Communal Living & Class Antagonism in a Poor City

Sesamestreet Hartford, where I live, is a very poor city. The median household income is just about half of the national average. We always figure near the top of the lists for child poverty, violent crime, high school dropout rates, and teen pregnancy. Ours is a city that once figured prominently in the manufacturing economy (Guns! Typewriters! Bicycles!) and has declined in step with that economy.

Nevertheless, a little upscale enclave remains, the West End, and that enclave has a couple of super-fancy mansion blocks, holdouts from the era when the current ring suburbs were still farms and forests and it was impractical for the captains of local industry to live so far away.

In Hartford, when poor people claw their way into the middle class, the first thing they do is leave. The first step is a neighboring middle-class town: Wethersfield or East Hartford or Bloomfield, or maybe to the down-at-the-heels eastern edge of West Hartford, if they can manage it. From there, the steps of economic achievement radiate outward. The western side of West Hartford is appreciably tonier than the eastern side, and the towns get progressively wealthier as you get farther from Hartford, until suburbs peter out into rural areas and poverty starts to crop up again.

As a result, there aren’t that many rich people who want to live in town. A lot of the old mansions sit empty and can be had for a steal, relatively speaking. So some people had an idea to take advantage of this situation: this August, a group of eight adults and three children – two married couples, their kids, an unmarried couple, and two other friends – pooled their resources and bought a nine-room house on Scarborough Street. Before they bought it, the manse at 68 Scarborough had sat empty for several years. Thieves had stripped it of its copper piping, and the 3.6 acres of surrounding land were ill-tended and overgrown. The group set about putting the house to rights: replacing the plumbing, bringing the wiring up to code, clearing brush and manicuring the landscape. They made a legal contract among them to share household expenses — everything from the mortgage to the groceries — opened a common bank account, and set up housekeeping. They cook and eat together most nights, planning group activities and sharing childcare responsibilities.

And then Hartford’s dwindling upper class sprung into action, filing a complaint with the city about a violation of a fifty-year-old ordinance that forbids cohabitation in that neighborhood by more than two people not related by blood, marriage, or an employer-employee relationship. A cease-and-desist order soon followed. What is unfolding as a result is a fascinating glimpse at a kind of unapologetic classism that small American cities don’t see much anymore. Full disclosure: I know most of people at 68 Scarborough, some of whom used to live communally in a less strictly-zoned part of town. One of the residents of the house in question plays clarinet in my band, which performs at the annual fundraising gala for the theater company where she and another of the residents work, which, in turn, lent the band a wheelchair when one of our trombonists broke his foot and couldn’t march. Some of the children in the house are cousins of a kid who goes to school with my kids, and they have all played together. I am not impartial.

I’m also not ideologically impartial. I love my city, and one of the great frustrations of living here is seeing how economic barriers keep us from making good use of the resources we have. We are plagued by disuse. Not just the crumbling factories of old, but storefronts, empty lots, and vast tracts of needless parking lots that used to be office and apartment buildings. Landlords keep retail space empty because it is more profitable to them in a large portfolio of properties as a tax write-off than as a source of the modest rent that a poor city can support. Our downtown has shrunk and lost walkability as owners knocked down viable commercial buildings in favor of low-maintenance surface parking. Small, locally-owned businesses struggle to compete against nearby suburban malls and out-of-town owners who can’t understand why they can’t earn as much here as they get from similar buildings in Providence. A popular coffee shop and event venue – in a poor neighborhood, catering to a diverse clientele – shut down a year ago after the Boston landlord drastically increased the rent. He said at the time that he thought he could attract a high-end boutique to the space (people in the neighborhood laughed at the notion), but it’s been empty ever since.

So the idea of people who could never afford a mansion on their own working together to live in it cooperatively appeals to me, because it feels like a way forward for Hartford. It feels like the New Financial Advice writ large: forget the suburban house with the white picket fence, the cloistering of white, middle-class children in white, middle-class schools managed by white, middle-class towns; accept that the economic realities of this country are making the old formula unrealistic, and that contentment will lie in discovering the joys in different kinds of living.

