North End Housing

North End Revitalization
Middletown, Connecticut

Roy Lisker
Begun February 6,2005

How a small city - despite 7 years of patient work by its grassroots organizations and non-profit developers - can subvert the goal of rebuilding a poverty- stricken neighborhood into a political feud between agencies and individuals - without doing a thing for the neighborhood itself.


Establishment of the North End Action Team (NEAT)

Middletown Connecticut is situated mid-way between Hartford and New Haven on Route 9. Its population is in the neighborhood of 50,000. Among other things it is the location for the most expensive private university in the state, Wesleyan University; Middlesex Community College; Middlesex County Hospital; the state's biggest reform school; and Connecticut Valley Hospital or CVH, the only remaining state mental hospital in Connecticut.

Apart from the sirens of firetrucks, ambulances and police cars, ear-splitting and shrill at all times of the day and night, it is a charming place to live, with many good restaurants, cultural organizations, excellent public librarys, and varied distribution of population from incrusted reactionaries to flaming radicals.

In 1997 the city government, along with local businesses, banks, developers and residents, attempted to enroll Middletown's North End neighborhood into the federal Neighborhood Revitalization Zone program announced by Al Gore. This program was based on legislation enacted in Connecticut in 1959. On page 59 of a National Performance Review memo to President Clinton, dated September 1996, Gore wrote:

"In 1995, Connecticut passed an innovative law, the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, which requires the state and municipalities to break down barriers in response to neioghborhoods' comprehensive plans and measurable goals to revitalize their economies and neighborhoods. In 1996 the federal government joined the party. This partnership allows federal barriers to be overcome along with state barriers and allow federal, state, and local partners to work together to improve Connecticut's poorest communities through economic development and neighborhood revitalization. The Neighborhood Revitalization Zone process invites residents, businesses, and municipal officials to develop a strategic plan to revitalize their neighborhood. Grassroots planning and community organizing are the key components of this concept.just as in the Oregon Option, Empowerment Zones, and Enterprise Communities."

Designation of a community as an NRZ makes it marginally easier to apply for and receive grants and low-interest loans from a variety of sources. However the program doesn't itself have any independent funding and doesn't give any grants. Applying for and obtaining NRZ status involves lots of research, paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy. Given all these difficulties it seems to have little value beyond a certain amount of window-dressing.

One of the conditions for setting up an NRZ committee is that half its members be community residents. To this end the North End Action Team was formed under the direction of Lydia Brewster, a talented community organizer with extensive professional experience. I was among the small group of original members; indeed the name "NEAT" is of my contrivance.

The NRZ committee (oddly named the "Urban Homesteading Task Force") began a series of meeting in City Hall in December, 1997. Among its members were representatives from the Mayor's Office, the departments of Municipal Development, Public Works, Planning and Zoning, Liberty Bank, Nehemiah House ( a residential program for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics located in the neighborhood); Lydia Brewster and myself for NEAT; Habitat for Humanity; and The Connection, (a local non-profit initiative in subsidized housing with outreach to the asylums ,hospitals, and rehabilitation programs in the city. There are so many of them in and around Middletown that it has been given the nickname of "Recoverytown"!)

In the middle of one of these meetings Lydia and I came to the conclusion that the City had no intention of abiding by the provision that over half the committee be composed of residents of the community. We stood up and walked out. This created something of a dilemma for the City, as NRZ guidelines mandate the cooperation of the neighborhood's one grassroots organization. One may date the origins of the North End Action Team as the advocacy group for the North End from this historic event.

There is a saying, well begun is half done. From its beginnings NEAT has been energetic and responsive. It organized block parties, neighborhood clean-ups, public forums involving residents, landlords, businessmen and police. As advocate for the community, it addressed street crime, blighted housing , poverty, school mentoring, negligent landlords and public safety.

I headed up the blight committee. Through our efforts several new houses were put on the blight list. Although we have continued to exert pressure on the department of Public Works to levy fines on landlords for violations of all kinds , it has rarely departed from historical precedent in non- enforcement of its laws. Performance in this area has always stood in sharp contrast to the city's quick actions against landlords for non-payment of back taxes. Still, we were able to report some progress, even in this area, in getting the city to enforce landlord compliance on violations.

