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July|August 2002
Dog Docket By Dashka Slater
Zero L By Ayo Griffin
Almost Homeless By Jonathan L. Hafetz
Bad Fences By Sari Bashi
Misquoting Madison By Michael Doyle
Blessing Sham Shelters By Sheldon D. Pollack

Bad Fences

By Sari Bashi

The fence is ten feet high, chain-link, and sturdy. On one side, in the suburban town of Hamden, Connecticut, are tree-lined streets, single-family homes, two-car garages, and the occasional boat parked in a driveway. On the other side, in the city of New Haven, is the West Rock housing project: boarded-up buildings, litter-strewn cul-de-sacs, and dead-end roads.

Because of the fence, West Rock is one of the country's most isolated public housing projects. There is only one road out, and it winds past a university, a cemetery, and an Army Reserve office before reaching city streets. The bus trip from West Rock to Hamden's well-stocked supermarket is seven miles long and takes more than an hour, even though the store is only a mile away. The convenience store that residents go to instead is small, overpriced, and filled with expired packaged goods.

"When you come in here, you're blocked in here," says Margaret Young, 54, who has lived in West Rock since 1973 and runs a day-care center in the project. "It's one way in, and one way out."

More than 90 percent of West Rock residents are African-American. Hamden, by contrast, is 77 percent white. So the fence "looks like blatant racism," says Robert Solomon, the director of the New Haven Housing Authority. But neither that nor the fence's effect on West Rock means that a court would necessarily take it down. Any legal challenge would run up against the difficulty of proving that a racist intent lay behind the fence's construction, and against the fact that the fence no longer simply divides blacks from whites.

Originally farmland, the West Rock project is flanked to the north and east by Hamden, to the south by the campus of Southern Connecticut State University, and to the west by a beautiful yet largely neglected state park. The park's sheer rock cliff, which glows orange at sunset, gives the housing project its name.

West Rock was built in the early 1950s to house mostly white, moderate-income workers at factories in the area that made clocks, guns, and textiles. Even so, Hamden residents who lived nearby worried from the beginning about the project. In 1952, in response to their concerns—the historical record is sparse, but they probably feared an influx of poor people and increased traffic—housing officials promised that Wilmot Road, which leads from West Rock to Hamden, would dead-end short of the Hamden line.

By the late 1960s, white, middle-class residents were leaving West Rock, and poorer African-American residents were moving in. Hamden, then 96 percent white, worried about becoming more like a city neighborhood, particularly in the blocks that bordered New Haven. Protective of its suburban identity and fearful of racial violence—New Haven was torn by three consecutive summers of race riots beginning in 1967—Hamden blocked the construction of apartments and, to some extent, scaled back busing plans that brought black students from New Haven into its schools.

Also in the late '60s—no one seems to be sure when—Hamden built the fence. There was already another fence on the project's side of the property line, but it wasn't very high or well maintained. So alongside it the town put up a bigger and stronger one. (At one point, the town even built a stone wall to back up the fence, but residents tore that down.)

The racial overtones when the fence was constructed were unmistakable, according to Portia Jenkins, a black 47-year-old former city councilwoman who grew up in West Rock. Jenkins remembers white parents refusing to let her play with their children. "The neighborhood started changing, so they automatically think every one of us is a bad person," she said.

But the fence, apparently, wasn't enough protection. Whites moved out of the houses on the Hamden side of the fence just as they had moved out of West Rock, and some blocks became predominantly black. The town as a whole, meanwhile, emerged from the desegregation debates of the 1960s and 1970s as a more racially mixed place. Soccer and basketball leagues now field multiracial teams that include the kids of firefighters, motorcycle riders, and professors. Yet support for the fence remains strong.

Harold Wilson, who is black, is glad the fence is there to protect his 7-year-old daughter from the kids who hurl rocks and insults from the other side. Wilson, a postal worker, and his wife, a medical secretary, worked hard to buy a house in Hamden and pay for a private-school education for their daughter. Wilson thinks the tension across the fence is largely about money and social class. And he's not interested in getting dragged into West Rock's problems. "As far as over there," he said, referring to the violence and drug traffic in the project, "do something about it!"

That's no easy task. The factory jobs that drew blacks to New Haven left town long ago, leaving behind a dispiriting string of statistics. The median annual income in West Rock is less than $10,000 per household. More than half of those who live there are children, and most live with single mothers. Sixty percent of the area's residents live below the poverty line, a rate three times that of the rest of New Haven, which overall is among the country's poorest cities even though it's the home of Yale University.

Constitutional law prevents cities and towns from discriminating based on race only if the discrimination is intentional. Jack Kennelly, a Hamden town councilman whose district borders West Rock, is also a deputy police chief. He says that the fence deters vandalism, burglary, and drug dealing from spilling into Hamden. This winter, Margaret Young counted three shootings outside her grandchildren's window in three weeks. She agrees that the fence helps keep the criminals out of Hamden—and in West Rock.

People don't like to be caged in. For 30 years, Hamden has been playing a losing game of catch-up with vandals who tear holes in the fence to get out of West Rock. Hamden repairs the fence regularly, and just as regularly new holes appear. Kennelly says the rips in the fence are crossing points used by drug dealers. Ordinary West Rock residents also climb through them to reach schools, stores, and bus stops on the other side.

So there are legitimate security reasons to justify the fence. And then there is what separation has helped make.

A particularly nasty stretch of fence—topped by thorny branches and reinforced by green planks to stop climbers—boxes in West Rock's bleakest corner, a complex of 200 apartments in boarded-up townhouses called Rockview. From the late 1980s until 1992, evening bus service was suspended here after a series of incidents in which residents threatened drivers and trapped them in the project's cul-de-sacs. New Haven has slated Rockview for immediate demolition. A $35 million reconstruction is planned for this complex and other parts of West Rock, though the city is still trying to get the money from federal housing officials. For now, spray-painted plywood nailed over empty door and window frames bears graffiti tributes to fallen gang members.

On the back doorstep of one building is a stroller and Simone Brooks, a 23-year-old mother of two who is the only resident left in her eight-unit building. Brooks says she understands why the people on the other side of the fence "want to be separated from us." She also wishes that it didn't take her an hour by bus to get to the supermarket.

Hamden officials say they know the fence makes living in West Rock difficult. The town will consider taking it down, Hamden town planner Roger O'Brien promises—after the demolition is finished, and if Hamden and West Rock residents agree that the fence is no longer needed. Brooks is moving out soon, but she'd like to come back after the rebuilding. It's pretty, she says, if you look toward the park.

Sari Bashi worked as a correspondent for the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press from 1998 to 2000. She is currently a student at Yale Law School.

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