The Magic Foot of Hondo Colwick

The first thing Hondo Colwick remembers about his surgery is the line of metal utensils on a sterile blue sheet. From birth, he had a fatty flap of skin where there should have been a foot. After he turned 3, surgeons sliced off two toes that protruded from the flap’s side. The toes had kept Hondo from easily placing his leg into the below-the-knee prosthesis he’d worn since he was ten months old. They also marked what could have been, if his mother had not used a defective contraceptive called the Dalkon Shield. It stole from the baby it was meant to prevent.

Thirty-seven years after the surgery, Hondo runs his hands over the plaster mold of another man’s stump. He is an artificial limb maker at the New England Orthotic and Prosthetic Systems (NEOPS) fabrication center in Branford, Connecticut. Today’s project, a snow-white thigh, sticks out from the edge of the table like a precarious Popsicle. A vise grip holds it parallel to the floor, and a metal rod runs from plaster groin to plaster knee—right where the bone would be.

The plaster molds that populate the center are stand-ins for absentee clients. The UPS truck delivers casts from doctors’ offices around New England every morning. Just as dentists stick putty on teenagers’ teeth, physicians wrap plaster gauze around patients’ shortened limbs. When the hardened forms arrive at the fabrication center, the prosthetic technicians line them up. Hondo’s coworkers fill the casts, and voilà: in fifteen minutes, there’s a statuesque copy of the patient’s leg.

Ripped casts, mottled plastic, and yesterday’s lunch fill blue Rubbermaid Brute trash containers at NEOPS. Dozens of plaster half-limbs are shoved under the table beside the industrial oven. Hondo uses them to make cup-shaped sockets to fit around each amputee’s stump. The sockets attach to metal pylons, which connect to a carbon-fiber skeleton inside a plastic foot. They lean against the fabrication center’s worktables, like strange flowers blooming on hollow stems. Five plastic toes and five plastic toenails make the foot at the end almost pretty, while the black carbon fiber wedge hidden inside makes it functional. This doll-like end absorbs the shock, the thump, of foot striking ground. It gives the amputee a natural spring in his step.

Hondo is a ruddy-faced man with a sense of humor and a collection of T-shirts in sometimes-poor taste; one from Bass Pro Shops reads: “I Like ’Em With Long Legs and A Big Rack!” alongside a deer silhouette. But when he is at work, nothing can disturb him; he answers questions with a few cheery but terse replies, sometimes little more than, “Yup.” Like the surgeons looking for his small toes, he inspects the mold to find the hills that stick out and the valleys that go too deep. He looks for the smooth dip right under the patella, the small protrusion of the tibia, and the stretch of muscle that bears pressure on the back of the calf. He understands, from lumbering around on his own prosthesis, that if the surface does not feel smooth under his palm, a dull ache will settle into the patient’s leg by the middle of the day.

Hondo is one of only two men on the ten-person staff with a prosthesis; the other works at the stitching station. The men blare the radio while working, and Hondo launches into a high-pitched rendition of the song. “Take a look at my girlfriend, yeah, yeah,” he sings.

“We’re looking at a big, big lady!” a co-worker later yells as he pulls out an oversized plaster mold.

“Where’s my girl?”

“Was she nice?” Hondo asks cheerily.

“Oh, she’s adorable,” the man replies, returning to work.

This banter is part of an environment where men break off chunks of an old man’s artificial hamstring while singing along to Top-Forty hits. Though Hondo’s entirely respectful of the clients, these jokes have the casualness of a bunch of guys in a workplace (the only woman works in the office, away from the floor). On a Monday morning, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays like an ironic anthem: “Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man / You wanna be tough, better do what you can.”

No other man in the world has a prosthetic like Hondo Colwick’s. For one thing, his socket extends all the way from knee to ankle to accommodate his extra-long limb. Perhaps more notably, blue fabric with characters from the Mickey Mouse Club House is laminated into the surface of his prosthesis. It’s a full Disney panorama, from cargo shorts to running shoes.

“People make fun of the Mickey leg,” Hondo says with a grin. They also made fun of his previous choices, Nemo and Taz, but he doesn’t give a damn. He tells people his wife helped him pick the decoration. She was a student at Hondo’s former workplace, Newington Children’s Hospital, and they were married at the Disney World wedding pavilion several years later. He tells kids, though, that it’s his “Magic Foot.”

Hondo’s name comes from a six-foot-five basketball superstar who used to play for the Celtics. Hondo’s parents stopped calling him Andrew—his legal name—when he was 2 years old. A sporty nickname seemed more fitting for this wild, rambunctious boy, though Hondo does not exactly resemble the Celtic’s John “Hondo” Havlicek. “He’d literally go from one end of the court to the other,” Hondo says of his Celtics namesake, “and I guess I was a little terror.”

His mother believes the Dalkon Shield, an intra-uterine device that led to thousands of lawsuits in the nineteen-seventies, caused Hondo’s congenital limb defect. But she has no proof, only numbers. After the FDA pulled the product from the shelves, women who filed for damages won nearly $2.5 billion. They spoke in courts about inflammatory pelvic infections, septic abortions, and a few cases of death. One lost foot was not out of the question.

Prostheses became symbols of masculinity lost and found.

Hondo tells me about his time as a point guard on the basketball court, flank on the soccer field, pitcher and first baseman on the baseball diamond. He wasn’t worried about what would happen if he ran around, and it showed: between the ages of 1 and 13, Hondo broke many prosthetic legs. At age 6, he snapped his ankle in two at his parents’ beach cottage in Old Lyme, Connecticut. His father accidentally glued his foot on backwards, and they had to drive all the way back to the hospital to have the technicians put it back together.

Hondo doesn’t have all that much to say about his leg, because as far as he’s concerned, he’s just a “normal family guy”—the kind who goes home to a small house with a wife and a 3-year-old kid, who tunes in to FOX or The Walking Dead, and who goes motor boating in his 22-foot Sea Ray on weekends. He likes the boat for the freedom, and the saltwater, and the feeling of being out on the ocean. But he adds that maneuvering with rudimentary prosthetic technology when he was a child was not easy.

His early prostheses teetered on a foam foot and included an adjustable socket bound by Velcro straps. “People thought I was always limited,” he says. But then they’d see him play.

His older siblings treated him gently (not just because he was the youngest), and they stood up for him if any other kids turned mean. But Hondo says they didn’t have much work to do: “I always stood up for myself. I never got bullied or anything.” Now, his sister works for Hallmark and his brother works for an insurance company—the ultimate disaster response team.

Hondo got into the prosthetics business because, after high school, it seemed pragmatic, and he was always good with his hands. Newington Orthotic & Prosthetic Systems, where he was certified as a technician, functioned alongside the children’s hospital where he had gotten his first prosthetic. He stayed on until the company was bought out by Hanger, Inc. “I have a love of helping people get their lives on track,” he says. “It’s just nice to see people walk again.”

Hondo’s lucky, by some standards: the fact that he’s been footless since birth means that his leg muscles aren’t shrinking. Unlike the bodies of many amputees, his is not in a constant state of flux. When his leg irritates him, he makes a few adjustments instead of making a new socket.

But prostheses’ life spans are limited. “This is my old foot,” Hondo says, pulling out a glossy black piece of carbon shaped like a tiny children’s slide. Though he now does lay-ups only when he’s visiting his nephews in Southington, Connecticut, he strains his prosthesis by working hard each day. “When carbon snaps, it makes a pop—a real, loud pop,” he says, looking at the old Freedom Innovations foot that he stores at the workshop. “Seven years on it, and it finally broke.”

Mass-produced feet, mass-produced knees, and mass-produced joints provide mobility to over 1.6 million U.S. amputees. Fewer than two thousand are veterans who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The majority are elderly individuals who have lost circulation and often end up in the hospital for vascular diseases. People in traumatic accidents are a close second.

More than two hundred American artificial limb manufacturers were at the ready when the first shots of World War I were fired. The mom-and-pop operations that once shipped arms and legs across the country have since closed. Big players like New England Orthotic and Prosthetics Systems—the second-largest O&P company in the country—have taken over the supply chain.

Mac Hanger, a physician who comes to the fabrication center to adjust patients’ molds, is the great-grandson of the Civil War’s first amputee. His great-grandfather started Hanger, Inc., NEOPS’s biggest competitor, after a cannonball tore off his leg at the Battle of Philippi. Surgeons at that time wiped their knives on aprons in preparation for the next man, and chloroform didn’t always dampen the pain. But you could make a sturdy enough leg out of barrel wood, and the young man did just that. He then made his money off of the war’s thirty-five thousand amputees. For an above-the-knee prosthesis, the going rate at the time was two hundred dollars.

Ripped casts, mottled plastic, and yesterday’s lunch fill blue Rubbermaid Brute trash containers. Dozens of plaster half-limbs are shoved under the table beside the industrial oven.

Brand-name legs became part of American business. The Selpho Leg, which was originally made with catgut tendons, arrived from London in 1839. The E-Z- Leg, or Liberty Leg, became all the rage in the summer of 1918. Woodrow Wilson’s National Defense Act funded the creation of an Artificial Limb Laboratory to account for the four thousand amputees that stumbled out of World War I. White willow wood, which had been dried over years, was once the most popular option (until too many maimed men stayed alive for the trees to keep pace).

After World War II, the veterans who spurred many of the advances of the industry were the same guys who appeared in instructional manuals with their hands on their hips and their pants rolled up, or in army archives with a lit cigarette. In Artificial Parts, Practical Lives, communications professor David Serlin argues that the U.S. media used amputees to glamorize postwar patriotism and combat the public’s concerns about fragile American families.

Prostheses became symbols of masculinity lost and found. The Philadelphia Inquirer raised more than $50,000 for an army private who lost all his comrades and limbs in a Pacific Ocean plane crash in World War II. Other newspapers featured him posing with Miss America in a GM car specially made for amputees. Academy-Award-winning films like “The Best Years of Our Lives” told the tale of a veteran named Homer with mechanical-hook hands. He married the darling next door by the time the credits rolled.

The attitudes toward people with disabilities have changed rapidly since the nineteen-forties, now that Olympic athletes and sexy models have borrowed the mantle of military men. Cheetah-like feet allow runners to sprint forward, and adjustable ankles let high-heel wearers out on the town. But America’s image of amputees remains inextricably linked to war. For men like Hondo, the awkwardness of the association is hard to escape.

