What Doesn’t Love a Wall

Posted on 20. Dec, 2012 by in Features

Pale-barked branches dip over the fence between Hamden and New Haven like old arms reaching to gather bickering boys in an embrace. Separating Hamden, a working-class suburb, from three public housing projects in the neighboring city of New Haven, there is a 12-foot tall fence. Five-inch long silvery, bolted strips link sections of the fence. Its thick metal grating fractures views of neighbors’ homes ten paces away. Added-on pieces of fence drop into vacant spaces among tree roots, screening even squirrels’ holes. The projects are walled off on three sides. Across the street from the fence in Hamden, a racially mixed neighborhood where the median income is $71,358, a green Jaguar rests in the driveway of a boxy, colonial home next to two decorative Christmas deer. In the New Haven projects, where average income is $12,989 and almost all residents are black, low-slung apartments decay between patches of broken pavement.

Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson calls the fence a relic from the past, a barrier that allows Hamden residents to ignore the aspirations of people in the projects. “It’s about preserving a mythology,” Jackson told me. “The myth is that the people living on the New Haven side will be fundamentally different from people on the Hamden side.”

Jackson, a tall, slender man of 40 and Hamden’s first black mayor, can be accommodating, speaking in cool, vetted sentences designed to repel searching questions. But he’s also a performer conscious of his iconic status, relishing occasions to enlarge his small office. “It is not enough to be right; it is our duty to be righteous,” he told a Hamden crowd on January 15, 2010 – Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Jackson declared that 1960s-era segregation was not long past. Its villains, he said, practiced a “hate based on whispers.” He hoped his sons would grow up in a nation renewed, defined by the promise of an “American dream, unrestrained.”

But that hate seems to linger – perhaps in few places more visibly than in the town Jackson now leads. Hamden’s fence prohibits access to public roads on three sides of the projects. Over 1,500 feet long, it assures that the one road into the projects is also the only way out. Residents hoping to buy groceries at a Hamden shopping center three miles away have to travel into New Haven to get around the fence, a 7.7-mile trip that takes two buses and up to two hours to complete. In the case of a flood or fire, emergency vehicles have to travel around the fence to help residents in the projects. For Jackson, the fence proclaims a prejudice against the poor that middle-class neighborhoods across America already whisper.

Hamden built the first version of the fence in the 1950s, a four-foot tall chain link fence intended to keep crime out of an aspiring middle-class neighborhood. White, working-class families were fleeing the city projects, leaving behind densely concentrated poverty. Drug activity and violence rose, sometimes spilling into Hamden. Crime was so bad that residents say the New Haven Fire Department refused to enter the West Rock projects without a police escort.

By 2005, those dangers had disappeared. The New Haven Housing Authority had cleared the Brookside and Rockview projects in preparation for remodeling, leaving only the elderly and disabled residents of Ribicoff in the West Rock area. Crime dropped dramatically in the empty communities as new, mixed-income housing units rose. But that same year, almost four decades after it first built a fence, Hamden responded to holes in it by erecting a second, parallel fence, adding a sturdier barrier around the city projects’ three edges that rises in places to 16 feet.

This fence is now the focus of a fight over its removal that may be more complicated than anyone is willing to admit, confounding simple race and class divides. The fence turns neighbors into opponents and stereotypes into reality, chaining both communities to a past they want to escape. For Mayor Jackson and others, the question is whether the myth that one town’s success requires the other’s demise will endure in 1,500 feet of metal.

A fence stands between Hamden and New Haven, denying the poor access to basic resources.

Jackson hoped to begin dismantling that impression at an August 29 public meeting in Hamden. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. and representatives from the New Haven Housing Authority were on hand to present plans for the new projects. Housing Authority representatives came prepared to explain that new home-ownership units and market-rate rental homes would diversify the projects and decrease crime. They hoped to tell Hamden residents about a pilot program offering job training and education to residents of the projects who committed to becoming self-sufficient within seven years, effectively imposing term limits on subsidized living. New Haven officials brought a traffic study showing that removing the fence would not significantly clutter any new intersections. Jackson hoped his constituents would listen to the evidence and talk like neighbors.

