The Invisible Race and Class Barriers of Hamden
When David Sepulveda was a child he moved with his parents and five brothers into public housing built atop an old pig farm in New Haven, Connecticut. Rockview was one of three projects clustered in a 90-acre development that is known today as West Rock. The year was no later than 1960. He remembers Jack Kennedy beating Richard Nixon in his elementary school’s mock election.
One day, a few weeks after his family arrived, Sepulveda awoke to the sound of glass shattering and ran downstairs. The front window was smashed and his mother, unhurt, stood over a couple of big rocks on their living room floor. “White hoodlums,” Sepulveda told me. The Sepulvedas, who are Puerto Rican, were among the first to integrate West Rock when public housing was majority white.
Luckily, the “You don’t belong here” message delivered by the rocks faded in the following weeks. Given their isolation from the rest of New Haven and proximity to adventure, befriending other children and their families seemed inevitable. West Rock bordered a forest and a potter’s field. Within walking or hitch-hiking distance was a town dump, horse stables, a pumpkin patch, two quarries, a nature preserve, a forbidden tunnel, and a swimming hole.
But Sepulveda’s world of childhood idyll was also a jail. A single road in and out dead-ended within the development. Bus service was irregular to non-existent. And the 12-foot-high metal chain-link fence was what taught Sepulveda that the world outside thought of him and his new extended family as criminals. It ran along Woodin Street, the northern border with Hamden, a white suburb, and had been there since the development opened in 1951. From its conception, public and private actors colluded to maroon 500 poor families in West Rock.
New Haven faced a major housing shortage after World War II. Neither developers nor homeowners wanted low-income housing near their aspiring middle-class suburbs, but the families of returning veterans and migrant workers who made up the bulk of the low income population had to live somewhere. Hamden lost the battle over location, but the federally-funded Housing Authority helped to pay for a compromise: the fence. It also made “sure that a street is not cut through and across the [Hamden] town boundary at some future time,” as demanded in one 1950 letter from Hamden leaders. As a result West Rock residents traveled south in order to access jobs, banks, schools, and other services located to the north, a short distance from Woodin Street. The fence’s forced inconvenience marked Sepulveda long after he moved away in the late 1960s.
By then West Rock was majority black and becoming, as one historian described it, “a suburban ghetto.” Over the decades Hamden, now a suburb of 60,000, maintained the “Berlin Wall,” as the fence came to be known. They repaired the links cut by pliers and fortified the sections pulled up to allow teenaged bodies to squeeze under.
Then in the spring of 2014 amidst a furor so intense that it reached the New York Times, the city of New Haven, under the direction of its Housing Authority, razed the barrier. West Rock had deteriorated beyond repair and was to be rebuilt—without the fence. Back in the early 2000s, housing officials had determined that driving access to Hamden was vital for its longterm success. Economic integration mattered, said former senior housing official Jimmy Miller who, from 2005 to 2014, helped remake much of New Haven’s public housing.
“Many low-income communities fail because of lack of access to transportation and services that you and I take for granted,” he told me. But pushback from Hamden, led by homeowners closest to the development, was fierce. The low point was 2012 when, during a meeting at the Keefe Community Center to discuss the fence’s removal, 300 Hamdenites packed an auditorium meant for 100. And not everyone who was objecting was white.
“I’m sleeping with a gun at night and two baseball bats ‘cause of the garbage that walks up the hill on Woodin and go into the development,” longtime black resident Marilyn Hutsell reportedly said. She recently told me on the phone that she had a couple of break-ins over the years. Others yelled about safety and traffic. “Something about those people in the projects needed to be contained,” is how one writer described the animosity of a multi-racial meeting that reflected Hamden’s changing demographic. Emotions ordered themselves, however, once HUD threatened in 2014 to sue Hamden for discrimination. The fence’s removal proceeded.
Now, the physical border that once visibly segregated these communities is gone but an invisible one remains. In Hamden, I found wariness and outright hostility towards West Rock. I found a neutral disinterest, too. It is unclear if the suburb will build a new relationship with its public housing neighbors or continue to bunker. When it comes to integration, a road can only do so much. At some point, if integration is the goal, neighbors must create reasons to talk.
More than ever, Americans are being forced to reckon with what cleaves them apart. Last month Charlotte, N.C. and a San Diego suburb added their credits to the ongoing horror show of police killing black men. Violence erupted during otherwise peaceful demonstrations in Charlotte. And in these final weeks of an unprecedented presidential election season, race and class lines appear sharper than at any time in recent memory. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is normalizing bigotry in the public discourse.
Americans have long drawn neighborhood borders to escape mixing with those deemed “the other.” But at what cost? The destroyed barrier between Hamden and West Rock could be a reset on the historically hostile relationship between public housing and suburb—or it could leave unchallenged an older generation’s belief that separate is best.
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Sepulveda, now 64, jumped at the chance to show me his old ‘hood. The formerly dead-end road that he used as a child was extended north through the section of fencing that he once climbed. He hadn’t seen it yet.
Sepulveda is a local artist. Other than a black wrist brace (evidence of an old martial arts injury), silver hair is his only mark of age. One unexpected result of having grayed is that these days, along with his all-year tan, Sepulveda is often mistaken for white—“among other things,” he adds with a shrug. Before retiring to a nearby suburb, he taught for 36 years in Stamford public schools. Instruction is his metier.
Along the four-mile drive away from central New Haven to West Rock, he pointed out the old cornfield where Southern Connecticut State University dorms now stand. Just up the road from his old high school is the cemetery where his parents and childhood best friend, murdered at 17, rest within yards of each other.