“Thank you for your service,” a man said when Hondo took his daughter to Dunkin’ Donuts for a breakfast sandwich in November. He was not the first; an army veteran had recently spotted Hondo’s leg at Walgreens and congratulated its owner for heroism. Such mistakes happen all the time, and Hondo replies without pause.
“I was born without a foot,” Hondo tells them. He teaches them about the prosthetics businesses, describing his days at a workshop that many never even knew existed. He’s easy-going about it, unwilling to make a fuss. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a real foot.”

The door of the hulking oven opens and a billow of heat tumbles out. Hondo’s gloved hand grasps the melted ProFlex inside the 400° Fahrenheit cave. As Hondo lifts the metal ring around the sheet, the center of the plastic gives in to gravity. It resembles, for a moment, a perfectly transparent bowl suspended in midair.

Muscles cannot push; they can only pull or stop pulling. The muscles that use force to contract are called the “agonists,” whereas the muscles that resist are the “antagonists.” As Hondo stretches the plastic over the plaster mold, he leans forward; the muscles in his back, in his arms, in his legs shift into position. He begins to pull, pull, pull.

When the plastic cools, he covers it with sock-like layers of black carbon mesh and white fiberglass. A vacuum-sucked PVC plastic stretches around the bundle, making it look like cream frosting in a cake-decorating bag. The Kingsley Manufacturing Company’s color options include Caucasian, Dark Caucasian, Light Caucasian, 4A Medium Brown, 7A Dark Brown, Latin, Oriental, and Snow White (which Hondo says they don’t buy). He pours a mixture of paint and epoxy into a cut-off Mountain Dew container at the top of the bag. The finished stumps resemble a cluster of giants’ thumbs on the metal-top table.

But the cosmetic process is far from over. “People don’t want to look at a pylon, you know what I mean?” Hondo says. He wraps a piece of foam around the leg because he wants to make a shape resembling a lifelike calf. The grinder emits an angry squeal every time it makes contact.

A seam of yellow glue along the back of the foam looks like a bad stocking seam, and the edges near the ankle are frayed like the fabric on the end of an old t-shirt. But Hondo inspects the leg meticulously: if he gets the angles of the foam just right, people might not notice that CPI 26 is printed on the bottom of the plastic foot shell, or that the ankle only bends so far.

When Hondo picks up his 3-year-old, Faith, from daycare at the end of the day and brings her home, bits of this leg will come with him. “I’m just constantly washing my hands, and the plaster’s drying my palms up even worse,” he says. Tiny shards of fiberglass turn his hands redder each day. Shreds of carbon slip under the skin. “That stuff’s—ooh—that stuff’s no good either.” He shudders. “That stuff’s so fine that once it gets on you, it itches the crap out of you.”

He’s so busy looking at other people’s legs all day, or doting on his child, that he scarcely pays attention to his own leg. Though he had to order a new foot, he hasn’t bothered to replace the rest of his prosthesis in the past seven years; most people make a change after just three. His wife’s father, a physician in the prosthetics business, will probably fit him for a new leg when the current one breaks.

“It’s like the mechanic driving a crappy car, and the shoe repairman whose kids have holes in their shoes,” he says.

His wife, Sara, grew up understanding artificial body parts. Her uncle lost his leg in a farming-machine accident at age 10 and started a family prosthetics business as a young man. Before she started work at a medical supply company, she learned to make prosthetics at Newington Children’s Hospital. The first practice leg she made was for Hondo, far before she got to know him. First tries are often rough-hewn and chafe the skin, but he gritted his teeth and said, “Oh, it’s great!” when he fit it on.

Hondo doesn’t have all that much to say about his leg, because as far as he’s concerned, he’s just a “normal family guy”—the kind who goes home to a small house with a wife and a three-year-old kid, who tunes in to FOX or The Walking Dead, and who goes motor-boating in his 22-foot Sea Ray on weekends.

“What was happening when daddy got this? Do you remember?” Sara asks Faith, as the child plays with a stuffed dog with floppy brown ears. Hondo’s grandmother gifted him the dog on the day of his first foot surgery.

“No,” Faith says, blond curls falling into her face. She’s got her father’s endless energy and a second foot to propel her. She squirms in her seat and holds Patches in her arms.

“That’s just the way it is,” Sara says.

Hondo watches Faith climb onto the table before she’s escorted to bed. He might one day tell her that, in his surgery room, he slept in a bed next to a Saudi prince’s son. He might laugh when he admits that he got kicked out of the play area for crawling over other kids with his cast. He might mention what it’s like to walk around with the daily assistance of plastic and titanium and carbon. But for now, none of that matters. Faith just knows that not every kid has a father with a Mickey Mouse leg.

The Schaghticoke tribe is praying for the long-lost bones of its ancestors. Standing on the Connecticut reservation their families once called home, members clasp one another’s cold hands. They turn their backs on the neighboring town of Kent and on the massive vans parked like sleeping giants on the other end of the plateau. They wait outside the wooden fence of the reservation’s small cemetery, bordered by spindly birch trees and the Housatonic River. It is early November, and they have gathered from across the state to clear away the autumn’s fallen leaves and to pay their respects to the departed.

“We are putting our ancestors back in the ground, where they should be, and back on the reservation,” says Ed Sarabia, a member of another Native American tribe who has come to officiate the ceremony. Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, he crosses the circle to pick up a can of American Spirit tobacco and a blue, gun-shaped lighter. He tells those present to forget about their unfinished work and their unpaid bills for the moment. As part of the purification ritual, called a “smudge,” he raises a flame to a braid of dried sweet grass and recites a blessing. Two other tribal members make their way around the circle in silence, tracing a ring around each participant with the burning braid. It dips from head to shins, and then rises again, smoking faintly.

As they enter the cemetery, each participant pinches tobacco from the large can and scatters it in the freshly dug hole in the corner of the burial ground. Beside it sits a shallow, white box filled with bones. Nick Bellantoni, the former state archaeologist who brought the bones to the reservation today, declares that they are, without a doubt, of Native American origin. Several years ago, archeologists unearthed the seventeenth-century bone fragments in Fort Hill, outside of New Milford. Though the bones may have come from one of the related tribes that lived in the area centuries ago, Sarabia takes the opportunity to focus on the spiritual Creator. It is a time to celebrate commonality, rather than difference.

For the Schaghticoke, returning to the land is a fraught subject, and proving ancestry is even more contentious. Though Connecticut has recognized their tribe since 1736, they have spent the last few decades trying to get the U.S. Department of the Interior to make the same determination. Joining the roster of 566 federally acknowledged tribes would come with far-ranging benefits. It would give the tribe the status of a sovereign nation, and guarantee its members funding and services for education, healthcare, housing, law enforcement, and resource protection through the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. It would also help the Schaghticoke reclaim much of their reservation land. According to the tribe, the approximately 2,500-acre reservation has shrunk to four hundred acres, since state-appointed overseers sold off much of the land to cover Schaghticoke debts. But the land claims stand little chance in court without federal recognition.

In order to gain United States’ stamp of approval, the tribe must demonstrate that it has been a distinct community governed by a political authority since what the Bureau of Indian Affairs calls “historic times,” starting as early as 1789. Despite the work of researchers, anthropologists, genealogists, and attorneys, corroborating the tribe’s continuous existence has been a costly, decades-long process. The tribe’s massive collection of court files, meeting records, land sales, marriage certificates, and other documentation has helped it almost reach its goal, but according to the DOI, significant gaps remain in the historical record.

For a brief, promising moment in 2004, the U.S. government granted the Schaghticoke the coveted federal status. The seemingly endless process the tribe started when it filed a letter of intent to the BIA in 1981 had finally come to a close. But Connecticut politicians, led by then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, placed their support behind the town of Kent and other landowners around the reservation who were opposed to the tribe earning federal recognition. Connecticut, the affluent Kent School, the local power utility, and a dozen towns and cities requested that the DOI reconsider the evidence. By 2005, the department issued a Reconsidered Final Determination. The Schaghticoke became one of the only tribes in history to be stripped of its federal status through an overturned decision.

“That’s the oddity of being native,” says Sarabia, the spiritual leader, after the ceremony. “Why do we have to prove who we are in our own country?”

unnamed-7Most people have left the reservation, and the tribe has splintered, preventing it from showing a unified front. The two groups—the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation (STN) and the smaller Schaghticoke Indian Tribe (SIT)—are engaged in a bitter dispute over leadership. But the fight for recognition continues. The STN, which lost its federal status in 2005, has renewed hopes: in 2013, the DOI proposed making the acknowledgement requirements far less stringent. The SIT—which pushed the DOI to reconsider its approval of the STN—aims to complete its own petition for recognition. But a previously rejected tribe has little chance of emerging victorious, even if its two halves agree that they deserve more than just a rocky patch wedged between the state border and a town that doesn’t want them. As the opposing Schaghticoke chiefs challenge each other’s legitimacy, they play into the hands of lawmakers who say their community has fallen apart.

Ruth Garby Torres, a Schaghticoke historian, says that the tribe is partly responsible for its current condition. She critiques both tribal groups for foregoing reconciliation. “We’ve been victimized by a process, but there’s blame to be shared within the tribe,” she says. “There’s failure, or an inability, or both, to figure out how to move forward and still disagree.”

* * *

The office of Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, is packed with the paper trail of more than a quarter century of legal battles. Tall black file cabinets sit next to shelves filled with fat binders. A dream catcher with a decorative snake coiled around it hangs on the wall. Towers of cardboard boxes with scrawled red labels lean against one another between the plastic potted pants. In the largest room of the Derby office, the curtains are drawn and the ceiling is unfinished, giving it the air of a forgotten attic. As I glance at Velky’s desk, I find a glossy flyer for the California Gaming Summit next to a Coca-Cola bottle and a mug with a Native American wearing a headdress.

“Inside these walls here, we have over 45,000 pages to prove our heritage,” says Velky, a portly man with receding white hair. He points to a stack of giant Rubbermaid tubs, one of an estimated hundred in the office. The BIA’s regulations have forced tribal members to become hyper-specific about their heritage, so the tribal office has started to look like the home of a hoarder. Velky calmly describes the countless letters he has written and reports he has filed. Only on occasion does he slip into the tone of a boxer who has taken a few too many punches.

The current process of tribal recognition was created in 1978; prior to that, groups were declared tribes by acts of Congress. However, the process is notoriously slow, as both the tribes and the BIA are often disorganized. The Schaghticoke filed a letter of intent to petition in 1981, but they didn’t complete their petition for another thirteen years. They lagged behind two other Connecticut tribes, the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, who each opened their own enormous casinos after winning federal recognition. Until two years ago, the Foxwood Resort Casino, owned by the Pequot, was the largest casino in the U.S.

