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Wardlaw Transformed Public Housing

March 22, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

There used to be 186 families at Dutch Point. Now, just one resident remains - and when that person leaves in the coming weeks, nothing will stand between the Hartford housing project and the wrecking ball.

Dutch Point's demolition will be a fitting finale to John D. Wardlaw's 27 years as executive director of the Hartford Housing Authority, a career during which the authority knocked down and rebuilt most of the city's federally subsidized housing projects. In the process, the authority remade the face of public housing and changed the living conditions for thousands of the city's poor.

"We got rid of the kind of housing that was destroying people," said Wardlaw, who retired Friday on his 66th birthday. "I've completed the job that Hartford needs."

Because what Hartford had were "concentration camps," he said - places where the city's poorest lived in impossible situations, surrounded by high crime, high unemployment, overtaxed schools, and more.

At Charter Oak Terrace, Wardlaw's authority took down more than 900 units and replaced them with a third as many duplexes and single-family houses. At Stowe Village, a barracks-like complex of 31 buildings was razed and replaced by 100 single-family homes, and at Bellevue Square, more than 300 units were reconfigured into 127 apartments and townhouses.

"People are going to remember John Wardlaw as changing public housing for the better, not just changing public housing," said Angel Arce, chairman of the authority's board, adding that if there was an award for the city's most influential man, Wardlaw would own it.

"People are loyal to him because they believe in what he wanted to do, ... [which was to] better the lives of people in public housing," Arce said, adding that a search for his successor will soon be underway. "And people respected him for that."

Even critics of Wardlaw's legacy agree that he improved the living conditions of those who live in public housing. But they add that, in tearing down old projects and building new homes, the housing authority reduced the city's total number of affordable housing units.

"The housing that has been taken down and redeveloped is better for the people that are lucky enough to get to live there," said Lynne Ide, a public housing advocate at the Connecticut Housing Coalition. "But we should not lose sight of the fact that the revitalization has been done at the cost of a permanent loss in units of affordable housing in the city of Hartford."

She doesn't fault Wardlaw - he operated within a state and federal housing system, and did his best to take advantage of the opportunities that were available, she said. "But did it leave the city of Hartford in a better position to meet the housing needs of low-income families?" she asked. "Probably not."

But you can't judge a man with years of experience as the head of a housing authority based on a few statistics, said Mayor Eddie A. Perez. Because Wardlaw did more than just house people.

"He got involved in the life of residents. He helped them go to college; he was there [to help] if people went to jail," he said, adding that Wardlaw wasn't interested in just making sure the trash was picked up and the units were fit for occupancy. "He was a role model to many people in public housing."

"He not only ran public housing, he changed the face of it and the destiny of those who lived in it."

A Changed City

Former Mayor Michael P. Peters remembers when Wardlaw came to him in 1994 with the idea of knocking down and rebuilding the city's federally funded housing projects.

Wardlaw had kicked the idea around for a while, but didn't get very far, Peters said. Politicians discounted it because shutting down public housing projects would mean shutting down important political strongholds.

So nothing changed. The apartments were crowded with people and pests. "John felt very strongly we had to make those changes, and I agreed with him."

Tearing down the projects meant that the city's poor were distributed throughout more neighborhoods. Asylum Hill, for example, saw a 47 percent increase in people living below the poverty line between 1989 and 1999.

That posed a challenge for the neighborhoods. It also posed challenges for the police department.

Assistant Police Chief Mark R. Pawlina remembers when he was a patrol officer assigned to Stowe Village.

That was back when the department used to send three cars to every incident at the project - two to work the scene, and one to watch the two police cars driven by the investigating officers.

"Those were tough places to police," Pawlina said. Criminals worked together. Police never came unannounced. The complexity of the buildings made it nearly impossible for police to find their suspects.

When it came time to begin closing the projects and relocating their residents, the police department had a logistical challenge, Pawlina said

"All of the sudden, we were having little spurts of criminal activity at locations that we never had them before," Pawlina said.

Violent crime is much lower today than it was when the projects were fully functioning, he said.

"Overall, when you look at the big picture, it's probably the best thing that ever happened, shutting those projects," he said.

For Wardlaw, the task was easy: to separate the poor in pocketbook from the poor in spirit and mind, he said.

"The people who are doing the right thing, why should you turn around and get people who are involved in crime, don't want to do nothing, ain't going to do nothing, and move them next door?"

"You've got to be an idiot," he said, explaining why those with criminal backgrounds have a tough time getting into the Housing Authority's new developments.

"We're not geared for it," he continued. "We're not a criminal justice agency. We're not [the Department of] Health and Human Services. We're landlords."

Stubborn And Proud

As the housing authority's director, Wardlaw came with a vision and a leadership style, Perez said.

"John ran it his way and his way proved to be a good way," he said, adding that Wardlaw was stubborn. "He wanted success and he went after it big. His stubbornness proved to be an asset."

What people often forget about Wardlaw is that he took risks and stuck his neck out, said Marilyn Rossetti, executive director of the community organization, Hartford Areas Rally Together.

That was the case when he held a meeting to tell the residents at Charter Oak Terrace that their homes would be leveled.

"That was probably very hard for him that day, when people turned on him like he was `The Man,'" she said.

"He speaks his mind," Rossetti said. "And he can make some enemies because he does speak his mind, but he's always had the best interest of Hartford, its residents, and making change in mind."

Ide, of the housing coalition, says, though, that Wardlaw's professional legacy is something of a mixed bag.

"He has said that he wants to help people move up, and help people move out, and that's fine," Ide said. "But, and this is bigger than John Wardlaw, if we are getting out of providing housing for the poor with our housing authority, my question is, who's going to do it?"

"The answer," she said, "is homeless shelters and slumlords."

"He did his best ... to leverage resources from places that were available to improve the housing stock the authority had control over," she said. "That's good. But it does not take care of the rental housing need" in the area."

Wardlaw and the housing authority no doubt evolved over time. Whereas critics say the Charter Oak project reduced the amount of affordable housing and did not take the residents into account, Dutch Point is different.

There, 186 units will be destroyed, and more than 190 are planned in their place, officials said. And Dutch Point's residents are carefully tracked. While the displaced residents must meet certain criminal, educational, and employment guidelines to return to the new Dutch Point, the authority and several agencies are working with them to make sure that they do, officials said.

Leave aside the number of units, though, and Wardlaw sees Charter Oak as an unqualified success, he said. Housing for the poor that is no longer concentrated, the promise of homeownership and relationships with employers that bring new jobs to the authority's residents all make for a model to follow, he said.

But that will be the job for the next generation of leaders, he said.

"The truth is that I have done my job," Wardlaw said. "I was committed to change the way people live in this city, and I think that is done."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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