When I heard there was opposition from neighbors of 68 Scarborough, I supposed it would be one grumpy old-timer, concerned about property values or noisy parties. I had heard that the owners of an adjacent lot had their house on the market for $2.9 million, and supposed they were worried about appearances. But I figured my friends would win over the doubters easily. After all, a well-maintained, owner-occupied house is better than a derelict one, right? My friends are kind, thoughtful people who possess, among other good qualities, the greatest tool in existence for winning hearts and minds: they are great cooks.

It turns out I had underestimated the neighbors.

For a mass, the 100 or so people in the Methodist Church on Farmington Avenue would have been a depressing turnout, but for the meeting of the West End Civic Association’s Planning and Zoning Committee last Wednesday night, it was blockbuster attendance. As people trickled in and shrugged off coats and hats, someone played a few bars of the theme from “All in the Family” on the church piano. John Gale, the chairman of the Committee, called the meeting to order. Gale, an energetic lawyer in his 60s, spoke in a direct, no-nonsense way, laying out the procedure for the evening. The committee – comprising everyone in attendance who cared to participate – would hear first from the coalition of neighbors opposing 68 Scarborough, and then from the house’s residents. Seventeen families, sixteen from Scarborough Street and one from around the corner on Asylum Avenue, had signed a letter opposing the new residents of 68 Scarborough.

Of course, as they were at pains to say, they didn’t really oppose the residents, per se. In a letter signed by the families and read dutifully by one representative, Ken Lerman, the coalition made clear that from what they could tell, the residents of 68 Scarborough were perfectly nice people. The problem was the slippery slope: if this group of perfectly nice people got a pass, it would be that much easier for the next group to get a pass, and they might be less nice. “We have learned,” the letter said, “that we cannot ignore violations that will set a precedent and provide a legal standard to allow multiple other properties to be changed on the same basis.”

Lerman limited himself to a dispassionate reading of the letter, then passed the microphone to another member of the coalition, Marilda Gándara. Gándara, a retired corporate lawyer in her sixties, spoke like a veteran schoolteacher: kindly but firm, pausing for effect but never to search for the right word. She began by recounting her history on Scarborough Street, and the importance to her of the street’s special zoning classification, R8, which she had fought many legal battles to protect. When she first moved in 35 years ago, as a young lawyer for the Aetna insurance company, the house next door was under contract to be sold to the Unification Church (you probably know them as the Moonies). Gándara called it “the church of the Reverend Moon,” and when she pronounced this, she paused to look around the room portentously. She and her neighbors successfully resisted that effort, which would have provided housing for ten monks, and a subsequent effort to convert another unoccupied house into a museum. She told the Planning and Zoning Committee that she had “paid a deep professional price” for opposing the museum, in that she was chided by her boss at the time. (Not that deep: she went on to a 30-year career with Aetna.) But, Gándara said, it was worth it: “Every exemption changes the character of the neighborhood.” She did not say what she meant, precisely, by the “character of the neighborhood,” but more than once she used the phrase “people like us” – the people, she said, who engage with the community, serving on charitable boards and participating in civic life, even though they “could have moved to West Hartford or Avon or Simsbury a long time ago.”

Hartford needed them, Ms. Gándara said, and that was why it kept pockets of the city zoned strictly for single family detached homes. “Less than seven percent of Hartford is zoned R8,” she said. “People like us, who want to live in a single family neighborhood, should not be exiled to the suburbs.” Gándara finished by asking the crowd to allow her to address a more personal matter, concerning some of the local publicity that had surrounded the battle over 68 Scarborough Street. “I find it very hurtful to see myself portrayed as a part of this monolithic group of rich people who care only about money and their property values.”