Casinos, with their glitzy, seedy vibe, are glorified in Vegas movies and vilified in debates about moral towns. They complicate the BIA’s already convoluted processes. In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, granting tribes special gaming rights. The number of petitions skyrocketed as tribes seized the opportunity for economic growth. In Connecticut, federally recognized tribes are the only groups permitted to own casinos, and Velky considers the state government’s fear of additional casinos to be the primary cause of its opposition to the Schaghticoke. He insists that he is not pressing for recognition exclusively because of gaming rights, but he would consider opening a casino outside of the current reservation land.

Yet casinos attract more than tourists. Steven Austin, who worked as an anthropologist for the STN, spelled out the politicians’ fears. “The casinos bring in corruption, problems with prostitution and drugs, and other evils,” he says. The state’s concerns extend beyond gaming, to tribes’ potentially far-reaching land claims, and their exemption from state and local property regulations. Though a quarter out of every dollar played at the Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods Resort Casino, excluding gamblers’ final winnings, goes to the state in lieu of taxes, the economic calculation doesn’t necessarily work out in the state’s favor. Tribal recognition confers the right to additional expensive social services. It also makes cuts into the state’s tax base.

But the grounds for the Reconsidered Final Determination have to do with something far more technical: historical gaps in the tribe’s extensive documentation. According to Velky, the problem arises from the fact that community leaders kept poor records in both the 1800s and 1900s. The fact that a state reservation existed bolstered the Schaghticoke’s original case, but Connecticut politicians protested against using state recognition as a marker of community, leading to the DOI’s painful revision.

Velky still remembers camping on the reservation with other tribal members to tend a spiritual fire in the two weeks before the DOI’s 2005 decision. It was Columbus Day when they received news of the Reconsidered Final Determination, which invalidated their federal status. Finality had come and gone, and a torrential rain started to fall. “That was our ancestors talking aloud, saying that they were upset,” he says.

Research and litigation have cost the tribe an estimated $20 million, much of which came from Subway founder Frederick A. DeLuca, who may have expected a cut of eventual casino profits. “The only way we can pay investors back is through gaming,” Velky explains. (The Director of Corporate Communications for Subway said DeLuca was unable to comment).

DeLuca cut off his financial support after the tribe lost its recognition, so Velky is left to collect money from other private investors, hoping they can stretch funds far enough. Even now that the research process is complete, he must pay a few hundred dollars each month to keep his office, located above a hair salon and a chiropractor, with a view overlooking a parking lot.

CeremonyThe chief insists that where he really belongs is on the reservation: “If you go out this way, you see the first house. My grandfather was born in that house in 1903,” Velky explains on the day of the ceremony, gesturing at a boarded-up brown house with white-trimmed windows. The government made it difficult to for tribal members to return after they first moved away. According to Velky, overseers from the state welfare department denied his grandfather permission to return to the land in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he says, Kent firemen used some of the tribal houses for training drills, igniting some of the recently abandoned homes and preventing them from being passed on to younger generations of Schaghticoke.

The tribe has become increasingly diffuse far from the land. Prior to a wedding in 2011, it had been 114 years since there had been a marriage between two Schaghticoke members. But over a decade ago, when Velky last surveyed the Schaghticoke, eighty families said they would return to the land if given the change. He believes they the rest, like him, have held onto that dream.

We enter an adjoining room in the office, where a walking stick adorned with antlers and pheasant feathers lies nestled behind a large paper shredder. The abandoned fax machine and black-and-white images of traditionally dressed Native Americans are a reminder of what the recognition process has become. It is a fierce assertion of identity that relies upon endless clerical work. Yet Velky is determined to carry on. “Our people have been in every war for the people that are in the United States,” he tells me with pride and a hint of rancor. “We have fought diligently for our people and our rights, and we have been neglected.”

* * *

Alan Russell, the leader of SIT, is the tribal member who knows best what it means to call the land home. He is one of a handful of Schaghticoke who still live on the reservation. His newly rebuilt house sits up the road from the clearing where Velky’s people park their cars during the annual fall cleanup, which he does not attend. Velky and Russell do not speak to one another. Both claim to be the properly elected Schaghticoke chief; both claim that the other has essentially forged the names on his membership rolls to make them look more legitimate.

When I meet Russell on his property in November, behind the sign “BEWARE OF DOG,” he alleges that Velky is a fraud, one who has forced himself into the role of chief, and who has made headlines only because of his shady financial supporters. Russell, in the meantime, is still trying to muster up the money required to complete his petition for federal recognition. According to Bill Buchanan, a construction worker who has been the SIT’s primary consultant over the past decade, the petition will be completed this year. He himself is not Schaghticoke—he has no Native American heritage whatsoever—but he strangely points out that he is a relative of William Boyd, the actor who played the famed cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. “It’s kind of a modern-day cowboy-and-Indian event,” he adds, as though he could revise America’s history by stepping into the spurred boots of a cowboy hero.

The 67-year-old Russell leans on a rake as he tells me his goals are more modest than Velky’s. A trading post, medical benefits, and educational scholarships would be nice for his people. But the real reason he is considering filing for federal recognition is because he fears that Velky would attempt to throw him off the land. “If he ever tried that, he’d be a dead man,” Russell says. Though his family lived in New Haven for a few years after Russell’s father enlisted in World War II, they moved back to the land when Russell was only four years old. There is a video, he tells me, of him taking his first footsteps next to the wooden sign that says “Schaghticoke Indian Reservation.”

The Schaghticoke, like the officials who have combed through their family records, are mired in a genealogical argument, as they note and scrutinize every happy marriage and every sour divorce. Russell states that he and Velky are distant cousins—they share a white great-grandmother—but Russell is descended from her first marriage, with Schaghticoke Jim-Pan Harris, while “Velky is the product of a white man.” Though the BIA ruled that Velky has provided adequate proof of his ancestry, the SIT will not relent. Buchanan claims that, earlier this year, Velky’s nephew submitted his saliva to to find out if he is Native American. It was Buchanan’s suggestion that he use the genealogy site, but the relative never sent him the results.

Both parties accuse each other of foul play. Velky suspects that Russell burned down the central pavilion on the reservation and pulled out the crosses from Velky’s relatives’ graves. Russell claims that Velky harassed Russell’s dying mother and threatened his wife with a knife. “They play dirty, you know what I’m saying?” Russell asks me. I struggle to reconcile his claims with my memory of the man who offered me a warm handshake just a few hours before, and whose grandkids played games by the campfire.

STN membership remains at around 300 while SIT’s formal membership hovers closer to 125. Buchanan, Russell’s consultant, insists that Velky copied the names of SIT members onto the STN’s membership list and pretended that there had been some sort of reconciliation between the two groups to get federal recognition. What the Reconsidered Final Determination actually says is that there were a significant number of people who declined to enroll in the STN, which means that the STN is not representative of the entire Schaghticoke community. The document indicates that an SIT petition will be considered when it is submitted.

Buchanan states that Russell has 4,000 documents in his house that could address the gaps in the STN’s records. It’s a dubious claim, given that SIT lacked the millions their opponents spent to unearth all of the relevant paperwork, but he could be right, if tribal members withheld their personal records until now. Until the petition is complete, it remains to be seen what the BIA will say. “When we get approved, all hell’s going to break through,” Buchanan says, without a doubt that the SIT will succeed.

Regardless of whether or not Russell has grounds for a new petition, his complaints show just how high-stakes the fight for reservation land has become. As reservations have become more restricted, the chief’s role in defending the land and the tribe becomes increasingly politicized. The disagreements over land affect the healthcare, schooling, and employment prospects of hundreds of people, to say nothing of their cultural identity and ancestral land.

“I don’t care about federal recognition. I really don’t. I just want to live here peacefully,” Russell says earnestly. But in the legal web spun around native land rights, there are many more factors at play. As matters of sovereignty become fixed into the law, one man’s desire to stay in his house becomes a problem far beyond the bounds of his gateposts.

* * *

The town of Kent has one traffic light and a population of about 3,000. Bruce Adams, who leads the town’s Board of Selectmen, looks out from the second floor of the Kent Town Hall. There are a handful of parked cars and a shopping center that has seen better days, but the town has remained as quaint as when he moved there in the 1970s. One of its major tourist attractions is still the nineteenth-century Bull’s Bridge, one of the only covered wooden bridges in Connecticut. “If a casino were built in this town, it would change this town forever,” Adams says.

The tribal members have explicitly stated that, if they received federal recognition, they would be more interested in building gaming facilities in other parts of the state, near larger cities that would bring customers. Adams doubts the Schaghticoke would build a casino in Kent, but the possibility that they would do so is enough to set him on edge. He fears the changes he has seen in the towns around Connecticut’s existing gaming centers: traffic, overcrowding, construction. Even if the tribe just opened a bingo facility or to started to sell tax-free cigarettes and liquor, he worries that they would compromise the town’s New England feel.

As a local social studies teacher for over thirty years, he has taught children from both Kent and the Schaghticoke reservation. Still, Adams speculates that if the tribe were to win all of its land claims, it could hypothetically force the closure of the Kent School, the prestigious boarding school founded in 1906. The Schaghticoke could also tear down the town’s sewage treatment plant, which would cost $9 million to replace. Velky calls Adams’s statements “fear-mongering” unfounded in fact. But reflecting on the relationship between the town and the tribe, Adams says, “It’s become antagonistic for one reason, and one reason only: money.”

The state of Connecticut takes Adams’s side in the debate over federal recognition. The proposal by the BIA to streamline the federal recognition process poses a new threat. The published draft states that third parties would be able to veto petitions from tribes that were formerly denied recognition, which would give the state the right to intervene. But no one knows whether the regulations will be passed in their current form. After a series of public hearings last summer, the tentative plan is still under consideration.

According to the BIA, only seventeen of the 566 federally recognized tribes have made it through the current BIA process under the current regulations since 1978. Most of the others had been approved by Congressional actions. The new rules would require the tribe to demonstrate that they have maintained a community with an active political body since 1934, as opposed to “historic times.” This would drastically reduce the amount of paperwork, legal maneuvering, and funding required, especially if the existence of state reservations is considered sufficient proof. Since July 2014, close to 3,000 people submitted testimony about whether the BIA should approve the proposal. Led by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, all of the state’s Congressional representatives wrote a letter in opposition to the more lenient requirements. Governor Dannel P. Malloy wrote his own letter, stating that, for Connecticut, “the consequence would be devastating.”

“When does no mean no? What gives anyone the right to lighten the rules?” Adams asks. He coaches after-school sports, and he likens the situation to an athletic competition: “Remember that game you lost back in 2001? We’re changing the rules, and we’re going to give you another try at winning the game.” Or, in the bleak words he recounts from one of his attorneys, “It’s a little bit like Whack-A-Mole.” Whenever Kent seems to finally be safe, the tribe pops back up.

