past six decades.

What makes David Radcliffe's book unusual is that it works on several levels - as oral history, social history, political history, and as a critique of American public policy. For those seeking to better understand their city, it's an easy and rewarding read. And for thousands of Greater Hartfordites who grew up in Charter Oak Terrace, it's a trip down memory lane.

Hartford's 165,000 residents - 95 per cent of them white - were bursting out of the city's seams in 1941, when preparedness for World War II led to the creation of "temporary" housing on 137 acres of bucolic farmland in Hartford's southwest corner. Charter Oak Terrace's 1,000 units were built not as housing for the poor but rather to shelter defense workers. Indeed it constituted the largest defense housing project in New England.

As Radcliffe's story unfolds, he weaves in pertinent quotes from contemporary sources and sidebar recollections of those who lived in Charter Oak Terrace over time. How reminiscences of daily life in the Terrace have changed is striking:

1942: "It was a beautiful time of our life....Charter Oak was a family... .The community center meant everything to us." - Marilyn Coughlin Romano.

1964: "People were concerned about one another. Everyone looked out for everybody else's kids.... (this) changed because you lost the love for family. People didn't stay on welfare long (then), there was too much - Lucinda Thomas.

1970's: "There was fightin' and shootin', but you had your friends. You could sit outside on your porch at times and talk . . . When it got worse you wished you could move out, but you couldn't afford to, so you just dealt with the situation. After a while you got so immuned to everything that nothing really fazed you." - Terrell Milner.

1986; "...when a young girl got pregnant, the Housing Authority would give her an apartment - eighteen years old. They didn't do that before. Now they split the families. Then what happened is that the boyfriend would move in, then his brother, and it became a real mess." - Aida Maldonado.

Radcliffe sketches for the reader the factors - a failed national and state welfare policy, racial isolation, gang vio-lence, among them - that escalated the Terrace's descent from the first rung of the ladder of success down into a Hellish inferno.

By the 1990's, public housing advocates in Hartford and Washington came to realize that the most promising initiative for conventional housing projects was the wrecking ball. Thanks in part to Mayor Mike Peters and Housing Authority Director John Wardlaw, the Clinton Administration selected Charter Oak to pioneer in a national trend towards decentralizing projects and building single-family dwellings.

Predicted then-Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros, "The events, players, decisions, controversy and success of Charter Oak will set the pace for what will happen across the country."

Books about one neighborhood of a city are written and published as labors of love, but sometimes, as with this book, are as readable as some best sellers. Southside Media's foresight in publishing Radcliffe's book is a gift to today's readers and tomorrow's historians alike. One hopes that tomes chronicling life in other Hartford neighborhoods will follow.

Stephen B. Goddard of Hartford is an attorney and author of "Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century."

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