She pointed out that she appreciated hard work and diversity, that she had come to the United States “not knowing a word of English,” and that she had attended urban public schools. (Gándara and her parents fled Cuba and settled in New Jersey in 1960. She graduated from Memorial Public High School in West New York, NJ, in 1968. After getting married, she settled in Hartford, where her parents owned a clothing store. She sent her own son to private school.) “I’m not a child of privilege,” Ms. Gándara said in closing, pausing and looking around the church. “Every dime I’ve spent on my house is a dime I’ve earned with my own work.”

Gándara was followed by Julia Rosenblatt, one of the residents of the disputed house. Rosenblatt, 40, is the co-founder and Artistic Director of HartBeat Ensemble, an activist theater company in Hartford. Rosenblatt’s style could not have been more different. As she introduced the members of her household, her tone was conversational and heavily informed by shrugs and hand gestures. She tended to start sentences with, “I mean, look…” Rosenblatt said that she and her housemates didn’t want to get rid of the R8 zoning classification. “We’re just asking for the definition of ‘family’ to be updated from 1964,” the year that the single-family ordinance was adopted. “I think a lot of the opposition to our house,” Rosenblatt said, “comes from fear of the unknown. Not so many years ago, a gay couple would have been the unknown. I would bet that when the first African-American family moved in, they were seen as the unknown.”

But, Rosenblatt emphasized, her family would prove no different from any other. After Rosenblatt spoke, John Gale opened the meeting up to questions. A city councilor asked a technical legal question, and Gale told him to ask the City Council’s lawyer. A neighborhood resident made an argument based on a misreading of the ordinance, and Gale gently corrected him. Two different people, both West Enders, talked about appreciating the neighborhood’s diversity, and suggested that forcing the residents of 68 Scarborough out would serve no purpose.

A member of the coalition against 68 Scarborough responded, indignant. She was offended, she said, that anyone would accuse her of being against diversity. After making her comment, she walked out looking peeved. I asked Marilda Gándara if her group’s concerns about preserving the R8 zoning classification would be assuaged if the classification remained, but “family” were redefined to include non-relative householders who cooked and ate together and shared expenses. She said, “The families that have bought houses on Scarborough Street and made improvements to their houses relied on the language in the zoning ordinance. We shouldn’t have to accept changes now, after we’ve invested so much.”

Another person followed up, asking if there were any day-to-day problems that the coalition anticipated from 68 Scarborough Street. Gándara said, “I think we’ve made our objection clear, and we don’t see the need to answer any more questions.” She and other members of the coalition left shortly afterward, before the meeting was over. The opponents of 68 Scarborough Street do not seem likely to prevail. A number of courts in other states have found single-family ordinances like the one that applies to R8 zones in Hartford unconstitutional.

Since the meeting last week, the Hartford Courant has published an editorial supporting Rosenblatt et al. Meanwhile, the residents of 68 Scarborough are exploring a number of legal options to stay in the home, including having Rosenblatt and her husband “hire” the other adult residents as live-in domestic servants. They’ve also appealed the cease-and-desist order. Soon, the West End Planning and Zoning Committee will make a non-binding recommendation to the city.

Hartford’s mayor, who is up for reelection next year, has already come under a great deal of criticism for attempting to devote $60 million of city funds to the construction of a baseball stadium to lure a nearby AA team to downtown. It seems unlikely he would go on the record backing this impoverished city’s wealthy few in an essentially private dispute. Still, it is instructive to see how the wealthy understand their role in society, and the perks to which they feel that role entitles them, even in one of the poorest cities in the country. The Scarborough Street neighbors have valuable houses and Hartford’s tax rates are relatively high, so they contribute a lot to the wellbeing of this struggling town. And as Marilda Gándara pointed out at the planning and zoning committee meeting, “people like us” are the ones who serve on boards and committees, who organize and operate the many charities that minister to Hartford’s numerous poor. (Ms. Gándara herself has certainly done more than her fair share of such work.)

Hartford, they say, should be grateful that they didn’t simply flee to the suburbs – as most wealthy people do – to insulate themselves from the city’s poverty. All they ask in return is a few manicured blocks for their kind of people.

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