Adams rejects the notion that communities who have been so thoroughly disenfranchised for centuries deserve reparations: he believes that the time for that has passed. The Oneida Nation lost a land rights case in Sherrill County, New York, several years ago, because the judge ruled that the land had been under different ownership for too many years. And Adams states that the same must be true when looking at what is owed to the Native Americans in Connecticut. The town has already spent $400,000 to fight the Schaghticoke over the last fifteen years, partly through a group called Town Action to Save Kent (TASK).

“There’s no question that wrongs were done to Native Americans way back when,” he says. “But I think we’ve gone too far the other way in trying to make things right.”

* * *

Room 1505 of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in New York City is packed with people in suits by the time Richard Velky arrives. Dressed in a baseball cap and jeans, he stands out in the crowd of suited lawyers. He has come to hear the fate of his land be debated at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The case is distinct from a BIA petition for federal recognition, but even he knows that a state-recognized tribe’s chances of winning this case are slim. He is here, in part, on principle. He strolls across the pristine white marble floors, watches the ornate gold-hued doors of the elevator close behind him, and takes a seat near the black wall.

The sound of a gavel rings out across the courtroom. “Hear ye, hear ye,” an assistant shouts out, as the judges file in: the Honorable Peter W. Hall, Gerard E. Lynch, and later Richard C. Wesley. Clad in black robes, in a room with elegant dark wood paneling, they too sit surrounded by reams and reams of documents. Video screens around the room project their faces to the audience, alongside the image of the speaker at the podium. When the green light at the podium turns on, the speaker may begin. Each has a little more than ten minutes to state his claims before the timer hits zero and the light turns red.

Benjamin Green, the representative for the Schaghticoke, faces a formidable coalition: the Kent School Corporation, the Town of Kent, the Connecticut Light & Power Company, and the United States of America (collectively referred to as “Defendants” in the brief). The Preston Mountain Club and several private estate owners are also listed as appellees. Green stands, looks up at the judges, and informs them that the tribal land was sold without U.S. approval. His clients, he indicates, should not be denied the protection of the Indian Nonintercourse Act.

“This is another step in what has been more than a decades-long struggle,” says Green. But as he starts to cast doubt once again on the DOI’s decision to deny recognition, Judge

Lynch, the snappiest, most fiery of the three justices, cuts him off: “But we’re through all that,” he says, before leaning back in his chair to listen to Green argue that times have changed. Green’s case comes to rest on the tenuous argument that the BIA considers a state reservation to be representative of a political community, at least according to the summary accompanying the proposed BIA rule changes.

The discussion frequently returns to the standard set by Montoya v. United States, the 1901 court case under which a tribe is defined as “a body of Indians of the same or a similar race, united in a community under one leadership or government and inhabiting a particular though sometimes ill-defined territory.” But the ruling comes from a time when the government’s relationship with tribes was drastically different from what it is now. Another part of the 1901 decision notes: “Owing to the natural infirmities of the Indian character, their fiery tempers, impatience of restraint, their mutual jealousies and animosities, their nomadic habits, and lack of mental training, they have as a rule shown a total want of that cohesive force necessary to the making up of a nation in the ordinary sense of the word.” Despite the clearly outdated attitudes, the court is interested in keeping with precedent.

David Elliott, an attorney for the Kent School, comes to the stand, followed by John Hughes, from the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut. Dick Schell, the friendly, round-faced headmaster of the Kent School, sits on the opposite side of the room from Velky. He has heard this debate rehashed countless times, and he has traveled all the way from Kent for the case, even though he thinks it is extremely unlikely that the claim will go through. He has been headmaster for thirty-three years at the school, which he himself attended as a boy, and concerns about the Schaghticoke’s claim have has always existed. “It’s a long, drawn-out affair,” he says at the end of the presentation of arguments.

The representatives of the defendants stand outside the courtroom congratulating one another for a job well done, and Velky walks past them without a word as he makes his way to the exit. Elliott insists that once the STN loses this case, its land claim is over. But of course, as rules shift, the matter is never so simple. “If the BIA enacts the proposed regulations, this tribe will go back to the BIA to be recognized and they will be recognized,” Schell tells me, matter-of-factly. It is irrelevant to these defendants which of the chiefs triumphs; to them, Velky and Russell are on the same side of the problem. But for now, since the tribe has not met the standards for federal recognition, the defendants have won their case.

* * *

pic1In the fall, back on the Schaghticoke reservation, Bellantoni, the former state archeologist, is placing the bones into a gravesite. Kneeling over a hole dug in the corner of the cemetery, he pulls out femurs, tibias, and smaller fragments from the white tissue in which they are wrapped. Prior to 1990, they would have likely been discarded, or simply covered up, since they were found on the site of what used to be a Native American fort. A sand and gravel company blew up the area in the early 1900s, Yale researchers excavated some of the remains in the 1930s and 1940s, and another construction company brought a bulldozer to sift through the ground about a decade ago. Now, the location is being prepared for condominiums, and Bellantoni has driven the remains across the state so they can settle into the ground on Schaghticoke territory.

“We can’t know they are Schaghticoke, but they are of native descent,” says Velky. It has never been important to him and his tribe to prove the specifics of lineage—that is the concern of the politicians around them. “If they don’t end up here, they’re going to end up in some museum,” he adds.

The Schaghticoke encircle the hole in the corner of the cemetery. One man brings clippings of fresh pine to lay in the grave, and Velky rubs sage from a Ziploc bag between his hands as he stands over the dirt pit. Bellantoni covers the bones with 4,000-year-old flint spearheads that were found at the site and may have been funerary objects. A tribal member adds the rest of the tobacco at the end, and the men begin to cover it up with shovels.

There will be no bulldozer coming to the Schaghticoke cemetery, no matter what the U.S. government decides. At the very least, the tribe’s members know that they have four hundred acres where they can continue to gather. They come on days like this to eat hamburgers around a campfire, or test their guns in preparation for deer-hunting season, or practice rituals that have been sacred for centuries. But people don’t lie quietly, like bones. They turn against one another and speak angrily of how they have suffered.

 Maya Averbuch is a junior in Berkeley College. She is the managing editor of the New Journal.

edward elm city id graphic
Illustration by Edward Wang. Photographs by Jennifer Lu.

In the early morning of June 6, 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials swooped into New Haven, handcuffs at the ready, searching the city for undocumented residents. By the end of the raid, they had taken thirty-two people off the streets of Fair Haven or from inside their own homes. Families gathered in a local church to record the names of those missing.

The arrests shook the community and even prompted a response from the mayor at the time. “Children have been traumatized; civil rights have been trampled; U.S. citizens and legal residents have been stopped and questioned without cause; and families have been ripped apart. America is better than this,” Mayor John DeStefano wrote in a letter on June 11, 2007, to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

The appearance of dark-jacketed ICE agents was a startling setback for grassroots groups, whose advocacy on behalf of the city’s 10,000 to 15,000 residents without valid U.S. documents had been gaining momentum after years of work. The arrests came just two days after New Haven’s Board of Alders voted to create the nation’s first municipal ID card. The Elm City Resident Card, as it was called, serves as photo identification for residents regardless of their immigration status.

The card was created with a few specific goals in mind. Undocumented immigrants, unable to open bank accounts, often carried or stashed large amounts of cash, making them prime targets for robberies. The card would allow them to present identification at banks, open accounts, and store their funds safely. They would also be able to check out books from the city’s public libraries and enter public parks and beaches. And, since the government itself would issue the card, officials hoped that cardholders would feel comfortable approaching local police to report crimes.

“The Elm City card was a shot heard around the country for many of us trying to resolve these problems for low-income and immigrant groups,” says Dr. Paule Cruz Takash, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. New Haven, with a current population of about 130,000, was the first major city to offer a municipal ID card, and several other cities have since followed in its footsteps. San Francisco started its own program in 2009, and, as of July of this year, more than 21,000 people had obtained cards. With Takash’s help, Oakland, California, developed an ID that doubles as a debit card. Nearly 5,000 people have received the cards since February 2013. Los Angeles and New York City are also in the process of preparing their own versions of the project, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation for IDs this summer, with plans for the city to roll out the card by January 2015.

The idea for a municipal ID wasn’t exactly born in New Haven. Years before the Elm City ID’s arrival, similar identification systems already existed in other parts of the country, according to “A City to Model,” a 2005 proposal crafted by the community groups JUNTA for Progressive Action and Unidad Latina en Acción, with the help of Yale Law School students. Florissant, Missouri, a town of about 52,000 people, offered a resident card to anyone who could provide photo ID and a utility bill. The card provided access to community centers and local recreation facilities. Aventura, Florida, a town of about 37,000 people, issued cards for access to parks and city-sponsored programs to anyone who could provide proof of residence.

The Elm City Resident Card did not have revolutionary ambitions, according to Michael Wishnie, who runs the Workers and Immigrants Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC) at the Yale Law School. But the New Haven proposal went beyond recreation. It asked local police and businesses to accept the card as a form of identification. And it had another important goal: It would allow people to open bank accounts. This innovation made it the first municipal ID in the country with implications for residents’ economic livelihoods and legal concerns. Suddenly, New Haven was making the national news.

While New Haven still receives credit for being the city that led the way in the ID debate, its program is getting less attention these days, and the number of sign-ups has dwindled. To date, over 12,300 people have signed up for the card, but nearly half did so in its first year. Decreased press coverage and the disappearance of mobile sign-up units may have contributed to the slump in numbers. In 2013, there were only 1,234 cards issued. About 550 Yale students signed up as part of a “New Haven Solidarity Week” in the fall of 2007, demonstrating that the card was meant for all residents, not just undocumented individuals. But many current students have never heard of the card. With limited use across the city, there is a renewed concern that the card will become a sort of scarlet letter for the undocumented.

It also turns out that some just won’t buy into the city’s dream. Major banks do not accept the card, so the problem of “unbanked” residents remains unsolved. When customers try to pay for purchases with a check or credit card, businesses sometimes refuse to accept the card as a valid form of identification. The ID was never reformatted to work with the city’s current electronic parking meters, and the original proposal to make it a low-value debit card never took off.

Yet, as far as former Mayor John DeStefano is concerned, the federal government is the one making the mistakes. When I met him for coffee on an April morning, he calls its immigration policy “fundamentally broken and incoherent.” Dressed in a white shirt and a grey suit appropriate for his job as Executive Vice President of Start Community Bank—one of the few that fully accepts the Elm City Resident Card—DeStefano tells me that his aim was always to create “an open and welcoming community.” His smiling face appeared on the first sample ID, dated May 7, 2007, below the banner: “New Haven: It All Happens Here.”

