Taking Hartford's Tired Jewels And Making Them Shine
June 24, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
`Miss," the young man calls out, and he waves me over.
I am parked on Babcock Street in Hartford, a popular place to buy drugs in our capital city. Down on the corner, Luis Cotto, owner of the redoubtable cafe La Paloma Sabanera, sometimes amuses himself by sitting at one of his outdoor tables to shout, "Wrong way!" to the drug buyers who drive up the one-way street. They come here knowing they're looking for Babcock, he says, but they don't always know it's one-way.
Nor do they usually care.
But it's not all ugly here. Up the road from the cafe, I am looking at an architectural jewel, a renovated "perfect six," one of those sturdy brick apartment buildings built more than 100 years ago for the families of factory workers who crowded into the capital city.
The neighborhood has shifted since then, and now I'm pretty sure this ruffled guy is about to ask for a handout, and I'm not happy about it. I have only a $20, and it's bad form to ask a street person for change.
But he's not going to leave me alone, although I motion for him to wait. Instead, he walks up and says, "I don't want to tell you how to live your life, but you really shouldn't leave your car unlocked and your bag on the front seat." He motions to my car. "People might come and take it."
I feel like a jerk, and I almost give him money, even though he didn't ask. He says he has lived on the street for years, and he remembers when Pamela Melusky, of ATERA Enterprises, came with her crew last year to turn a ragged building into a home for six families.
Before Melusky, this building on Babcock Street sat abandoned for years. The people moved out and the vermin moved in next door to Sanchez Elementary School. The school looks like a fortress, but the building could not shield the children from what was going on in the backyard next door. People shot up back there. They used the yard as a bathroom. They broke into the house and stripped it clean. When Melusky first opened the door, the floor was littered with animal carcasses, and this was not where the local 4-H met.
But Melusky can look at the most blighted building to see structural soundness. She bought the building in 2005, and then workers donned thick gloves to remove the needles out back, and immediately, neighbors and the city took an interest.
Her "before" pictures show a mostly dismantled staircase and paint hanging from the lobby's ceiling. She gutted the building, put ceramic tile in the kitchen and bathrooms and turned the three-bedroom units into something nice, using business acumen and $5 cans of paint from the "oops" stack at Home Depot - and her own money, no grants.
When ATERA began taking applications for residents, all were offered the option of purchasing their units for under $135,000. Melusky said five of the six tenants should own their places by the end of this year.
Melusky moved to Connecticut in the '70s from Queens when she was 17. Her family left a neighborhood of well-kept 30-by-30-foot lots for Uncasville, where, Melusky jokes, the "most exciting thing that happened was when the Coke machine didn't give correct change." She got into the construction business and worked as a loan officer.
She built her own home in Marlborough in the '80s, then helped that town write policy for its senior citizens. She also ran a senior housing improvement program, and she got hooked. It felt good doing something for somebody else, she said. Over the years, as she has watched happy new homeowners take their keys, her appetite to help has gotten bigger. She has plans for more. Last month, the Hartford Preservation Alliance, which Melusky credits with helping during the renovation, gave Melusky an award for her work.
Back in front of the building on Babcock, the safety patrol is heading up a sidewalk across the street.
Yeah, he remembers the building before Melusky, he says, and he shudders.
"Now?" he said. "It's lovely, inside and out."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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