Ain’t That America
Grand Central, 2009
Tall grasses wave in what was, only a few years ago, one of the most contested plots of land in America, one that established a new federal standard for homeowner’s rights and set both libertarians and progressives howling. The neighborhood that once stood there is gone and a vacant, weedy lot is all New London has to show for removing several dozen taxpayers from their homes, blasting those homes to the ground, and hauling the rubble away.
|We’ve all heard about Kelo v. City of New London by now, or we should have. The 2005 Supreme Court decision grants cities the right to condemn private property belonging to any citizen or business and deliver the title to a wealthier owner. Or as Justice Scalia posed it during oral arguments: “You can take from A to give to B if B pays more taxes?” The city of New London’s attorney answered yes, this was the case, and the city of New London won the right to tear down the riverside Fort Trumbull neighborhood. Although the city hadn’t yet decided what to build there, they had already secured a new location for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals down the street, and in the words of Pfizer executive David Burnett, the makers of Viagra wanted “a nice place to operate … we don’t want to be surrounded by tenements.”|
Except that the Trumbull residents considered their neighborhood to be a perfectly fine place already – what did he mean “tenements”? This was where good, hardworking people had lived all their lives, some for up to eighty years in the same one-family house. Though Susette Kelo, the hero of Jeff Benedict’s gripping and indignant history, Little Pink House, had only just purchased her two-story cottage, she had already painted it an antique shade of pink and begun to repair its stone wall. The house was Kelo’s sole investment, and it was a place she loved to live in. She’d been raised poor, wearing socks on her hands instead of mittens, and giving birth to five children before she was twenty-five years old. At the age of forty, an EMT and nurse-in-training, she finally found a comfortable place with a sea view where she could come into her own.
This was on the riverfront in New London, Connecticut, a town hit hard by defense-industry cutbacks in the 1990s, one whose downtown streets were filled with boarded-up shops, ancient characters, and riverfront dives. It’s a contradictory city, featuring some of the best architecture in Connecticut (H. H. Richardson, designer of Boston’s Trinity Church, also designed the New London Station), too much crime, terrific people, deadening poverty, and one of the smartest newspapers in New England, the venerable Day.
As Benedict tells it, around 1996 the governor of Connecticut (John Rowland, later to serve federal time for corruption and fraud) decided to increase his vote-share in New London County by pumping some taxpayer money into the county seat. Since the Democratic city government of New London was hesitant to work with the Republican Governor, he re-established a moribund semi-private agency called the New London Development Corporation. Promising to create thousands of new jobs and millions in tax revenue, the corporation – in collusion with Pfizer – proposed to clean up and dedicate a stretch of land beside Fort Trumbull for a new research and development facility, and to level and redevelop an adjacent patch (Susette Kelo’s neighborhood) for condos, maybe a fitness center, maybe a luxury hotel – they’d work it out with Pfizer later on.
Lest the governor or the corporation come across as sleazier than necessary, it’s worth keeping in mind the difficulty small cities have in making money. They need it desperately, for schools, roads, police; but being a city with a sliding reputation and a lower percentage of taxable land than nearly any other in New England, New London is not rich in options. What’s to lure a big business to a small city when it can have more land for less money in any number of larger cities or even larger suburbs?
The old Fort Trumbull neighborhood, circa 2007
There are other models for growth, of course – attracting a number of smaller businesses rather than one big one – and New London has made some strides in that direction. But the unfortunate fact is that the race for development nearly always goes to the fastest, richest, shiftiest, and best-connected players. This intractable and maddening fact has built Jeff Benedict a career, and his talent in naming all the players, sorting them out, and describing their deals has made him indispensable.
In Little Pink House, as in Public Heroes, Private Felons, a study of the woman-bullying culture of professional sports, or Without Reservation, his breathless take on the dirty politics of casino building, Benedict makes the murky stuff of brokering and dealing both gripping to read and easily understood. And the fact that we cannot quite pin Benedict’s own politics down – aside from a distaste for corruption and a support for small entrepreneurship and property rights – is hugely to his credit. It can’t be easy to make so much secretive, real-world stuff read smoothly, or to find the speakers and the detail to make it both visual and tactile:
Susette rested an elbow on a green paperback edition of Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. Yellow Post-its with handwritten notes stuck out of the badly worn pages.