In his view, New Haven took a bold stand against the federal giant. Complicating the matter, the government did not act with a single voice; even when the Attorney General and other federal agencies approved plans for the card, the Department of Homeland Security remained wary. Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, told the Yale Daily News in April 2008, a year after the card’s aldermanic approval: “I don’t think that having identifications to enable people to live illegally is a good thing…It’s inconsistent with the law as we have it.”

When I contacted DHS to ask about the current policy toward municipal IDs, the e-mailed answer dodges the question. “Secure driver’s licenses and identification documents are a vital component of our national security framework,” reads the brief I received on the REAL ID Act, which Congress passed in 2005 in response to the 9/11 Commission to set standards for state identifications. However, the Elm City Resident Card was never meant to address the act’s goals: to regulate access to federal facilities, nuclear power plants, and commercial aircrafts. The response suggests that DHS disapproves of the numerous rogue states—not including Connecticutthat fail to follow these national standards, but the department may have bigger problems than one small city’s outdated project.


Illustration by Hanh Nguyen.
Illustration by Hanh Nguyen.

The Office of Vital Statistics, where the municipal ID cards are issued, is on the ground floor of City Hall. A plain sign above the door matches the bland interior, spruced up with a couple stock photographs of New Haven. People line up, waiting for help from clerks. Blue signs located above the counters dictate general rules—“Expired Licenses & ID’s NOT Accepted.”—in large white letters.

Applications for birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates are available at the center of the room, as though one can sort through all of life’s milestones with a series of forms. For those interested in an Elm City card, a yellow paper to the left states that a card can be obtained with a valid photo ID and two pieces of mail. A tripod points outward, ready to take quick snaps of applicants. The cards, which are valid for three years, can be issued on the spot, Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Passports, birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, national identification cards, consular IDs, voter registration cards, and visas can be presented as proof of identity. Applicants must also provide proof of residence: insurance and utility bills, bank statements, employment pay stubs, property tax statements, school enrollment forms, voter registration cards, or forms from a New Haven health or social services organization will work.

The office is quieter than it was in July 2007, when people lined up out the door to get the first Elm City Resident Cards; now, a few people wander in ahead of me to the wooden counters where staff wait, though none head over to the photo corner. According to office director Lisa Wilson, there is no accurate record of the number of cards issued each year since 2007, because the office’s software can’t crunch the numbers that far back. Though she provided me with a total from the past year, she insists that she is unable to track the annual changes in registration numbers. Still, the department’s website and the downloadable application form suggest a certain sleepiness in the office; they lack, for example, consistent information about the hours during which an applicant can obtain the card, as though there is nobody ensuring they are updated.

The lines are generally short, and for those who do come in, getting the card is easy. The staff does not ask for any information beyond residents’ full name, date of birth, and address, in addition to the required documents. According to Wilson, employees do not compile information about residents’ demographics, immigration status, or area of residence within New Haven. In essence, they operate with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but without any fanfare. However, the online application, which is more detailed than the single page I get at the office, hints at the threat that follows some applicants: “Would you like the City of New Haven to keep confidential your name and residential address as listed in this application to the extent permitted by law?” Applicants check a box: “Yes/Si” or “No.” Employees do not keep copies of the identifying documents, such as passports or consular IDs, or proof of residence, such as utility bills or employment pay stubs. They collect ten dollars from each adult applicant and five dollars from each child. Then they move on and assist the next person in line.

Neither the city nor the police nor community groups collect information on which ID card holders lack federal U.S. documents. If those who continue to sign up are indeed the immigrants who stand to benefit most from it, the card may have achieved some of its goals. Martha Okafur, who started as Community Services Administrator in June, said her department is in the process of assessing what still needs to be done to help the unbanked, and plans to discuss with banks their reluctance to accept the card. But without the data, the only way to find out what’s really going on is to speak to members of the community.


Ten years ago, chances are that I would have been mugged on my bike ride to Fair Haven, says neighborhood resident Ruben Mallma, an organizer for the immigrant rights group Familias en Camino. Crime rates in the area were higher back then, and he credits the ID for contributing to a sense of safety in his neighborhood.

Fair Haven, the city’s immigrant hub and home to thousands, is the place to watch when following New Haven’s progress on immigration issues. It is difficult to obtain accurate figures, since undocumented individuals may be wary of officials who are collecting population statistics. But according to “A City to Model,” approximately 3,000 to 5,000 people in Fair Haven are undocumented. About half of the neighborhood’s population is Latino, with people from Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and surrounding countries.

Mallma’s stories illustrate the difficult realities and daily problems that the ID card attempted to address: Residents without bank accounts were often robbed, and were too fearful of the police to report the crimes. He knew of eight people living in a three-bedroom apartment in Fair Haven whose three-bedroom apartment was burglarized ten years ago but they did not tell police. Another man got off a public bus with the money from four paychecks in his pocket. He was chased by a thief until Mallma pulled him into his house. Since police were often not alerted about these crimes, they could not keep accurate statistics. But newspapers reported that the undocumented were called “walking ATMs,” and people kept track of the situation through stories passed from one neighbor to the other.

Many of the city’s undocumented have little hope of obtaining citizenship, unless they are able to marry a U.S. citizen or find an employer to sponsor them. So they find ways to conceal their status. Two decades ago, many of the people Mallma knew carried fake documents. Some had papers from people who were deceased in other states. Others used their IRS tax identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers. Living in the shadows, people couldn’t help but feel that they didn’t quite belong in the community.

“When the police knock on your door, or when the police stop you for driving your car without a driver’s license, or when you try to buy something by credit and you are denied, you think, ‘What am I doing over here?’ You, as a person, you are nothing,” Mallma says.

David Hartman, the media liaison for the New Haven Police Department, states that when the Elm City Resident ID Card was first implemented, the number of burglaries and robberies reported in Fair Haven increased—and the police actually found that encouraging. The change suggested that people were more willing to report crimes. Overall crime rates dropped across the city in following years, and Hartman says that the ID card was part of the change. With more people turning to the police, “those people that were perpetrating these crimes realized that their descriptions were going to be out there,” making it more likely that they would be apprehended. Indeed, crime reports for the county show that the robbery rate dropped steadily after 2007, while the burglary and larceny rates jumped by several hundred in 2008 and then returned to lower levels. However, it is all but impossible to determine if the Elm City card was the primary cause of these changes.


At a small meeting of Unidad Latina members in April, I seat myself next to John Jairo Lugo, the bearded organizer whose name often appears in news articles about the latest immigrants’ rights protests. Unidad Latina, founded in 2003, is the new kid on the block, as far as Latino rights organizations go; its collaborator, JUNTA, which also works on issues affecting the Latino population, has been around since 1969. But there are still over twenty people gathered in the long, wood-floored room in the New Haven People’s Center on Howe Street.

There is an old A.B. Chase piano in the corner, next to the whiteboard where Lugo stands with a dry-erase marker in hand, poised for discussion. The walls are adorned with a black-and-white image of Rosa Parks, a poster commemorating “America’s Labor Heritage,” a painting by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and a collection of children’s drawings on colored construction paper with messages addressed to “Dear Mayor Toni Harp.”

Knowing that I came to hear people’s stories, Lugo turns to one of the other early arrivals and says, in Spanish, “Marco, you have the ID card, right?” When the skinny man next to me assents, Lugo grins: “Your first victim,” he says to me, before turning back to the man. “Only if you want to [talk], of course.”

“People want the card,” Marco Rodriguez tells me in Spanish. “It’s good.” Not great, not life-changing. But he did use it to open several bank accounts. However, many people, he tells me, cannot apply for the card, because they do not receive utility bills in their name. That makes providing proof of residence difficult.

Lugo points to a couple other people as they walk in, repeating his question, and each man pulls out his card from his wallet and extends it toward me, so I can see. I know what the cards look like from photos, so I am not sure what more I am supposed to find printed on the white surfaces. It is simply a moment of proof, of providing the identification that was asked for.

The meeting’s agenda includes the dispute over underpaid, undocumented workers at Gourmet Heaven and the cases of several residents who were arrested by ICE. As Lugo attempts to rally people for a protest in the following weeks, he tries to convince a woman in the back that one does not need to be documented to participate. But after her own experience being detained, she is afraid to take such a risk: “I haven’t gotten over the trauma,” she says.

Looking back at the 2007 raids, New Haven’s most public round of deportation, it is clear that ICE cannot round up the undocumented without proper warrants for arrest. But it can entangle people in years of legal battles, with the threat of extradition constantly hanging over their heads. Of the twenty immigrants represented by the Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization after the raid, all were released except two, and the rest decided to either voluntarily leave the U.S. or to seek outside counsel, according to Wishnie. When eleven were awarded compensation of $350,000 in 2012, the Yale Law School reported that it was the “largest monetary settlement ever paid by the United States in a suit over residential immigration raids, and the first to include both compensation and immigration relief.” However, not everyone is so lucky, and no amount of money can take away the anxiety that the woman at the meeting—and thousands like her—live with daily.

Under New Haven's municipal ID law, residents can apply for an ID at the Office of Vital Statistics at City Hall without proof of immigration status.
Under New Haven’s municipal ID law, residents can apply for an ID at the Office of Vital Statistics at City Hall without proof of immigration status.

This fear lies at the core of the Elm City ID’s struggles. Even when official policies change, people’s attitudes might not. The ID card arrived soon after another victory for immigrant groups; in 2006, the local police department ruled that officers cannot ask about witnesses’ or victims’ immigration status. This measure was intended to encourage undocumented residents to report crime; previously, if they gave their name to the police, they ran the risk of being matched to ICE’s national database. New Haven police followed officials in several other cities in declaring that their role was not to enforce federal law, but to keep the city safe. Last year, Connecticut as a whole took another step toward curtailing ICE’s powers by becoming the second state to sign the TRUST Act, promising not to detain immigrants unless they are convicted of serious crimes.

Still, a 2012 report by JUNTA and the Transnational Development Clinic at the Yale Law School stated that there is still “widespread suspicion” among Fair Haven residents about the resident ID card. Rumors persist, the report noted, that the card is solely for people who did not have papers or that federal officials will use it to detain undocumented workers. Okafor, the Community Services Administrator, says that until her staff starts meeting with focus groups and conducting interviews in September, they cannot know the community’s current attitudes toward the card. Anecdotes are, for now, the only evidence.

