For years, criminologists and other deep thinkers have pondered the question of how to bring peace to troubled inner-city neighborhoods. I'd venture to guess that not one of them thought of this — a supermodel with attitude.
I confess this answer didn't jump out at me either, until I stopped at an event over the summer in Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood. The area has had a chronic problem with street prostitution. A bright, brassy and stunningly attractive young woman named Sallie Toussaint stood and spoke forcefully about getting the riff-raff out of the area.
Not that there aren't a lot of cool people in Asylum Hill — I used to live there myself — but Sallie's resume is a bit atypical. She's been a beauty queen (Miss Connecticut and Miss USA-World), model (Vogue, Essence and many others) actress (roles in the film "The Departed" and the series "The Sopranos," among others) and is now pursuing a singing career. She was once linked romantically with Prince Albert of Monaco.
For the past year she's lived in the Niles-Laurel street area, where she has painstakingly restored what had been an abandoned brick Victorian home, part of the city's priceless but dwindling architectural heritage. And she has become a leader in a strong neighborhood partnership with the Hartford police department to get the streetwalkers out. The effort is succeeding, I'm happy to report.
"I'm not intimidated by them. I'm not taking any of their crap. I'm staying and they're leaving," Sallie said in an interview last week. "I'm young, I'm strong and I'm mad."
"Sallie is a pistol. She's got the gumption and the energy," said neighbor Susan Hood, a communications specialist and former spokeswoman for the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Why does someone who could live anywhere pick this particular place? A deep connection to the city.
She was born in Hartford to Trinidadian parents. She moved to Trinidad, then back to Hartford at age 12. She lived in the Blue Hills neighborhood, and loved it. "We knew everyone, it was so peaceful."
She graduated from Weaver High School, attended UConn and got her degree from Hunter College. She went on to a jet-set career, but never lost touch with Hartford. About seven years ago she bought the empty and abandoned house next to her mother's house on Niles Street and began the descent into the money pit, the arduous and expensive work of restoring it.
It was worth the trouble — it is lovely. The house is full of Victorian pictures, curtains and chandeliers.
Sallie sold her apartment in New York and moved in about a year ago. It was then that she noticed prostitutes hanging out in front of her house, taking johns to neighborhood yards and driveways.
The neighborhood's problem with street prostitution goes back decades. When I lived there in the 1980s, I was surprised to learn that the hookers offered an early-bird special to men on their way to the insurance companies. (Memo to prospective johns: Virtually all of these poor women are drug addicts infected with serious toxins. There are better ways to kill yourself.)
Street prostitutes bring along an assortment of undesirables, and their presence means that law-abiding women and girls who live in their neighborhood are subject to insult and harassment. Sallie noted this and determined to do something.
Her timing was propitious. Under Chief Daryl Roberts, appointed in 2006, Hartford police have figured out how to do community policing. When I called in a break-in two decades ago, a cop showed up two hours later and asked me why I lived in Hartford.
That attitude, as Susan Hood noted, has changed dramatically. Now Northwest District commander Capt. Joe Buyak — an outstanding veteran officer — and his troops are trying to make living in Hartford a good plan.
Community Service Officer Jim Barrett showed Sallie how to organize a neighborhood watch. They knocked on doors, and residents responded. Now, the residents take photos and videos of johns and prostitutes and write down license numbers.
They transmit the information to police, who take quick action. "They have cleaned up this neighborhood. The prostitution is almost down to zero," Sallie said.
Neighbors have whistles, cellphones and police flashlights. Sallie, her mother and other family members have locked gates, security systems and a couple of pit bulls.
In addition to public safety, the neighborhood group pays attention to the built environment. They talk with people who aren't keeping up their property. Sallie pushed to get a speed bump on Niles Street near the West Middle School playground to calm the traffic.
One of the great initiatives in the neighborhood was by a woman named Brenda McCumber, who beautifully landscaped and planted a plaza area on Farmington Avenue in front of the Mark Twain Branch of the Hartford Public Library. It's become a tiny park and made the corner more peaceful.
An immediate challenge is the wonderful turreted house at the corner of Laurel and Niles streets, which, sadly, has been abandoned for several years and is in dire need of rehab. Sallie actually made an effort to buy it, but the owner was asking way more than she or, apparently, anyone else, thinks it is worth in its present condition.
The city's anti-blight team is on the case, and there's hope that the house — which is the image on the neighborhood's "Welcome to Asylum Hill" signs — can be rescued. Absentee owners are a whole other set of problems.
Though Asylum Hill was overrun with bland brick-box apartment buildings in the 1960s, many of the distinctive Victorians in the Niles-Laurel area (and on a few other streets that appear to be coming back) were spared. It has a wonderfully diverse population; the essence of urban living. If Sallie Toussaint and other neighborhood leaders keep pushing on a few other problems — e.g., parking — this can again be a very desirable place to live.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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