The Yale Design Charrette

With the intention of producing a document addressing the problems of the North End, the City, Wesleyan University, the Chamber of Commerce, several corporations and Liberty Bank contributed $26,000 to hire architects, teachers and students from the Urban Design Workshop of the Yale School of Architecture to run a two- day "Design Charrette". YUDW has been running these in Connecticut's towns for over a decade. One can read an account at:Yale Urban Design Workshop

In City Planning jargon, a "design charrette" is a neighborhood Open House to which all residents are invited to come and engage in brain-storming sessions on the problems of the neighborhood and possibilities for its future. The director of the charrette was Michael Haverland, with project managers Kara Bartelt, Edward Gulick and Eliza Manegold.

With a $500 from the City NEAT took on the responsibility for the logistics of the charrette. This meant finding an appropriate room, putting out publicity , collecting chairs and worktables from neighborhood organizations , designing and ordering tee shirts, buttons and banners to be draped on fences and the sides of buildings, etc. Catering virtually took care of itself. The North End is the only remaining immigrant neighborhood in Middletown, with many little groceries and restaurants. All of them made generous contributions of pizzas, somosas, rice, chicken wings, sandwiches, soft drinks and juice. The Deliverance Haven church offered us the use of its rooms on the upper west side of the 3-block length of Main Street in the North End. ( Middletown's Main Street claims to be the widest Main Street in the county).

The charrette opened on the morning of Friday, May 8th and continued into the evening of Saturday, May 10th. Measured in terms of North End community involvement the charrette was extremely successful. Residents sat down around worktables with students and faculty of the YUDW and discussed the changes or improvements they wished to see in the North End. As they spoke the students committed their ideas to paper in the form of blueprints or drawings. On Saturday afternoon all participants came together in the main meeting hall. The drawings were pinned up on bulletin boards and, under faculty guidance the relative merits of every proposal debated . Each afternoon NEAT organizers walked members of the Yale faculty of architecture around the streets of the neighborhood. The ideas which came out of their tours of inspection were eagerly, (sometimes too eagerly) offered in the group discussions, and in the summing-up on Saturday afternoon.

Among the most fabulous of these was the proposal that a 'ziggurat' be built in front of the large community services building (a handsome structure, once a school, now the home of the Green Street Arts Center administered by Wesleyan U.) to provide a focal point for the community and create a sense of solidarity! Both students and faculty had the unhappy tendency to look at odd, quaint or charming architectural constructions, such as the green cupola atop my apartment building, or the church spire at the northernmost point of the neighborhood, and say things like, "You want to keep that there. It shapes the identity of the district." Overall the charrette was valuable in bringing together a wide range of interests to plan the future of the liveliest, most colorful and most impoverished neighborhood in Middletown.

The UDW report on the North End contains many of the suggestions for improvements raised during the charrette. It was completed in October, 1998 and released in an official presentation to the Middletown Common Council on November 2.

Its recommendations are of mixed value. On the one hand it shows a professional knowledge and concern for the needs of a depressed urban neighborhood. On the other hand, lack of familiarity with the specific problems of the North End, which can only be obtained by actually living in it, is obvious on every page. Its principal value lies in the fact that, for the first time , the City and the North End Action Team now had a document to which both could refer in advancing and debating their respective agendae.

As it was to turn out, the City would eventually scrap the report, go over the heads of all local initiatives, including NEAT, Connection, local banks and all others, not excepting Wesleyan University, to bring in The Richman Group from the outside, a slick-talking real-estate development and investment management company with billions of dollars in its coffers, controlling millions of acres in rental property all over the country, to propose a "quick fix" on the North End, combining extensive demolition and liberal employment of Eminent Domain to oust the poor and the undesirables . But we are getting ahead of our story.

Somewhere along the line, the idea of obtaining certification as a Neighborhood Revitalization Zone was quietly dropped by all sides.

Chapter 2:NEHI

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