The card hopes to make residents feel safer in their community, but after past run-ins with the local police, some residents remain wary. After the meeting, Abel Sanchez, who has lived in New Haven for fourteen years, tells me that a policeman stopped him three years ago while driving—“I knew it was racist,” he says—and did not accept the card. It is useful as an identification document when dealing with the city’s trash collection services, he adds. But he doesn’t have much more to say about it, and he knows of only a few friends who have one.

Domingo Lopez, who has lived in New Haven for twenty-two years, tells me the ID is important here. He uses it at businesses and hospitals, and he has even opened a bank account. But he has also had problems with the police, even during the time he has had the card: “They see that you’re Latino, and they bad-mouth you,” he says. However, when I ask him for more details, he tells me that his last problem with a policeman was five years ago.

Latrina Kelly-James, the deputy director for Development & Programs at JUNTA, says the people she works with understand that ICE and local police operate independently, and that the municipal ID has helped give residents a sense of pride in New Haven. “The card makes them feel part of the city and makes them feel civically engaged,” she says.

However, the card is ineffective beyond city limits, where they may face other threats. In 2010, after being sued by residents, the city of East Haven was found guilty of repeatedly harassing Latinos. The city paid a $450,000 settlement in June 2014, but residents are still uneasy outside New Haven.

“When you have a welcoming city and two blocks down, you have a fear of being deported, that sense of fear is always going to be there,” Kelly-James notes.

Back in the People’s Center, Lugo asks a man who was released after being detained for eight months to come speak at the front of the room. As the man tells it, he was on his way to buy a sandwich when the police stopped him and sent him to immigration services. Lugo pulls out a mailing envelope and, with a flourish, hands the man at the front of the room his own United States Employment Authorization Card. “You can get Social Security, and a driver’s license,” Lugo tells him, and the man looks genuinely moved as he holds the card in his hand, until someone shouts from the back, “You can pay taxes, too!” Lugo takes a photo of the man holding up the card as he poses at the front of the room.

Documentation is coveted in this community. Even though the national card is just a temporary work permit, it is prized. And it grants far more privileges than New Haven’s local ID ever will.


The Elm City ID can help holders accomplish everyday tasks, but it only works if city organizations and companies accept it. Liberty Bank and Start Community Bank, both local banks, accept the card as a primary form of identification from people who wish to open a bank account. But, despite DeStefano’s early efforts, many of the city’s largest banks do not.

TD Bank, People’s United Bank, and Webster Bank do not accept the card as identification when opening an account. Webster spokesperson Sarah Barr said the bank is limited in the types of identification it can use, because it is a national bank that requires permission from federal regulators.

An employee at Citizens Bank who asks to remain anonymous tells me that residents come in once or twice a month requesting to open an account with the municipal ID. “I wish I could take it. I get so many people who come in and that’s all they’ve got,” he says, but a manager explains that the bank’s policy is based on “government-issued IDs”—and apparently New Haven’s does not make the cut.

Chase, Wells Fargo, and Sovereign Bank will take the card as a secondary form of ID. First Niagara spokesperson Karen Crane said the bank would also take it “on an exception basis,” when New Haven residents who are applying for banking services do not have other approved forms of identification and if the bank manager approves it. She cannot guarantee the same outcome in every case.

The murkiness of banks’ policies leads to confusion among residents and means that fewer of them end up opening accounts. According to the 2012 JUNTA report, residents in the organization’s focus groups were more likely to try to open accounts at big-name banks, which means that some may have been denied accounts simply for turning to the wrong bank. (Start Community Bank, for example, had had only 148 people open accounts using the Elm City Resident ID as of August of this year.) Only 48 percent of people surveyed reported having a bank account, and 27 percent stated that they used no financial services, including credit cards, prepaid cards, or check-cashing. Residents who could not open bank accounts because they lacked proper identification or because they didn’t understand the identification requirements were left without a safe, reliable way to manage their money.

Beyond the banks, only some local businesses accept the card as photo documentation. In a 2012 study titled “Documenting the Undocumented,” three Yale students concluded that Latinos were more likely than whites to be carded when paying with a check. However, stores were more likely to accept Ameracard—an unofficial ID, from a company based in Stamford that can be purchased online without proof of one’s identity—than the Elm City Resident ID. The problem, the researchers reported, was largely the municipal ID’s amateurish design and unofficial-sounding name.

If New Haven wants people to renew their ID cards, it will have to convince them that the card is a useful investment of time and money. At present, people lack information about its processing, and banks’ and businesses’ unwillingness to participate makes the card ineffective.

Luis Alberto Lopez, another New Haven resident, tells me that ten members of his extended family have the card, but it hasn’t helped them much. Bank of America turned it down when he attempted to open a bank account, and Walmart and Comcast refused to accept it as photo ID when he tried to make credit-card payments several years ago. A policeman in North Branford stopped a car he was a passenger in and asked about the ID, “Where did you get this one?” “As soon as I realized that nobody takes it, I realized that I better use my passport,” Lopez says, referring to his Mexican documentation.

Another immigrant couple Mallma introduces me to says that neither of them has the card, though they have been living in New Haven for eight years. The man tells me that the consular ID he uses marks him as a foreigner, so the Elm City ID would probably be good to have. But his wife states they did not have much information about it earlier, and now she cannot apply because her passport is expired. Their answers about the card are, in many ways, half-hearted; they alternate between lukewarm positivity and verbal shoulder-shrugging. After a prolonged conversation, the man concludes that there is no real difference between the municipal ID and the consular one: “I don’t get a better job if I have the card. It neither betters nor worsens life. It’s the same.”


elm city id 2 copyThe municipal ID has certainly helped some New Haven residents, but with mediocre reviews and little current publicity, current residents may not hear about the benefits in the years to come. And the 2014 changeover in the city’s administration introduced a new set of officials who were not around for the extensive community discussions that led to the creation of the card. Though Laurence Grotheer, the new mayor’s communications director, tells me that the city is still considering adding a debit function to the card, he adds that there is no real timetable for such a change. Instead, he points to another city project, the Shop•Dine•Park gift card, released in January 2014, which can be loaded with money to serve as a debit card at parking meters or to make purchases at more than two hundred participating local businesses—as the flagship ID card never could.

At present, seemingly more legitimate forms of identification also threaten the success of the New Haven card. Starting in 2015, undocumented immigrants will be able to obtain Connecticut drivers’ licenses, though they will be marked “for driving purposes only” on the back and will have to be renewed every three years.

Emily Tucker, an attorney for immigrant rights and racial justice at the Brooklyn-based Center for Popular Democracy, says that New Haven’s work still serves as a model for the rest of the country, where municipal ID’s are the focus of many people’s efforts. The center has been one of the groups instrumental in developing the legislation in New York, after conducting a comprehensive review of the nation’s municipal ID card programs. “New Haven was at the forefront, so all of the lessons learned from that campaign, we knew they were going to come up for us too,” she says. But they also took into account the card’s shortcomings.

Theoretically, a municipal ID could offer even more advantages than a DMV-issued card or a Shop•Dine•Park card. Where the city has failed—in getting an official-looking design and offering discounts to card users—cities such as San Francisco and Oakland have succeeded.

In New York City, where the undocumented population consists of about 500,000 people, some of the key concerns raised at the start of the Elm City ID program and those in other cities are being revisited on a larger scale. Questions remain about why New York City will keep copies of applicants’ documents—such as pay stubs or children’s educational records—for at least two years. The New York Civil Liberties Union refused to support the legislation because of concerns that the police department, FBI, or Department of Homeland Security could force the city to turn over the records without probable cause.

There is still a vocal group of Americans opposed to measures that are so openly supportive of immigrant groups, and these voices exacerbate the worries of the population now gingerly approaching new forms of identification. William Gheen, the president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, states that New Haven is still a sign of the federal government’s terrible willingness to turn a blind eye to the “illegals” in the country. When the card was first released, his group distributed bilingual pamphlets in forty states with the instructions: “Come to New Haven CT for sanctuary. Bring your friends and family members quickly.” His opinion has changed little since 2007, when anti-immigrant groups such as the Yankee Patriot Association, Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform, and the Community Watchdog Project protested against the card. “It sends a clear message to encourage illegal aliens to enter the United States,” he says.


DeStefano, the former mayor, is not blind to the city’s failure to build a complete support structure for the immigrant population. But he slips out of the precision of policy makers into the language of an idealist when I ask why he still believes that the country will come to embrace its immigrants: “There is an American identity that does value freedom and does respect hard work and does value choice and does respect decency,” he says.

Even if New Haven’s municipal ID card still needs some work to be effectively integrated into the political, social, and economic life of the city, it outlined a process to help residents considered “illegal,” allowing other cities to learn from the Elm City’s successes and missteps.

Okafor, of the Community Services Administration, says expects to see Toni Harp’s tenure as mayor to bring greater collaboration with banks, as per the card’s original goals. The summer has brought the early stages of planning, as she attempts to assess the barriers still in place for undocumented residents who have not managed to open accounts. In the meantime, many are still in economic limbo.

Idealists brought the card to New Haven, but it remains to be seen whether the idea can stay alive—and whether programs like it are the right answer for America’s undocumented. “We strive for perfection. We do not always accomplish perfection,” DeStefano adds, before he leaves for work.

Maya Averbuch is a junior in Berkeley College. She is the managing editor of the New Journal.

Photo by Maya Averbuch

In a small apartment in Fair Haven, Patricia Stuart goes to get a letter from her bedroom. Family Feud plays in the background as she emerges with an envelope in hand, and begins to read in a low, gravelly voice: “In accordance with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, maximum allotments can only remain the same each year until the regular Thrifty Food Plan adjustment increased allotments above those set by the Recovery Act.” In comprehensible terms, the news is bad: her food stamp benefits have been cut from two hundred dollars a month to $189.

“What are we supposed to do?” she had asked soon after I walked in. Stuart, a tall, middle-aged woman wearing a colorful robe, spends most days at home or in the doctor’s office. Seated at her living room table, she shows me why she has been out of work for the last few years—she cannot lift her right arm more than a couple of inches. “Just moving it hurts right now,” she says softly, before laying it gently back in her lap. When she needs to leave the apartment, her goddaughter drives her, because taking the bus causes panic attacks. She places the letter alongside financial statements, pill bottles, and a bouquet of plastic roses.

Stuart is one of over 36,000 New Haven residents who receive food stamps, officially known as SNAP benefits, through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave people like her across the country extra food dollars to get them through the hard times of the recession. That temporary boost ended on November 1, forcing many to adjust their budgets. Legislators had assumed that the economy would pick up by the law’s expiration date, but in the New Haven, unemployment has stubbornly remained at twelve percent, and the cost of living has gone up. Some Connecticut representatives are part of the battle: Representative Rosa DeLauro has protested vehemently against additional reductions, and Senator Chris Murphy made headlines for eating on a SNAP budget for nearly a week last spring.