But instead of civility, Jackson was met with rage. Whatever pretense of cordiality or common concern normally masks the darker dramas of local politics disintegrated. Under the fluorescent lights of the Keefe Community Center gymnasium, where 300 people were packed into a space meant for 100, Hamden residents slung insults at New Haven. Stocky men lined up two deep along the walls and young couples craned their necks in the doorway as residents readied angry and meandering speeches by whispering talking points about crime and traffic into each other’s ears. An angry, unbridled Jackson emerged.

Jackson was still introducing the proposal to tear down the fence when one man called out, “It’s not going to happen!” The crowd’s whoops drowned his pleas for civility. “We’re here to talk. We’re here to talk. We’re not here to yell, alright?” he shouted, eagerly at first, then in desperate whines.

Anger and fear trampled conversation. Hamden residents described the robberies and traffic overflow they said would result from opening the fence.

“Keep Hamden in Hamden and keep New Haven in New Haven!”

“That’s their choice to live by a fence.”

“You put a street through, you’re jeopardizing every single person in this entire room’s life.”

Mayor DeStefano, who is white, told me that “nowhere in history” have good fences made good neighbors. At the meeting, hoping to mend the developing rift between Hamden and New Haven, he rose to boos, spoke through insulting chatter, and ended by tabling his request for the fence to be torn down in favor of a year of dialogue between residents from both communities.

Near the end of the evening, Jackson was asked what he thought of the fence. For three years, since his election in 2009, Jackson had defended the fence. “Particularly as an iconic mayor in some ways, it was very important to me to listen more than I talked,” he explained, referring to his status as Hamden’s youngest and first black mayor. But now Jackson, ineffectual and exposed, let himself speak. “I don’t like the fence, but I understand it,” he said to more boos. He meant he understood people’s old fears of crime from the projects, but denied that walls were the answer. One woman stood screaming rejoinders at him from a distance of a few feet until police nudged her away.

More than the meeting’s result, I puzzled over the mood in the room that night. Residents of Hamden, black and white both, hurled invectives against New Haven residents charged with a dangerous sort of animosity. The fence was more than a bulwark against crime and traffic. Something about those people in the projects needed to be contained. It wasn’t race; the Hamden crowd was at least half black. It wasn’t simple geography or class, either; the crowd seemed to fear more than that in its neighbors. Something was amiss. “It did not feel like a safe meeting,” the Hamden town planner, Leslie Creane, told me. The gym was choked with a tension that seemed primed to explode.

It nearly did when Mike Hutsell, who lives near the fence in Hamden, stood to ask his question. He charged Jackson with forgetting constituents’ problems with crime. “How many times have you had your house broken into?” Hutsell demanded.

Jackson began to answer, but Hutsell interrupted, saying he wasn’t finished, and soon Jackson was pointing his left index finger at Hutsell and moving towards him, his eyes splayed wide and his shoulders hunched in tension as if restraining his body. “You ask the question, I answer,” Jackson yelled, angry that Hutsell spoke over him. Then again, without restraint, “YOU ASK THE QUESTION, I ANSWER.” Two people grabbed hold of Jackson’s shoulders and pushed him into the hallway. The demons Jackson once described on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day had come out to play in the town he now led and they chased him from the gym.

A few weeks after the meeting, as Jackson sat behind his desk on the third floor of Hamden’s Government Center, I asked him what made him lose his cool.

“I just, I didn’t like the tone,” he said before trailing off. “Let me see if I can find something real quick.”

Jackson turned to his computer monitor. I guessed he was searching for a nasty constituent email or a recording of the meeting. “Sometimes being a student of this stuff makes it a lot more challenging than it probably needs to be,” he mumbled.

“Alright, this is a good one,” he said finally. Jackson turned his computer monitor around. On the screen was a photo in which two thickly clad firefighters turn their hoses on a black woman crouching against a lamppost in the 1960s. “In 2012 we can clearly look at that picture and say who’s right and who’s wrong. Clearly.” He said he felt for the firefighter who rested his head on his pillow every night knowing he was the bad guy. “Being on the wrong side of history is something that I find to be just the worst possible way to look back at the way I have done my job. I prefer to be ahead of the curve of history.” The fence, a relic from a time when certain people couldn’t choose where they ate or made their homes, was well behind that curve. Bringing the fence down, he said, was the right thing to do—or would one day be seen that way. “In 50 years, 100 years, somebody’s going to think this is right.”

