Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
On the cold morning of November 29, 1976, snow and ice rained down on a small group crowded in the doorway of 18 Congress Street, the one-way street between Wethersfield and Franklin Avenues where Hartford’s south end begins. In the middle of the group was a young artist named Ray Adams, the building’s last tenant.
The activists braced themselves, preparing to face local housing inspectors on their way to evict Adams. City inspector James Nanni pulled to the curb and headed toward the building, backed up by the Hartford police. The group physically blocked Nanni from delivering the eviction notice. Maybe because the officials were stunned by the resistance, or maybe because the activists had called the local TV stations, the police and the City backed off.
In that moment, the 28-year old Ray Adams began his public fight for affordable housing in Hartford. It was a campaign that opposed the scheme to “gentrify” the city by replacing low-income and working families with upper income residents in order to shore up the city’s shrinking tax base.
For nine months, Ray Adams had been living at 18 Congress Street without heat or hot water. He was the last of 800 families who had been living in the four-block Charter Oak-South Green development area, some as long as 35 years. But then the properties were bought by the City of Hartford and handed over to the Envicon Corporation, a private New York company that had no urban redevelopment experience. After the City’s purchase, living conditions rapidly deteriorated. Oil burners broke down and weren’t fixed. Broken windows went unrepaired. Copper pipes were stolen right out the buildings. Tenants were chased out by city employees with the threat of arrest.
Congress Street was originally part of a grand redevelopment scheme envisioned by Greater Hartford Process, a corporate-funded think tank created to “save” the city. A top secret Process memo came to light in 1974 , summarizing the plan: to land bank the northern and southern border areas of downtown, making it safe for business. The social engineers of Process identified Congress Street one area in which high income enclaves should be created. The first line of the internal memo was blunt: “Overtime, the ghetto should be moved away from Downtown.” The most infamous line, however, was that “Puerto Rican in-migration must be reduced.” Hartford Process never recovered from the outrage and massive street protests sparked by the memo leak.
The Hartford Architecture Conservancy (HAC), however, took up where Process left off. Much of Congress Street had 19th century structures of architectural value. The place reeked of local history. Thanks to HAC’s influence, the City decided that the buildings were too precious to destroy and should be rehabilitated, not demolished. Current tenants would be priced out of the market: a single, one-person efficiency would cost the equivalent today of more than $900 a month. Ray’s apartment would cost the equivalent of $1450 after being refurbished. It was a price HAC was willing to pay.
The organization actually called the new high-income tenants “urban pioneers,” an unfortunate metaphor that positioned the city as a wilderness and existing residents as savages.Ray and his neighbors had formed a tenants’ union back in 1975 and tried to negotiate with the Hartford officials. They wanted to take one apartment house and turn it into a cooperatively owned building. The city’s redevelopment agency “would not listen to alternative ideas,” Ray said. “They are moving the poorer people out to move the people from the suburbs in– people who have a choice already,” Ray told a reporter. “It’s a class issue.”
“What’s his professional expertise to say what’s right and wrong?” came the angry reply from Paul Strecker of the City Development Commission. Strecker did not know that Ray’s family had also been moved out of their Front Street neighborhood years back to make way for the dinosaur known as Constitution Plaza.
Others offered an alternative to the HAC plan. New York City had recently established a “sweat equity” program where low income people could fix up and then live in the apartments with affordable rents. HAC and the City ignored this idea.When City Council Majority Leader Richard Suisman announced that Ray would have first dibs on a new apartment– as long as he could come up with the rent– Adams replied that he had no intention of moving back into the neighborhood “because I don’t intend to leave.”
At the same time, housing inspectors were monitoring Ray’s building. Redevelopment Agency members, some of whom were angry that Ray was refusing to pay rent and therefore living on “government subsidy”, confidently predicted that the water pipes would soon freeze, giving the City the excuse to re-issue the eviction notice for unsanitary conditions.
The group that helped block Ray’s eviction was a motley group of political organizers called People for Economic and Social Action (PESA). Together they used the Freedom of Information Commission to force the city to provide a list of former residents and their current addresses. With it, PESA tracked down families and got affidavits to prove that former tenants had been harassed from their homes and involuntarily removed. Although tenants received a one time relocation grant averaging about $2800 (certainly an incentive for low-income folks) those who were interviewed said they would have preferred to stay.
Ray Adams became a celebrity. Fourteen families living at 175 Sigourney Street were faced with eviction after someone ripped the copper pipes from the basement, disrupting heat. Society for Savings owned the building, but the City didn’t press the bank to make repairs. Instead, they sent eviction notices. The tenants, aided by the Puerto Rican Center for Justice, asked Ray to support them. Likewise, Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) invited Ray to speak at its first annual congress. Never a group to share credit with other activists, HART was quick to recognize that Ray’s fight had touched a nerve across the city.
Groups such as Education/Instruccion, Vecinos Unidos and even the local chapter of the Savage Nomads street gang also took up Ray’s cause.The Hartford Architecture Conservancy was singularly unsympathetic to Ray Adams. “There is no point in crying over the way things might have been,” HAC’s newsletter editorialized. Activists countered that HAC was practicing the “neutron bomb theory of urban development, saving the buildings and to hell with the people.”
Ray’s fight started a backlash against HAC. It’s “At Home In Hartford” tours for suburbanites were met with march through Hartford streets in 1979. Father Peter Rosazza, was one of the protest participants. Padre Pedro was a Catholic Auxiliary Bishop and longtime advocate for Hartford’s poor and working communities. He told the protestors he opposed any rehabilitation that displaced low and moderate income people. In 1980, HAC ended its tours but claimed the protests had nothing to do with their decision.
The activists who had supported Ray from the beginning geared up for the new eviction deadline. They reckoned that the City would be back on Monday, March 14, 1977, but they were wrong. With a sledge hammer and an ax, the Hartford Sheriff smashed down Ray’s door at 6:00 am on Friday, March 11th. The sheriff threatened to throw all of Ray’s possessions out into the street if he resisted this time. Ray and the PESA intern who was assisting him left the apartment.
A few months earlier, Ray had privately told his friends that he was ready to move to Manhattan, and that’s just what he did, eventually landing in SoHo to continue making his art. But before he left Hartford, Ray fashioned a huge paper mache sledgehammer and with 50 others staged a mock eviction of the City Council.
Three months after Ray’s eviction, 100 housing units on Broad and Lawrence Streets were up for rehabilitation by a non-profit developer. The tenants, afraid that once they were out they would not be allowed back in, protested and demanded a meeting with the developer. “It’s not like Congress Street,” the nervous bureaucrat assured them.
In August, developers, bankers, and politicians set up an outdoor ribbon-cutting ceremony on Congress Street. The participants used the occasion to tout their “public private-partnership.”
During Councilman Suisman’s speech, one of the display drawings blew over. He blamed it on the “ghost of Ray Adams.”
Ray’s fight helped define the way Hartford began to look at urban renewal. After the Congress Street battle, community groups stepped up their opposition to gentrification. They argued for rent control and preservation of existing housing stock by developers who were tearing down apartment units. They organized against tax breaks for new downtown office buildings. They initiated the campaign for Linkage, a proposal that would require developers to create local jobs and new housing units (a campaign that dominated Hartford politics for several years and deserves its own study). And they opposed the eventual reemergence of Hartford Process, forcing the group to repudiate its infamous memo.
When you ride down Congress Street today, look for the Berwick, built in 1913. That’s where Ray Adams and his friends took their stand.