In 1951, officials in New Haven, Conn. opened a public housing development in the most isolated location possible: an old pig farm that handled the city’s garbage. The land jutted into the neighboring town of Hamden like mismatched puzzle piece, surrounded on three sides by modest homesteads along a quiet county road.
The white storekeepers and clerks of Hamden protested, until the two municipalities struck a deal: a fence would separate the public housing tenants in New Haven from the homeowners of Hamden.
That fence has endured for more than half a century; longer than the DMZ separating North and South Korea. Longer than the barrier dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Longer than the Berlin Wall. Every wall has a story. The story of this one, and the battle to tear it down, shows how complicated race and class have become in America.
At first, the fence was short enough to climb over. Most public housing tenants back then were white. Many were soldiers returning from the war. (Blacks, who mostly worked in munitions factories, made up about a third of the tenants.)
But in 1957, a Hamden housewife on Thorpe Street refused to return a New Haven boy’s ball. He climbed over the fence and kicked her, according to Adam Wolkoff, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers. Outraged, Hamden built the fence taller.
In the 1960s, ambitious public housing tenants saved their money and left. Some bought houses just beyond the fence, in Hamden. By the 1980s, the development only housed people with nowhere else to go. Kids sold drugs and cut holes in the fence to steal cars from Hamden driveways.
New Haven realized the folly of concentrating poverty at the bitter end of an unreliable bus line. The city got a federal grant to transform the development into a mixed-income community. But the plan called for removing the fence. Hamden refused.
“We did cook outs and movie nights, hoping to get past this ‘us and them’ feeling,” recalled Karen DuBois-Walton, executive director of New Haven’s housing authority.
But Hamden residents didn’t come. Even Hamden’s mayor — a black man — could not change their minds. They booed him at a town meeting in 2012. The dispute was only resolved after a land surveyor discovered that the fence stood on New Haven land. Earlier this year, Hamden residents watched bulldozers rip down a portion of the fence.
But bitterness remains. Some call Hamden’s resistance racism. But Hamden is a mixed-race place. Some of the loudest defenders of the fence were black. Others call it classism. But many Hamden homes are blue collar bungalows, with Chevy pick up trucks rusting out front. Beyond race and class, the final barrier — culture? worldview? — looms. Only time will tell how surmountable it will be.
Recently, I met Darnell Goldson, a former New Haven alderman who fought the fence. Goldson, who is black, used to visit his grandmother in the housing development as a child. He remembers how it irked her that Hamden people could walk to Walgreens in 20 minutes, while she had to take two buses and transfer in downtown to get to the same shopping mall.
Goldson showed me his grandmother’s now-vacant building, which awaits reincarnation silently, but for the frenetic hymns of crickets. Then we drove the three-mile loop to the Hamden side. We gazed up at 16 feet of silver wire from the opposite angle. We eyed an abandoned-looking house on Thorpe street, its porch sagging into a frown.
“The irony is that the new home ownership units in the housing development will be worth more someday than homes on the Hamden side,” said Goldson. But moments after making that prediction, he remarked on how strange it felt to stand in Hamden.
“I never come here,” he said. “I’d better get going.”
Across that old country road, a white woman paused her gardening long enough to chat. She’d lived there 30 years, but pointed out homes of folks who’d been there longer: Louie, on the corner. Mrs. Ruth, who’d recently died.
“We just don’t want the neighborhood to change,” she said. “It’s the unknown. You don’t want to say that, but we fear elements from the projects.”
Had she seen the attractive new town houses that have been built just beyond the fence and trees? She shook her head. “I’ve never been there,” she said. Her voice told me she’d never go.
That’s the funny thing about walls: if they’ve been around long enough, they remain in our heads, even after we tear them down.