Since the cuts, Stuart has kept an especially sharp eye out for coupons and sales. She bought five pounds of potatoes and a five-pound bag of flour for ninety-nine cents each at ShopRite. Once a month, she stops at a food pantry to get additional supplies. “I don’t eat too much of the fresh stuff,” she notes. In fact, she tries not to each too much at all. She grows weary when I mention that under the Farm Bill being debated in Congress, several billion food stamp dollars may be cut once more.

On a map of food insecurity in Connecticut, New Haven is a dark stain, indicating that people here are worse off than those in the rest of the state. The portion of city residents on food stamps has approached thirty percent in the past few years, and the problem is worsened by governmental disorder. In the spring of 2013, a federal judge ordered that the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) fix its “systemic deficiencies,” including illegally long wait times and frequent loss of applications.

But by the numbers, fewer people go hungry in Connecticut than in other parts of the country. In New Haven, the DSS has embarked a path of modernization, and nongovernmental resources are also readily available to residents. There are numerous soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters. People spend at farmers’ markets, which double the value of their SNAP dollars and give them greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When asked if people are hungry in New Haven, Robert Jackson, a supervisor at the New Haven Community Soup Kitchen, says they shouldn’t be.  Holding a mop in his emptied dining hall, he notes matter-of-factly: “There are so many places that feed you.”


But the lines keep getting longer. With the food stamp cuts arriving right before Thanksgiving and not long before the winter cold, people have turned increasingly toward nonprofit aid. The city’s charitable network finds itself spread thin.

On a Tuesday morning at the New Haven Community Soup Kitchen, Rick Durance, the assistant to the executive director, says, “December is looking bad, and January is going to be worse.” A former Michigan resident and AmeriCorps volunteer, Durance moved to Connecticut to work at Christ Church Episcopal in downtown New Haven, which runs the soup kitchen. In that time, he’s seen the numbers of meals the kitchen serves jump. Now, in the last week of every month, the one-room dining hall prepares to serve an unprecedented three hundred lunches. Durance expects the figures will only increase as New Haven starts to feel the effects of the SNAP cuts. “Folks are feeling shunned,” he says, “We’re feeling unable to provide for a community we care about.”

David O’Sullivan, Durance’s soft-spoken boss, tells me that the clientele has changed considerably in the twenty-seven years he has worked at the kitchen. When he started, he says, the typical beneficiary was an older male with a drinking problem. Now, the people who come looking for a meal are, on the whole, younger, whiter, more well-to-do, and sometimes toting kids. “For a lot of the newer folks, you can sense the stress levels are higher,” he tells me. They come in asking for assistance the soup kitchen cannot provide—diapers, baby food, rent assistance. Though a SNAP coordinator is sometimes on hand to direct them to the Department of Social Services, O’Sullivan says, “The government has stepped back.” The annual twenty thousand dollars in governmental funds that Christ Church Episcopal had received for the past five years has been cut. Now the directors have to rely on grants, donations, and fundraisers.

Photo by Maya Binyam

I leave just as the first of the lunch crowd files in. They make their way towards stacks of bread and pots of hot food fresh from the adjoining stainless-steel kitchen. With Farm Bill cuts of anything between four and forty billion dollars over the next ten years, Durance fears that soup kitchens and food pantries will not be able to handle the demand. “They will close, unequivocally,” he says, with a hard look in his eyes. He hopes, however, that his kitchen will be an exception.


Those who cannot line up for cooked meals often stock their own fridges and cupboards with the help of food pantries instead. The following Saturday, I am standing in front of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James. The church runs Loaves & Fishes, the largest weekly New Haven pantry that allows its guests—as the program manager, Reverend Keith Voets, calls them—to pick out their own food. Voets had told me that people line up well before the pantry’s 9 a.m. opening. When I arrive at 8:30, there is already a line around the block.

Photo by Maya Binyam

Inside, John Castillo, the church’s good-natured caretaker, directs me to the serving area. A food stamp recipient himself, he seems mostly unfazed by the SNAP reduction: “It has caused me to cut back a little on red meat, but other than that it’s basically the same.” Yet the times are not easy for him: he tells me about his multiple sclerosis and how his household includes his six younger siblings, all in the same cheerful tones with which he had given me directions. Pay from the church is not enough for Castillo to go without assistance, but he says that New Haven has offered him much more support than New York, where he grew up. Plus, he insists, he fares better than some others who are struggling here. As we speak, someone in the next room yells, “We’re about to get started,” and the volunteers’ opening prayer drifts through the door: “Give us today our daily bread…”

Loaves & Fishes gets most of its food from the Connecticut Food Bank, one of two large food assistance banks in the state. The CT Food Bank, whose central location is in nearby East Haven, also relies on donations from local markets and growers. Government food provisions have run thin, and the decline is expected to continue. Neither the Food Bank nor the pantries know how many of the people who come in are on food stamps, but with more cuts to come, CT Food Bank Communications Director Mary Ingarra says the Food Bank is expecting more of a strain on its programs.

Back in the volunteer area of Loaves & Fishes, the strain is visible. Volunteers shuttle around quickly, cutting pie for guests and bagging bread to deliver to elderly people at home. A teenage girl hurtles by, saying, “We have an egg spill. Eggs are down.” A white-haired man peers out of the kitchen to ask, “Does anyone know how to make coffee in these things?” Another, wearing a pink sweater and jeans, declares, “Straight-up chaotic today.”

In the next room, a volunteer holds up numbered laminated papers to make sure guests reach the food tables in an orderly fashion. Individuals who arrive with their own bags get an extra item from a table with Thanksgiving staples like stove-top turkey stuffing, while the rest move on to the standard fare: packets of rice, cans of sweet corn and green beans, bags of potatoes, and fresh zucchini. A chart on the wall displays pictures and labels of lesser-known fruits and vegetables, including yucca and various kinds of yautía—presumably part of the young new reverend’s plan to make guests’ diets more nutritious. Loaves & Fishes also runs a small free medical clinic, and the rates of diabetes and obesity that volunteers see are staggering, Voets says.

Two older women cross in front of me. “Venga por aquí,” one says to the other. Another woman runs forward saying, “Wait, wait, wait,” before grabbing the hand of a small child. Loaves & Fishes does not ask any questions of its guests, so it does not have statistics on its clients’ demographics, but one can observe the people who mill about. The pink-sweatered volunteer declares that many are drug addicts who trade in their SNAP swipes for cash at local grocery stores and then show up at the pantry. Nationally, only one cent on every SNAP dollar spent is illegally exchanged for cash, a fraud rate that has dropped in recent years. Both Voets and volunteer captain Sally Fleming tell me that many of their guests are working poor, people with one or more low-wage jobs who still struggle to make ends meet. Fleming, a small, gray-haired woman who slips in and out of sight as other volunteers ask for her assistance, says, “I don’t think anyone’s starving, but there are certain families that run out of food and have to live on pasta by the end of the month.”


For the homeless, who have nowhere to store food or cook meals, options are even more limited. Yet the shelters they turn to are not always able to provide the food they need. At Columbus House, one of New Haven’s largest homeless shelters and social service organizations, Paula Bowe explains that she is borderline diabetic, and it’s crucial that she maintains a healthy diet—with fresh vegetables, lean meat, fish, and not too many carbs—to prevent the disease from worsening. “It’s the stuff that you’re not supposed to have that you can afford,” she says, seated at a table in the shelter’s office space. Columbus House Intake Specialist Martha Deeds, a young woman with short-cropped blonde hair, points out that though homelessness often exacerbates people’s health issues, the shelter cannot cater to all dietary restrictions. “The options are limited,” she says.

Bowe speaks vehemently about her fight to support herself—and her adult disabled son—within the system she depends on. She lost her longtime job as a clerk at Stop & Shop three years ago, after a car accident sent her to the hospital. She lived off savings and settlement money for months, but both have run out, forcing her to seek help at Columbus House. She struggled with the Department of Social Services; her SNAP benefits were cut off when her renewal form was sent to her old mailbox. When she applied again, the office misplaced her documents. Like others, she has become jaded: “If my body would let me, I’d rather work eighty hours a week than deal with the federal or the state government.” I ask her about the department’s new office, which has made use of a statewide system to manage clients’ accounts online and a new scanning process to prevent lost documents. There’s more staff and wait times have decreased significantly, but after her fight, Bowe remains skeptical: “It’s the same old welfare office.”

Work is hard to come by for Bowe, given that she cannot operate a computer easily, which she says is required for most jobs. Though the state has stepped in to cover her future rent, paying utilities without an income is impossible. She hopes to move out of Columbus House as soon as possible, but she worries that even with a kitchen, she will struggle to prepare healthy meals. For now, she practices her computer skills in the hopes of finding employment.


To successfully advocate against future cuts, those affected need to tell their stories, says William Bromage, chair of the Food Assistance Working Group, and they need to do it well: “Everyone can tell their story, but not everyone can do it concisely and powerfully.”

The group is part of the New Haven Food Policy Council, which has banded together with local nonprofits to train a few people to do so. The twelve chosen food advocates come from all over New Haven, and most rely on assistance—whether from SNAP, soup kitchens, or food pantries. In October, they attended a five-hour training session to learn how to speak at a legislative hearing, write letters to newspaper editors, and reach out to fellow community members.

The advocates are paid for an eleven-hour internship, anything from attending conferences to assisting with surveys to—I’m unnerved to learn—speaking with reporters. But Bromage points out that the $12.50-per-hour compensation is necessary when dealing with such a low-income population. There are, of course, barriers to what they can do. At one council meeting, food advocate Kimberly Hart complains, “Policymakers can testify for hours. When I testify? Three minutes.” And perhaps there is some heartstring-pulling.

Photo by Maya Averbuch

Patricia Stuart, who lives in Fair Haven, is another one of the food advocates. Initially she speaks of the food stamp cuts with resignation: “There’s no sense in trying to fight it, because you won’t win.” But she attended part of the food advocate meetings, and plans to return. Among people like her, there’s a sense of collective vulnerability. The poor, especially those who struggle with multiple jobs or impermanent housing, are often not the ones closely following federal debates. Faraway politicians hand down decisions, and the consequences, announced in the formal language of legislation, translate to a lost gallon of milk, or one more bruised tomato.

The food advocates are just a handful of New Haven citizens, but they represent many others. In conversation, they tell the stories of people—a friend with kids, a woman in the street, a couple featured in the paper—who are struggling more than they are. They speak not the language of policymakers but instead the language of empty shopping carts and skipped meals. Their perspective, they hope, will change the spirit of the debate—if lawmakers hear them.

