Hartford Public Housing Reformer John Wardlaw Dies
JOHN WARDLAW | 1937-2008
JEFFREY B. COHEN
November 12, 2008
John Wardlaw, the man whose name became synonymous with a revolution in public housing during nearly 30 years as head of Hartford's housing authority, died Friday.
He was 71.
A tall man with a big voice who preached when he spoke and got people to listen, Wardlaw made it his mission to undo much of what had been done with public housing.
When he arrived at the housing authority in the late 1970s, Wardlaw faced what he called "concentration camps," warehouses where the poor were forced to live near those who preyed on them. These were places that destroyed people instead of advancing them, he would say.
When he retired in 2005, Wardlaw left a changed public housing landscape. He had led efforts to take down or reconfigure dense complexes at Charter Oak Terrace, Stowe Village and Bellevue Square and build new housing in their place. He started the same process at Dutch Point.
Tasked with maintaining complexes that were symbols of despair and mazes that defied crime fighting, Wardlaw tore them down. He replaced them with apartments and town houses with neat lawns — some for rent, some for sale — buildings that stood as testaments to his belief that people, given better conditions, could make better lives.
Along the way, Wardlaw made both friends and enemies, but he didn't mind the enemies much.
"You either loved him or you hated him because he never took 'No' and he would do whatever he had to do to make it happen," his wife, Beatriz Wardlaw, said Tuesday. "It was his voice, it was his presence — everything about him commanded that you stop and listen. And that was so amazing, not only to me, but to others. Because you could hear a pin drop. It didn't make a difference what he was talking about, people respected what John Wardlaw had to say."
Wardlaw died at home, as he wanted to, on Friday evening after a three-month battle with lung cancer, his wife said. A private memorial service is planned.
Originally of Asheville, N.C. — where he hoped to move soon to live a golfer's life — Wardlaw was a professional football player turned juvenile justice worker turned housing authority executive director. He briefly considered a run for mayor in 2001.
Former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone remembered the task of picking someone to run the housing authority.
"We wanted someone who could go in there and who understood the human side of public housing," Carbone said. "How do you empower the tenants and stop using public housing as a warehouse?"
Wardlaw didn't necessarily know housing, Carbone said, but he knew people, and he knew that people needed to feel invested in their communities in order to respect them.
Wardlaw created tenant associations, hired tenants to work at the authority and helped them join construction unions. He also started a program to get fathers working.
"He started empowering tenants, changing their lives, having them become part of the community, treating them with respect and negotiating with them," Carbone said. "He dramatically changed the lives of many, many people who lived in public housing."
Carbone remembered Wardlaw as an advocate for people shut out of modern opportunity.
If a man had a criminal record, he wouldn't write him off — but he'd expect the world of the guy. If a person dealt drugs on public housing property, he wouldn't tolerate it. Tenants who dealt drugs were evicted.
Wardlaw explained his thinking in an interview when he retired in 2005.
"The people who are doing the right thing," he said, "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?"
Former city councilman and firefighter Steve Harris remembered summer nights in the 1980s when dumpster fires lit up the city's public housing complexes like bombing raids. When firefighters would move in to do their work, they'd get pelted with rocks and bottles.
Made aware of the situation, Wardlaw called a meeting and eventually made it clear that harassing firefighters wouldn't be tolerated.
"Our problem went away overnight," Harris said.
"Because the rock and bottle throwers had parents. … Since John read the riot act, [and] said, 'It's your kids, but we're going to hold you accountable,' they started paying attention to where their kids were."
Alan Green, the authority's current executive director, called Wardlaw a "sensitive soul" who lived up to his commitment to get people out of warehouses and into decent housing.
"John left us being the largest developer of housing in Hartford, and it's not over yet," Green said. "It very much is John's plan, and he should be given all the accolades for it."
In an e-mailed statement, Mayor Eddie A. Perez said that Wardlaw "single-handedly reinvented public housing in the city" and added that Hartford became "a model for public housing" under Wardlaw.
As his death neared, the man known for his ability to communicate could only do so with his eyes and a squeeze of a hand. That's how he showed his pleasure with the election of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to the White House, his wife said.
Still, as cancer took its toll, Wardlaw didn't complain.
"He felt he was going to beat this, no ifs, ands or buts," his wife said. "He took it as another challenge. But it came on so quickly, and he just kept getting weaker and weaker. It was very difficult to watch, a very strong man whittled down to almost nothing."
After he left the housing authority, the agency was embroiled in an internal struggle that sparked claims and counterclaims of corruption. Among the issues that emerged was an alleged "mystery memorandum" in which Wardlaw appeared to have given extensive development rights in the city to a Meriden developer.
Wardlaw steadfastly denied any knowledge of the matter.
In the interview before he retired, Wardlaw reflected proudly on his work.
"The truth is that I have done my job," he 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.
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