Then who were the people from Hamden standing against Jackson, the people whose grudge against the projects resisted the tide of history and overwhelmed politicians? Jackson explained that they are working class and many are black. Some grew up in the projects. They go to church with people from New Haven. Jackson said the piles of media reports he’d seen painting his constituents as out-of-touch elitists had gotten it wrong in a reach for the obvious story.

People in Hamden weren’t quite keeping out a social class or set of values, it seemed. They were shutting out something harder to define, a mentality feared and unknown, a lifestyle of limited possibilities and government handouts not so distant from their working-class suburb.

It took me only a few minutes in the home of Mike Hutsell, the same man who clashed with Jackson at the meeting, to realize that those fighting to maintain the fence aren’t exaggerating their fears. Hutsell lives with his wife Marilyn on Woodin Street in Hamden. They’re a black, working-class couple, and they keep a baseball bat by every door of their home. They said they’ve had two cars stolen and their house broken into once, incidents they blame on New Haven criminals who they say crossed into Hamden before the second fence was raised in 2005. Mike sleeps with a Browning high-powered 9 millimeter gun under his bed. Marilyn sleeps with a Smith and Wesson 357 Magnum. Before he goes to sleep Hutsell enables five locking devices on his Dodge minivan. “That’s because the government can’t or won’t protect us,” he said. “That fence is our security.”

Marilyn led me to a dining room attached to the side of her home draped in red and gold cloth. A wreath hung on the wall and the table was set permanently for eight, plastic leaves scattered among gold plates and thick candles. Sheets of wood made up the walls. It looked like a life-sized construction project, and I wondered why Marilyn had chosen this setting. “We built this room by hand,” she announced. The dining room was a monument to the value she most wanted to impress on me: the Hutsells were self-made folks.

The Hutsells at their home in Hamden.

Marilyn said the difference between people in Hamden and the people in New Haven’s projects is work ethic. When Marilyn had a heart attack at age 60, she ignored doctors’ advice and returned to her job at a law firm. Mike has two bad knees and a bad back but drives an oil delivery truck during the week and works at a security firm on weekends. “This is what you achieve by pulling your own self up. We’re not for entitlements,” Marilyn declared. She said people who claim that there are no jobs available, even in the projects, aren’t trying. “All you have to do is just look for it.”

The Hutsells said they supported the fence because they wanted to rest without worrying their things would be stolen. But their anxieties weren’t all so elemental. “I don’t want to see the thugs, as my husband said, with the pants hanging down and the stuff that comes out of their mouths,” Marilyn said. “I can stand in my front door and hear the language. People don’t know how to raise their kids.” When I asked her to describe the connection between home invasions and people in the projects, she hesitated, her eyes searching the ceiling. “Someone that is of another culture or another, I don’t know how to say this respectfully – someone being thuggish – has this idea, ‘Oh, if I rob this person I can make money.’ That’s crazy.”

When I asked her what troubled her about the projects, Marilyn seemed concerned about more than physical crime alone. Instead, she complained about “people in grocery stores with food stamps and you know they don’t need them.” She said people invented hardships to hoard handouts and turned down jobs to qualify for free oil. She seemed almost to be replaying the critique of “welfare queens” that Ronald Reagan delivered in his 1976 campaign, poor blacks cheating the middle class of their wealth.

Marilyn’s fear of thugs and food stamps wasn’t far from a caricature of anti-poor prejudice, but it also wasn’t far from human. Like many middle-class Americans, the Hutsells say their work doesn’t guarantee them the comfort it once did. For the first time since the 1920s, median family income has dropped substantially over a decade. Family income last year was 8 percent lower than it had been in 2000, compared to what is usually a 30 percent rise during 11-year periods. The Hutsells are worried with reason, delaying retirement while they watch tax dollars go to the poor.

But the Hutsells’ appeal was still contentious. In their minds, food stamps weren’t a consequence of economic decline. They became the cause of that decline.

