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
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