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A Champion Of The Poor

John Wardlaw Director reinvented Hartford's public housing

Hartford Courant

November 13, 2008

The first thing people noticed was his hands, huge hands, hands that could catch passes and swing a golf club, but hands that also wanted to lift people up. Then there was the preacher's baritone that gave lift to a sometimes rambling eloquence. Finally, the smile, the smile of a man who was born to help people and was doing just that.

John Wardlaw, who died last weekend at 71, headed the Hartford Housing Authority for nearly three decades, a remarkable tenure in such a high-pressure, high-profile job. He hired good people and ran a tight ship. He cared deeply for the thousands of people who lived in public housing and worked every day to better their lives. When he couldn't make the aging housing projects work, he knocked them down and replaced them.

Few people thought as long and as hard about public housing as Mr. Wardlaw did. He knew that projects worked wonderfully when they were built in the middle part of the last century. The projects were then transitional, a place for working people to live until they'd gotten ahead and could afford to buy a home. There were strict income limits; make too much and you had to leave.

But as entry-level jobs became more scarce, the projects ceased to be transitional and became the last stop for poor people. They invited the drug trade. They became what Mr. Wardlaw called "concentration camps for the poor," "incubators for social ills" and "unnatural communities," where poor, single women were forced to raise children without the support they'd find in healthier neighborhoods.

When the federal Hope VI program was created in the early 1990s, Mr. Wardlaw was ready. With friend and ally Mayor Mike Peters, he demolished the squalid Charter Oak Terrace, Rice Heights and Stowe Village projects and replaced them with attractive neighborhood housing. He downsized and rebuilt Bellevue Square, the infamous "Brickyard," and began to replace Dutch Point, a project that has emerged as one of the most attractive in the nation.

Mr. Wardlaw managed these major projects without major protests from tenants, whom he took great care to relocate. The program was a remarkable success. Mr. Wardlaw had what many consider an impossible job, and he did it very well.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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