Poor people became perpetrators in this system. They weren’t poor by circumstance, but because of insufficient work ethic, a condemnation almost as permanent as one based on race or ethnicity. The kind of person who chose to be poor would always deserve to be fenced in. As Marilyn said, “If you don’t want to get a job and you want to live in low-income housing, that’s on you.”

The fence intensified New Haven residents’ dependency, stranding them on a walled-in peninsula far from jobs and public services. I asked Marilyn how she’d respond to people in the projects who felt penned in. “If that fence makes you feel insecure, then you come and live where middle class America lives. On the other side of that fence. And you take on some of the responsibilities that middle class America has taken on and cherishes.”

Jackson isn’t unaware of the Hutsells’ fears. Back in his office, he told me the difference between Hamden and New Haven is stark. Hamden residents have spent years getting up for work every morning. Life in the projects, where jobs come and go and apathy and anger reign, is hard to imagine. But Jackson said Hamden had a choice.

“Do you establish public policy out of fear or out of hope?”

In the newly redesigned Brookside projects in New Haven, brightly colored homes are still being built. Sidewalks, trees, and spaces between homes have been planned to make the projects safer and friendlier. One hundred subsidized housing units are already occupied, along with two home-ownership units. Omar Ursini, 41, a new resident, was hopeful about the changed community but worried the fence would obstruct growth. “It’s a cage,” he said. “That’s all it is.”

In practical terms, the fence terrifies Leslie Creane, Hamden’s town planner. She worries Brookside will have more difficulty filling its middle-income units and home-ownership units as long as the fence stands, keeping poverty concentrated and raising risks of crime. Connected streets are also safer streets. In the case of an accident or tornado, emergency vehicles from Hamden would reach the projects faster without a fence.

The New Haven Housing Authority built the West Rock projects in the 50s after more desirable public housing plots were exhausted. In fact, the land on which the projects were built was once Hamden property. On maps, it looks as if someone cut into Hamden’s otherwise smooth border with a scalpel and heaped the dirty plot into New Haven. The land had been a pig farm before the projects were built, undesirable from the start. “New Haven clearly found the most remote corner to put lots of poor people,” Creane said.

By 1992, unemployment was 88 percent in Rockview and 76 percent in Brookside. Jesse Phillips, whose aunt lived in the old Brookside, told me as a kid he found bodies lying in the road. Ursini, the Brookside resident, said residents in the old Rockview rolled dumpsters filled with burning trash into the street so police couldn’t get inside.

Bus routes used to stop passing through the projects at 5 p.m. Even now, Creane asked, do residents want to risk getting home late from work and walking from the bus stop to their homes down a haunting stretch of dead end road? “It’s a perfectly plausible survival skill. This has nothing to do with not wanting to work. This has to do with infrastructure and public policy deliberately conspiring against you.”

In Westville Manor, a public housing project farther from the fence in West Rock, drug deals still happen on the purple playground slide. Candace Jones, who helps run a youth organization there called Solar Youth, has had her offices broken into three times this year. When a New Haven police officer arrived to respond to one break-in, he told Jones, “I don’t even know why you help these people. Don’t you know who you’re working with?” She said buses are often late and the drivers don’t seem to care. After all, people in the projects have nowhere to be.

Jones recounted a conversation with an eleven-year-old student who had been excited to join the local drill team, but decided not to try out. The girl’s reason? “My mom has applied to so many jobs and she doesn’t get any. I’m not going to get it either.” Jones said she wished it was as simple as ‘just get up and get a job,’ as the Hutsells demand. But hopelessness is infectious, and dreams shrivel quickly. She said children in the projects don’t have the “drive that I can get out there and be somebody” because they are confronted with barriers, not opportunities.

From the back doors of their homes on Thorpe Drive in Hamden, residents can walk six steps and touch the fence. Harvey Massey, 73, and his wife Miriam, 72, white residents of Thorpe, opened the first door I knocked on. They spoke to me through their screen door. “I’ve been broken into four times and robbed twice,” Harvey said immediately, explaining that the crimes took place in the 70s.

“It’s not like we’re all white, but we’ve all worked for what we have,” he said when I asked what distinguished people in Hamden from people in the projects. “We deserve security, we deserve the comfort of being in our homes without someone breaking in.” Harvey told me he grew up in the Brookside projects and didn’t want to let that way of life into Hamden.