Despite her travails, Susette comes across as an extraordinarily healthy person – her anger is directed at useful sources; her endurance is frightening; and when she needs to cry, she cries. And she has plenty of reason to. Real estate agents, city officials, newspaper reporters, and bulldozers appear in succession at her door; the house beside her is demolished and her own home is filled with the dust; she and the neighborhood’s other residents feel powerless and struggle to find a law firm willing to take on the city, state, and a private development company all at once – and how will they pay for it? And why should they have to?
The mayor of New London joins them, fights the development corporation, even sits with them in protest, but, as Benedict recounts it:
One officer grabbed [Mayor] Beachy’s wrists. Another grabbed his ankles. Together, they lifted and hauled him to the police car.
[Organizer Kathleen] Mitchell watched through the rear window of the cruiser as the officers stuffed their own mayor into the back of another police car. What have we come to? Mitchell thought. She had never imagined the dispute would last this long and be this difficult. We’re fighting the big boys now. This isn’t just local politics.
Claire Gaudiani, then president of Connecticut College and the iron will behind the development corporation, is the big boy’s handmaiden. One of the anecdotes Benedict picks to establish her character is a ritual she kept up for the first years of her marriage: setting her alarm clock to 4 a.m. to make up her face and brush her hair so that her husband wouldn’t have to wake to anything less than perfection. This sums up the figure Benedict goes on to draw at length : a somewhat well-intentioned player who directs her energy and talent too hard and too fast in what is probably the entirely wrong direction.
Claire believed in the redevelopment project, and she pushed hard. She began courting Pfizer early – she was close personal friends with the management – and was not afraid to compromise, so long as she was compromising with power brokers (the governor’s time constraints, the demands of an influential Italian fraternal organization that their club house be spared); what she wouldn’t do, however, was show more weakness than absolutely necessary, or compromise with the cloutless.
It was Claire and her organization that pushed for the power of eminent domain, a usurpation traditionally reserved for public-good projects: airports, roads. It was her corporatist commitment to “on time, on budget, and on goal, delivery that created the momentum,” as she put it, to see the demolition through.
Benedict does concede that Claire was of the opinion she was doing the right thing, although he does her no real favors by dramatizing her messianic streak:
“Jesus is calling us in this city to witness,” she said [from the pulpit of a local church]. “You and I are called to be transforming interveners. Like the Messiah, like Martin Luther King.”
Once battle lines had been drawn, Claire and the development corporation put the case in the hands of the city’s attorneys, who lost a large part of their initial plea but won on appeal. Susette’s own case, and that of her neighbors, was assumed at zero hour by the DC-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian watchdog group which, according to their website, “challenges the ideology of the welfare state” and intervenes when “bureaucrats instead of parents dictate the education of children,” supporting vouchers and state resources for “Catholic and other religiously affiliated schools.” Any port in a storm.
Thanks also to the Institute for Justice’s involvement, a number of nut jobs have come calling. Sean Hannity has made television hay from another story about Big Government pushing little guys around; militiamen from Out West call Susette Kelo on a regular basis to offer her the advantage of deadly force against her aggressors. Somewhere in Montana, a barricade erects.
One has only to read the descriptions of everyday Americans rallying with songs and picket signs outside New London City Hall to be put uneasily in mind of the thousands of Glenn Beck soldiers on the DC Mall – something that needn’t have happened did, and it only further larded the already gross grievances of anti-government crusaders. The whip-smart Gaudiani, loyal Londregan, and Governor Rowland (can’t think of a kindly epithet for that guy) ended up working against their own best interests and those of their city and state.
Stepping back a little, it becomes clear that the dark matter of hubris has been one of Benedict’s central themes all along. I’m thinking of Benedict’s description of Skip Hayward, the semi-legitimate businessman who founded Foxwoods Casino. At the end of Without Reservation, he stands inside his expensive seaside home and mentally reviews what “his ambitions had cost him.” He’s lost too much – “He felt no peace.” In Little Pink House, a similar fate befalls Claire Gaudiani, who is pressured from her college post, derided in the press, lectured in court, and winds up persona non grata in the town she’d tried to save.
Though it’s clear why Benedict ends his books this way, it’s not intended to offer the reader either closure or solace. What the reader ends up hungering for is justice for and from the powerful, and if that longing lands us on the same side of the fence as a bunch of opportunistic grand-standers, well, so much the worse for us.
John Cotter was raised in Norwich, Connecticut. His first novel, Under the Small Lights, will be published by Miami University Press in 2010.