For all of Jorge Ciuidanes' young life, reconstruction of the Westbrook Village housing project has been mired in Hartford Housing Authority politics: Bids were received, bids were discarded; mysterious memos appeared, mysterious memos were disavowed; an executive director was hired, an executive director was fired.
So for all of 2-year-old Jorge's life, he has lived in a place of worsening squalor. Leaking plumbing, crumbling ceilings, peeling paint, roaches, mice. Jorge's mother, Yahira Rodriguez, has him sleep in her bed so the mice won't scramble over him at night.
And that's the real tragedy of the housing authority mess. Whether the problem was dumbfounding ineptitude or, as some are alleging, misconduct verging on criminality, the people with the power and responsibility to improve life for Jorge and his mother and their neighbors squandered the chance.
And that, I thought as I walked around Westbrook and nearby Bowles Park the other day, isn't just unacceptable - it's unforgivable.
Stand on the chair so you can see, Samuel Figueroa instructed.
Don't worry about the cushions, he said when he saw me hesitating to step up in my shoes; nesting mice have ruined all the furniture. You see?
How could I not? The top shelf of his kitchen cabinet was covered with mouse droppings.
Look at how they burrow into the plastic bags of beans, he says, the boxes of Prince spaghetti. That's why he tries to put everything in plastic containers, why he covers his toaster in a plastic covering, why he washes every clean plate again before he uses it.
He sees my reaction. "Don't think I'm dirty," he says. "I clean every day and every day there is more, in the corners of the rooms, behind the dish rack, in the closets."
And it's not just the mice; in his closet, mildew grows on his clothes. Maybe that's what's causing his recent respiratory problems, some of the worst bouts he's had with asthma in years.
At night, Figueroa says, he hears the mice in the walls, running across the baseboard heater, under his bed.
At least you only hear them, his niece Yahira Rodriguez says. In her apartment, Rodriguez patches the holes they make, but they make more. Housing authority workers give her sticky paper traps but the mice just scamper over them and onto beds, cabinets and on top of the microwave, where until recently she kept Jorge's cereal, thinking they couldn't get to it. They did.
She calls the housing authority office, but if they come at all, she says, they don't do much - except maybe remind her that the rent is going up.
"How can they do that?" she asks. "How can they ask us for more money when we have to live like this?"
Over at Bowles Park, I passed by Carmen Munoz and Jose Martinez twice as they mowed the grass in front of one of the buildings, assuming they were Hartford Housing Authority employees.
Housing authority employees? Munoz laughed when I finally approached her. They mow their own grass, or their lawns turn into fields.
It was so ridiculous, I almost laughed with her. But then I noticed her shortness of breath; she just recently had stomach surgery and shouldn't even be out here. But what's she going to do, she says, live in this filth? Her doctor tells her to lay off the bleach - it's bad for her respiratory problems - but she doesn't go a day without cleaning her immaculately kept apartment from one end to another with the stuff.
"You smell it?" she says, inhaling proudly.
Martinez is trying, too, but there's not much he can do with his collapsing ceiling. He has asked the housing authority to fix it for two years now, he says. But for two years, it's been falling down around them.
"It's like we're all on our own here," Martinez says.
Despite that, he and everyone else I met this week try to make the most of what little they have. Rodriguez installed his own tiles after getting tired of waiting for housing authority employees to come repair his old tile floor. Munoz sweeps the corridors, and she just painted her apartment.
And Rodriguez, she keeps pressing housing authority officials to relocate her and her son, who was just recently diagnosed with asthma. In the meantime, she tries to make life in her home as comfortable as possible for Jorge.
The other night, housing authority commission members couldn't stop congratulating themselves when they finally awarded the project to develop both housing complexes.
It was a long process, they said.
A good process, blah, blah, blah ...
But you know who deserves the real congratulations? People who even in such deplorable conditions try to find a way to build a life, a home where they can lay their heads at night - even if they have to keep one eye open to make sure the mice don't crawl over their children.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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