I was confronted with the same attitude that appeared in the Hutsells’ dining room. “I felt like I was raped,” Miriam said, referring to the break-ins. “I felt absolutely violated.” Her words were charged with a disgust that signaled something scarier than the considerable distress a robbery might provoke. Robbery became rape, a personal violation, perpetrated not just by any criminal but by an Other.

“It’s a pig pen,” Miriam said later of Ribicoff. “It’s dirty.” But Ribicoff wasn’t a pig pen until it was fenced in. And it didn’t become “dirty,” a stain on the clean suburbs, until neighbors like Miriam called it a pig pen. The fence helped people in Hamden weaponize their words, turning the projects into a pen and making the projects’ residents dirty.

Darnell Goldson, former alderman for New Haven’s West Rock neighborhood, is one of the few public officials who has never equivocated on the fence. “In the civil rights era you didn’t allow folks to figure out on their own how not to be racist,” he said, explaining that he hopes someone challenges the fence in court. “You forced the issue.”

Sitting at a Popeye’s chicken restaurant, Goldson said the fence is a reminder that racism still fouls American cities. After Hurricane Katrina, a group trying to evacuate New Orleans was stopped on a bridge by police officers from neighboring Gretna, Louisiana. Officers fired warning shots at the group and told them they wanted “no Superdomes” in Gretna, “code,” one evacuee wrote in a later account, “for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River.” The Gretna police chief told the San Francisco Chronicle that his officers had been ordered to seal off the suburban city.

Goldson explained: “If you can put a fence to stop people from looking for a job, go shopping, go visit their aunt who lives in Hamden, what’s to stop you from putting up a fence across a bridge when there’s a disaster in the town next door and there are folks that you don’t want to see in your town?”

In a 2005, a group of black public housing residents from Baltimore sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging racial segregation and discrimination in the city’s public housing system. One of the offenses they charged was the construction of a fence separating the public housing development from a predominantly white community nearby. The judge ruled that the government did not violate the Equal Protection rights of the black residents because the fence was motivated by concerns about crime rather than race.

Goldson’s counterpart in Hamden, its strident citizens’ most loyal supporter of the fence in city council, is Mike Colaiacovo. Colaiacovo passed out 950 flyers telling residents about Hamden’s August 29 meeting. Residents skeptical of all levels of government reserved thanks for Colaiacovo. He was a responsible man serving a responsible citizenry.

Colaiacovo ignored twice-daily calls to his home and cell phone for two weeks. I left messages telling him his constituents trusted him and Mayor Jackson liked working with him. Would he please answer a few questions?

Finally, I drove to Colaiacovo’s home and knocked on his door. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday. The blinds were drawn and the house looked dark. His nephew, Mark, 21, answered the door, eyes droopy and shoulders slouched. Was this Mike Colaiacovo’s home? Mark pointed behind him towards the kitchen, where a short man in gray, cotton shorts and a baggy sweatshirt stuck his face out from around a corner. Colaiacovo shook his head and slipped back behind the corner. Mark told his uncle again who I was. Colaiacovo’s face reemerged, glassy eyes on a small, weathered face beneath a mop of black curls. He disappeared again into the kitchen.

I had the sense that something was wrong, but Colaiacovo slowly dragged his body forward. “Come in,” he said. I asked him to explain his defense of the fence. “We’re used to Brookside neighborhood and gunshots and, you know, stuff like that, you know, and so they’re very, uh, how could I say it, scared, scared, scared of what’s gonna happen there, you know?” What about the August 29 meeting? “Crazy,” he chuckled. Mayor Jackson’s outburst? “Disappointed.”

Colaiacovo’s eyes were bloodshot and he fidgeted his fingers nervously in his lap. He asked me twice whether I was recording him and once whether I wanted a drink. His voice slipped between registers and his eyelids drooped. Mark, more alert than his uncle, finished his sentences and reordered his words. “Do you have concerns about how the fence affects people in the projects?” I asked. Colaiacovo shrugged, his eyes searching for focus while his eyelids shuttered again. “It is what it is,” he slurred. He was drunk, and I left.