He continues this way as we turn into West Rock’s main entrance, driving north past his old elementary school and the now-crowded football field that was a baseball field in his youth. The newly extended road takes him beyond the last project and into a cleared no-man’s land, a kind of buffer zone. There, he loses his breath. It is a quiet, grassy intersection with unobstructed views of Woodin Street in Hamden. Outside of Sepulveda’s memory, nothing remains of the fence and overgrowth that maintained 60 years of de facto segregation. To him, Hamden was rich people at Halloween giving out candy bars “this big.” Sepulveda’s palms were waist-wide. In real life, the scene ahead underwhelms.
“You would have thought that was the Promised Land over there, we were so conscious that these people were living a different lifestyle,” Sepulveda said, motioning across Woodin towards the inlet of unattached homes on Elliott Drive.
He seemed at a loss for words: The haves of his childhood were not rich. They just had steady jobs with good wages and higher social status from being white. They were working families, too.
Others were also confused about all the fuss, but for different reasons. Most of the tenants I talked to in West Rock had arrived within the last year. What mattered was the new road—which quickly carried them to jobs, shopping centers, doctors, and churches in Hamden—not yesterday’s fence. West Rock itself was new; in late 2013, the development re-opened as a mixed income community with cul-de-sacs of pastel Neo-Victorians that look like assembly-line versions of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies.
Corner properties featured cornice detailing. On a Saturday, rows of cars were parked before trimmed green lawns but there was barely any foot traffic. The landscape was an homage to suburban order and boredom. All that to say, the project’s design felt like an overture to homeowners in adjacent Hamden. Maybe they would worry less about their property values if West Rock no longer looked like public housing.
Russell Lasane has lived in Hamden for 13 years. Nearly every weekend for the past eight seasons he has been coaching his Pop Warner team, the New Haven Steelers, on its home field in West Rock. Even during the development’s reconstruction, a citywide community thrived on this football field. Mostly black but white families, too, drove from New Haven and its suburbs into the once-isolated development for football games from morning until dusk. Some tailgated. Others queued for fried chicken out of the pot. Small children zipped around unchaperoned.
Lasane, who is black, raved about the new intersection, which cut his formerly meandering drive by 10 minutes. As for the fence, he told me he always wondered, What was the big deal about just letting people ride through your town? If I’m a thief, you think a fence is gonna stop me from breaking into your house?
“It’s beautiful, what they’ve built for this community,” said Lasane, who described the old projects as “aggressive.” “You don’t see no rundown-ness, no hanging out. It’s like I say, if you put people in a beautiful place people will respect it. When you put people in a slum then they treat it for what it is.”
* * *
One weekday afternoon a couple of days later, I stood on the cement walkway of Curtis Stancil’s home. Stancil who is black, was born in West Rock in 1964 and moved out of public housing in 1985 when he got his first good job. In 2003, he bought his home on the other side of the fence in Hamden and raised a daughter here because it was a quiet neighborhood full of senior citizens.
Stancil beckoned to his neighbor, Tom Methot. Their modest one-level homes sit opposite each other on a winding street near the Woodin Street intersection. After he ambled over, Methot, who is white, told me he wanted the fence up to keep crime out and traffic down.
“Halloween was a real scary time,” Methot said, describing the incursions that occurred even with the fence. “All the people from the projects would come over here with no costumes. There’d be mothers holding a pillowcase open, ‘This is for my kids.’ And not that that sounds scary to you but it’s scary for our kids.”
Methot, who retired from a state agency and now works as a butcher, is married with twin sons. In 1987 he bought their home for $130,000; it was affordable and zoned for great schools. After a recent reappraisal, he said, the house was worth $120,000. He attributed the loss to West Rock and the criminal activity he and his neighbors associated with it.
Methot said he knew of break-ins over the years. He and other neighbors—white and black—assumed the culprits came through or over the fence. I asked Methot if crime rose after the fence came down in 2014. Yes, he replied. When I probed, though, he conferred with Stancil who is on block watch and after 30 seconds of back-and-forth, they confirmed an unregistered car on their street as the only disturbance.
Still, Methot thought it a matter of time before something bad happened. He seemed doubtful that better living conditions in the new complex would erase criminal values among its residents.
After Methot left, Stancil shared an unpleasant memory. A few years ago, for a stretch, Hamden police stopped him nearly every night that he drove home from his job at the postal service’s processing plant. He worked the 6-to-2:30 AM shift.
“As a black man that was so humiliating,” Stancil said. “I would walk through my door and just fall down. I would tell my wife, ‘I’m sick of it. I’m just tired of it.’”
Stancil sat on his porch beneath the American flag that he flies, he said, to honor the Iraq War veteran next door. At first, Stancil had wanted the fence to stay; his neighbors had been victimized. But at the height of the controversy a police officer shared, he said, that some break-ins had been caused by Hamden residents. That information added to his nagging concern that, “my white neighbors always blamed crime on people across the fence”—not unlike the way that Hamden police racially profiled him at night in his own neighborhood.
That shared experience with West Rock residents, plus the Housing Authority’s promise to enforce strict rules with tenants—no loitering or hanging out—changed his mind about the fence.
“It’s like, we’re the bad black people and they’re the good white people,” Cynthia Murray-Howie, 58, had said to me in the doorway of her West Rock apartment. She has lived in West Rock since 1975. One of the few remaining old-schoolers, she always kept her door open to the world outside even during the bad years.
Out of the dozen people I spoke with in Hamden and West Rock, Murray-Howie came closest to not just wanting the fence down, but also embracing togetherness as a worthy goal. Integration is a practice after all, not an event. She saw that.
“If there was more communication then it might have made a big difference,” she said. “This is supposed to be America. People need to talk to one another.”
Carla Murphy is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @carlamurphy.
Co-published with Fusion.