Photo courtesy of Phoenix Press

Ten minutes after I was due at Phoenix Press, Inc., the spokes of my bike were still spinning. I searched out every corner’s street sign, hoping that the next would say James Street. Knowing that the friendly businessman I had spoken to was probably checking his watch, I had the sinking feeling that comes with being lost—until I saw the waving white arms of the wind turbine. They twirled gracefully in the breeze against the blue background of the sky. The turbine’s long, slender base reached far above the boats gliding under the bridge nearby and the children playing in the park below.

Connecticut’s only commercial-size wind turbine is perched at the meeting of the Quinnipiac and Mill Rivers in an industrial area of New Haven. It belongs to Phoenix Press, a family-run business that prints everything from instruction manuals to calendars, and which erected the 150-foot-tall machine in 2010 to help power its production center. Brian Driscoll, one of the owners of the press and the man behind the turbine idea, has a maverick streak; he has fought to make his printing business succeed in an industry where companies are rapidly closing doors, but has done so by jumping into another that is struggling to get off the ground. Though Driscoll’s project was mostly met with support, many other wind energy initiatives in Connecticut have failed. Several years after the inauguration of Phoenix Press’s turbine, questions remain about whether turning to wind was—and is—worth the cost, for both Driscoll and the rest of the state.

Driscoll, a large, white-haired man with rimless glasses, met me in a waiting room featuring an antique printing press purchased at an auction. After ushering me into his office, he showed me a computer screen with an image of a turbine and three virtual dials tracking the turbine’s velocity (nearly one revolution per second, when I arrived), total energy production, and wind speed. The day was a windy one, and as I watched as the virtual needle indicating wind direction flick downwards, toward the south, I knew the real turbine was turning with it.

Since Driscoll and his two brothers, Tony and Kevin, founded their company in 1982, many relatives have found jobs there. Kevin is still a co-owner; their mother worked as a receptionist and their sister as a bookkeeper, Driscoll told me after we walked past his daughter at the front desk. Only seven of the thirty-two employees are related to him, but he extends the same familial good feeling to all his employees.

The staff has shrunk over the years, and is far from the seventy-five people it used to be. When the economy started to tank in 2007, he looked for ways to cut back on purchases, labor costs—anything that would help Phoenix Press. Business looked bleak, and Driscoll was not alone in his concerns. According to the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over a quarter of commercial printers have shut down since 2000.

Industry employment has fallen by over forty percent because of newer, more efficient machines that require less manpower. Additionally, many clients have begun designing their own products rather than working with external pre-press departments, and have also turned to the Internet to distribute information that would have been printed.

This economic desperation sparked the idea for the wind turbine. Perhaps for my benefit, Driscoll told the moment of revelation with cinematic detail. It happened on a break one afternoon: “When I walked around the corner of the building, the wind was blowing, and it started to blow my hair. My shirt was fluttering and my pants were fluttering,” Driscoll said. After a stroll later the same afternoon toward a nearby air quality monitoring station that also kept track of wind speed, he started to ask more questions about solar, wind, and tidal energy. In the following months, he petitioned for permission to build a turbine from the local planning and zoning commission, and secured a $200,000 grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, the quasi-state agency that has since become the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA). Despite all the troubles technology had brought, it also had the potential to save Phoenix Press.

Though the total cost of the turbine, $500,000, was high, they decided to install it largely for its financial benefit, as it would both cut electricity costs and make the press more attractive to customers invested in sustainability.

“We were doing things in the right direction, but this was going to separate us a huge amount from our competition,” Driscoll said. Still, he maintained that the company’s green practices, which include recycling all paper, cardboard, wood skids, and aluminum plates; printing on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; and using linseed- and soybean-based inks, are not solely financially motivated. Blaine Collison, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership, in which Phoenix Press participates, pointed out that the three hundred or so new partners each year come in with a desire to be green, but they would not— or perhaps could not join if they did not profit from investing in sustainability projects.

A small business like Phoenix Press hitting headlines with its biggest project in several decades was meant to be a game-changer. Poster-sized prints of construction day photos still lie in a stack in the office. Though Driscoll was not one of the “rugged guys” who installed the turbine, as he calls them, he was involved in the construction process every step of the way. He showed me a photo of himself in a white hardhat, harness, and sunglasses, noting that a crane lifted him nearly above the turbine itself so that he could get a better look. “Can you imagine? That’s how high I was,” he said. “But at that point I would have jumped up there. I was so excited.”

Since then, dozens of articles have been written about the turbine, and over a thousand people have visited. Hundreds of schoolchildren entered into a contest to name the turbine, which was adorably christened Gus(t). But Driscoll’s enthusiasm is decidedly subdued now; the turbine has been less of a boon than he and his brother had hoped it would. Though all of the press’s clients can see the “Wind to Print” logo on their products, their biggest concern, ultimately, is printing costs: “Regardless of how good you are and how well equipped you are and how many turbines you have and how many green initiatives you have, you’ve got to have at least close to the lowest price,” Driscoll said. Andrew D. Paparozzi, NAPL’s chief economist, pointed out that this hypercompetitiveness makes other companies shy away from green initiatives; when asked about their capital investment priorities for the next three years, only eleven percent of commercial printers cited sustainability. Gary Jones, an assistant vice president at Printing Industries of America, noted that the vast majority of the industry is taking some environmentally-friendly measures: “The real question is what’s the level.” Recycled papers and vegetable-based inks are fairly common, he said, but many companies are hesitant to take steps as bold as Phoenix Press has. With space limitations on smaller companies and sky-high technology costs, generating their own energy is simply not feasible. Even if they were to go ahead with new eco-friendly projects, returns are never guaranteed.

Driscoll’s turbine generates about a third of Phoenix Press’s electricity, and the company is credited by the local utility when it feeds unused energy to the neighborhood’s electricity grid. But as Driscoll hesitantly admits, the company’s profit margin has been less generous than expected because the turbine just isn’t spinning as quickly as expected. The press estimated energy production using standard maps that show wind speeds one hundred meters in the air, where wind speeds are much higher than at the turbine’s actual level.

According to Dave Ljungquist, the Director of Energy Efficiency Deployment at CEFIA and a member of the committee that approved Phoenix Press’s grant, as a result, the company’s actual energy output is tens of thousands of kilowatt-hours below the estimates each year. Back in the Phoenix Press offices, Driscoll drew a sketch on a piece of paper to show me how Long Island blocks some of the wind coming into Long Island Sound, creating disruptive turbulence. Ljungquist thinks that the more likely cause of this turbulence is nearby structures, such as Q-Bridge and the smokestacks of United Illuminating’s English Station.

Though new technology has helped CEFIA more accurately track lower-level winds, the outlook is bleak. “Given the technology that we have in wind, a good wind turbine really doesn’t start to look economical unless you see an average wind speed of twelve miles per hour,” Ljungquist said. “There are very, very few places in Connecticut that have an average wind speed of twelve miles per hour.” However, he described all the other turbines you would find if you took a drive north on Route I-95, which made Massachusetts and Rhode Island look like they have slightly more optimistic prospects.

Glenn Weston-Murphy, the founder of the Connecticut Wind Working Group, said that while Connecticut will never have wind farms on the scale of those in Texas and Oklahoma, smaller-scale development is likely. When I met him in one of the restricted-access rooms of Yale’s Mason Laboratory, Weston-Murphy, who works as an engineering design adviser there, said, “Phoenix Press is a nice example of where it can and does work reasonably.” His big complaint was that CEFIA and Connecticut’s legislators are not doing enough. With a touch of cynicism, he said that the fact that Phoenix Press’s small 100-kilowatt turbine is the only commercial-size turbine currently functioning in the state is “representative of the sort of lukewarm reception that Connecticut has for wind energy.”

From Weston-Murphy’s perspective, CEFIA is too tight-fisted with its money to help the state’s nascent wind industry get off the ground. He sounded slightly peeved as he described how, as an early recipient of funds specifically for on-site generation, Phoenix Press hit it big, but several other more recent wind projects have been turned down. Though CEFIA still provides grants and rebates, which are largely paid for by a renewable energy fee on customers’ utility bills, it has aimed to reduce reliance on such direct funding. Instead, Ljungquist said, they want to serve as a “green bank” that attracts private capital to the energy efficiency market. For Ljungquist, this puts his organization at the forefront of renewable energy development. For Weston-Murphy, it is a problem: “They are more finance people now than they are technology people, so they’re just looking at hard numbers as opposed to what are we trying to do here,” he said. In any case, Connecticut’s state-mandated renewable energy portfolio standards require that utilities get twenty percent of their energy from renewable energy sources by 2020, so development of renewable technology, wind or otherwise, has to continue.

While Driscoll described his turbine as unobtrusive, lovely even—a moving piece of sculpture that was quieter than the motorcycles driving by outside, other residents do not seem to share his view on the energy machines. “People don’t want tall towers in their backyard, or their neighborhood, or even their town,” Ljungquist said. A wind testing machine at Yale’s West Campus was shut down three years after its construction due to complaints about its beeping noise. A wind farm proposal in Prospect, Connecticut was shut down due to locals’ bitter protests. The proposed Cape Wind development in Nantucket Sound, which is set to be the first offshore wind farm in the country, has won approval, but is still highly controversial.

After emerging from rooms filled with hulking printing presses with ink-smeared rollers into the backyard of Phoenix Press, it was hard to not to look up at the turbine’s slender white stalk and find it beautiful. The motor whined faintly, and Driscoll and I listened to the whoosh of blades slicing through the air. As the wind bit into our cheeks, we shrank into our coats and stuffed our hands further into our pockets. The area was overgrown with weeds, and a pile of rubbish sat in front of a the remnants of a building next door, making the turbine seem all the more majestic as it spun above us.

Weston-Murphy said that tens of thousands of people who commute across Q-Bridge each day see the turbine, and, despite its limitations, it is “a testament to the Yankee ingenuity spirit.” Though Driscoll sounded disappointed as he spoke of the lack of profit from the turbine, he has maintained some of that go-getter spirit, partly for himself and partly for people like me who come to learn about the future of renewable energy in Connecticut: “It’s so cool to look at it, to watch it spin, and to know that it’s helping run and keep the lights on for this whole big plant,” he said, brimming with pride.

As I bid Driscoll farewell at the door to the offices that have emptied out and gone dark for the day, I could not help but get caught up in his bright vision of the turbine. But as I headed back down Chapel with a broken bike light, oddly querulous winds pushing up against me at each turn, the turbine receded in the distance until it was just a pinwheel on the horizon.