Colaiacovo told me later that he had been out celebrating his nephew’s 21st birthday. But even if he had succumbed to nothing worse than a few moments of self-indulgence, the visit was troubling. While his constituents blamed New Haven’s poor for failures of discipline they said justified the projects’ enclosure, Colaiacovo, buttressed by a status quo that gave him an advantage, enjoyed a consequence-free afternoon of excess.

Some Hamden residents worry that tearing down the fence will lead to an increase in crime.

When I met New Haven’s Mayor DeStefano in his downtown City Hall office, one of the first things he expressed was his pride that New Haven welcomed 600 Hamden students into its schools every day as part of an inter-district program. But he said none attend Catherine Brennan School in West Rock even though it posted the largest testing gains in the district last year and is close to Hamden students’ homes.

“You know why?” DeStefano asked. “It’s got a rep.” He pointed to a nine-foot-tall map on his wall showing the West Rock projects sticking out of New Haven like a lonely peninsula. He said the school was a proud place, “but because we allow it to be separated and isolated—particularly from Hamden which surrounds it on three sides!—it’s got a rep. It’s not based on a fact, it’s based on an ignorance.”

The fence kept Hamden from getting to know the school; its physical isolation reinforced its bad reputation. The school’s reputation, in turn, reinforced its isolation, keeping Hamden students away even as the school made gains. As long as the fence remained, homes would be harder to fill and crime more likely to rise. Suddenly the projects’ reputation becomes reality and Hamden has a reason to stay away.

DeStefano said Hamden residents don’t know about life on the other side of the fence because they don’t want to know. “They’re getting to keep their fears because they are refusing to hear anything else. It’s how we could kill each other in the name of a loving God. All over the world.”

“Look at Israel right now,” DeStefano continued. Israel and Gaza, kept separate by a blockade, had just completed seven days of fighting in which six Israelis and 158 Palestinians were killed. “People and missiles can go over fences,” he said. “Ultimately you’ve got to solve the problem of making sure you have healthy communities.” DeStefano saw fences not as a response to crime, but fundamentally as a response to unhealthy communities. Crime doesn’t emerge out of thin air; it grows out of deeper problems like unemployment, poor infrastructure, and too few jobs and resources. DeStefano said fences only intensify animosities. “If you leave that fence up with this new community going in there, you’re sending a direct message about how I feel about you.”

DeStefano cited recent efforts by the New Haven Housing Authority to redevelop housing projects like Quinnipiac Terrace and Monterrey Place as evidence that mixed-income developments reduced crime and improved community life. Hamden’s Police Chief, Thomas Wydra, agreed, calling the fence “failed public policy,” a symbol “none of us should be proud of.” He told me the fence makes crime reduction more difficult. Dead ends attract criminals who like operating out of sight. Police response times improve without the fence.

DeStefano said the fence reminded him of Jim Crow laws, but didn’t think people would soon see it with the same starkness. “I don’t think anyone’s going to be embarrassed by it,” he said. The fence, he seemed to recognize, was based in complicated class prejudices that were harder to interpret than their racial antecedents.

“Why do people hold onto their fears and ignorances?” DeStefano asked. He said economically insecure Hamden residents wanted to feel superior to lower-class residents of the projects. But, he continued, everyone has the same self-interest in healthy communities. Ideally, the projects would improve, the fence would fall, and Hamden would benefit from new commerce. But neither community will get there without exposing itself to injury. Hamden has to trust New Haven to build a better project. New Haven has to trust Hamden to open its borders in good faith. Both communities will have to let old wounds heal in full public view.

“It means we’re going to have to take chances on one another. How is that different from falling into a relationship with another person? You take a risk.”

From the Ribicoff projects in New Haven, Mark Grant, 34, understands why people won’t take risks. He stood on a grassy hill picking leaves out of his 2-year-old son Israel’s cornrows. Thick clumps of hair stuck out from his head and scars rested above both eyebrows.

“This is checkers,” Grant told me. “Everybody got a bunch of kings on the board jumping all over the place. You don’t want your king to get lost, so you go jump him way over here so I can’t take him no more. I’m gonna move mine because I’m not gonna let you take mine. So we’re sitting here with a bunch of kings moving around trying not to get jumped.”

Nobody was willing to expose himself. Each hoarded his wealth. Mike Hutsell couldn’t let down his guard until New Haven built a better project. New Haven couldn’t build a better project until Mike Hutsell let down his guard.

Grant continued: “It’s detrimental because now I feel like this” – he pointed towards Hamden – “is more sacred than this. You get the children underdeveloped over here because of how strongly these people feel about them. Now they feel alienated, segregated, belittled.”

Grant wiped away the last shreds of leaf from Israel’s cornrows. “Keep everything off your head. Don’t put anything on your head, man,” he pleaded kindly.

“You’re talking about generational wealth and generational curses,” Grant said. “This right here represents a generational curse.”

I asked him what sort of curse the fence represents.

“You can be president one day,” Grant taunted sarcastically. “The kids can’t appreciate that. That’s what it represents because now you talk about your parents and grandparents saying to our parents and grandparents, ‘Your children can’t come amongst our children. You can’t ride up the street and see our holiday decorations when the snow falls.’”

The simplest recipe for prosperity, Grant said, was to open the border. People would move freely, crime would fall, and Hamden would become a more desirable location.

Yet some mixture of hate and fear – not quite of race or class but of a lifestyle terrifying in its quiet subjugation to the nasty, inertial laws of a life of poverty – maintained the divide. In Hamden, the hate was coded in concerns over traffic and shootings. Elsewhere in America, it might take the form of a zoning regulation mandating a Spanish tile roof that adds $30,000 to construction costs. Or a minimum one acre zoning ordinance. Everywhere were erected invisible walls to hold poverty at a distance.

What, in the fall of 2012, kept this tiny, fractured community from mending its wounds? Racial integration had won in Hamden; a black mayor was elected. Smart housing policy had won in New Haven; the projects were being rebuilt. But the fence remained. Its monstrous metal sliced open two communities to expose prejudices not less nasty than 1960s-era racism thriving on the weak minds of angry men, preying on the holy heads of innocent boys.

In some ways, Hamden and New Haven are locked in a battle more complex than previous generations knew. Hate has entangled itself in the homes of the black Hutsells and the white Masseys without regard for color or class. Old hatreds have been encoded in a language of crime and government handouts, language becoming more inscrutable the more it’s used. Mayor Jackson and Mayor DeStefano fight villains that are difficult to name. Walls multiply, the Other advances, hope loses to fear and mythologies run free.

Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson wants the fence to come down.

I asked Mayor Jackson to visit the fence with me on a cold Thursday morning. He’d been tiring of talking about the fence, and I hoped visiting it would reawaken his resolve. I was wrong. “I’ve already used up my annual allotment of emotion on the fence,” he said when we arrived. The only memory he could stir was of the one time he’d seen someone crawl out of the projects through the fence. It wasn’t a thief or drug dealer. It had been a black woman in a business suit, made up as if heading to work, leaving through a hole in the pre-2005 fence.

As Jackson and I spoke, a woman who lived on Thorpe Drive, across from the fence in Hamden, stopped her Jeep as she drove by and leaned out an open window. “Mayor Jackson, when we had that meeting about the fence and it was a big uproar, I want to say that I really did respect your honesty.” Jackson, bundled in two jackets, was taken aback. Jackson knew the woman supported the fence, and had appeared ready for a confrontation. Instead, the woman explained that she had four kids and she had put herself through nursing school, but could still identify with people in the projects. “If I lost a month’s worth of pay check,” she said, gesturing towards New Haven, “I could easily be on that side of the fence.”

Jackson thanked the woman as she drove away, shining a bit from the praise. “For a moment – for a moment – she had faith in somebody,” he told me. “At some point, I will capitalize on that. We will capitalize on that.” In that moment, the thin line between the impulse to reach out and the impulse to lash out – between scared people trusting someone and scared people hurting someone – appeared to shift towards trust. Two communities seemed to rest in the balance as one woman reached over the fence.

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3 Responses to “What Doesn’t Love a Wall”

  1. Resident says:

    I find it interesting that over the past decade, Hamden has had about 10 murders, whereas the West Rock neighborhood has had zero.

    Granted there are differences in size, but the overall crime rate in West Rock is a lot lower than the crime rate in Newhallville and isn’t that much higher than Hamden. Black people do not equal crime.


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