September 26, 2004
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer
Her friend Beba sits next to her, idly pulling on her hair and
trying to decipher a word scramble involving world capitals.
Next to them is a dozing cat named Scarface that usually can
be found roaming the alleyways, preying on the mice that have
populated the project for years.
These days, the mice far outnumber the tenants. All but a few
dozen families have been moved out of Dutch Point, the city's
last large-scale public housing project. In a few weeks, the
project on the southern edge of downtown Hartford will be demolished
to make way for modern apartments and townhouses.
Dutch Point, like public housing across the country, was built
on the theory that the poor could live happily and safely in
high-density complexes. Now, the thinking is that dispersing
low-income people to scattered neighborhoods and smaller projects
is a better idea, and people such as Tasha and her family ultimately
will bear out whether that's true.
Demolition of the bleak project and several nearby buildings
is forcing the relocation of 186 families at government expense.
It may improve life for the people of Dutch Point. It will remove
an eyesore just a few blocks from Adriaen's Landing - the city's
latest multimillion-dollar dream of revitalization aimed at drawing
conventioneers and tourists to Hartford.
Most Dutch Point families have been happy to leave, hardly sentimental
about a place where space was often so cramped that couches doubled
as beds, doorway stoops served as desks, windows functioned as
doors. At night, the sound of shouting matches and gunfire -
byproducts of a persistent drug trade - often forced parents
to keep their children inside at night.
But for the last families, leaving Dutch Point has not been
such an easy proposition. Some have had a hard time finding a
place they can afford. Some don't want to move to other neighborhoods,
particularly in the North End, that they perceive as more dangerous.
Others simply haven't taken any steps to move.
Yet signs are everywhere that change is unavoidable, as more
and more windows are boarded over and courtyards that once teemed
with people are barren. For those who remain, Dutch Point has
become a quieter place where space, once so short in supply,
has become abundant.
On this September afternoon, Tasha and Beba's moment of peace
is shattered when a group of men, some teenagers, some older,
walk by the stoop and one of them asks the girls what they are
Tasha pours out an angry stream
of profanities at them, her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing. "What do you care what
we're doing?" she growls.
The boys, momentarily startled, gawk for a second and then break
out in awkward laughter. Their laughter suggests they aren't
intimidated, but they walk by without a response - which is the
reaction the girls wanted.
Just then, a younger boy named Jorge Diaz struts up to the stoop
and is greeted by more profanity. But Jorge smiles gently and
jokes that the girls are lucky to have a guy like him around.
They're his friends, and once he dishes out his own verbal assault,
the girls can't help smiling slightly as he sits next to them
to distract them.
"I'm already done with my homework," he brags. "You
"Hell, no," replies Beba. "I
don't need your help."
But Jorge stays, and the girls return to their studies. At Dutch
Point, Jorge and the girls have learned to find the warmth and
friendship hidden behind rough exteriors, and to savor them without
having to acknowledge them.
Iron Bars And Flower Pots
Contradictions are everywhere at Dutch Point. It was built in
the early 1940s as temporary housing for defense industry workers,
but it became one of the city's most enduring way stations for
Until the eruption of drug traffic and urban decay in the 1970s,
Dutch Point was held up by city planners as a model of what could
happen when the government extended a hand to people in need.
Residents on low or lower-middle incomes clamored to live there
because of the clean, grassy expanses between rows of well-kept,
barracks-style buildings. Tenants felt comfortable leaving their
doors unlocked. Everyone watched out for their neighbors' kids.
"Everyone wanted to live here," recalls Margaret Green,
who has lived at Dutch Point for more than 30 years. "It
was a nice place to live, it truly was. Nothing like what we
Now the yards are choked with weeds and heavy chains bar the
doors and windows of empty apartments. Graffiti covers the walkways.
It's hard to make an apartment feel homey when the windows are
protected by sloping iron bars, but some tenants have tried by
installing flower pots inside the bars or cultivating small gardens
outside their doors. Stray cats and dogs, many of them abandoned
by departed tenants, use the bars as places to sleep.
Matilda Sanchez, who moved to Dutch Point when she was 12, remembers
when the project was gripped by gang violence, when it was not
uncommon to hear gunshots even during the daytime or to find
out that a neighbor had been killed. Even though there hasn't
been a homicide reported at Dutch Point in more than five years,
Sanchez still hears occasional gunshots from the streets outside.
Despite the crime, dirt and noise that have plagued Dutch Point
for years, some residents remain skeptical about the city's ability
to find them a better place.
Sanchez tries to put those people at ease in her work for Housing
Opportunities Unlimited, the contractor hired by the city to
make sure all Dutch Point tenants are moved out by the end of
October, when demolition is set to begin. Every day Sanchez tries
to make contact with tenants who have not arranged to move, offering
to show them a range of housing options and reminding them they
will not have to pay for the move themselves.
Sanchez is reluctant to move herself. A single mother, she has
built a convenient life, shuttling her two kids to nearby schools
every morning, shopping at local stores and seeing local doctors.
The life she shares with her two daughters - Shawntee Rivera,
12, bookish and thoughtful, and Jacquelin Borrero, 7, chatty
and bubbly - is based on routine. On one recent weekday morning,
Sanchez prepared breakfast sandwiches in the family's small kitchen
while the girls hustled to get ready for school.
The apartment, like others at Dutch Point, is short on style,
long on function. The living room is compact and square, with
plaster walls, and the girls' bedroom barely has room for a pair
of beds and a dresser. When Sanchez stumbled on an imitation
fireplace that a friend of hers was planning to throw out a few
years ago, she refurbished it and made it a centerpiece to give
her apartment some individuality.
"It helps to be creative because you never know what you
can do with stuff that's just laying around," says Sanchez,
who also adorns her home with images of angels. "That's
something I try to pass on to my girls."
As proof, both Shawntee and Jacquelin show off drawings they've
been working on. Shawntee, an eighth-grader at nearby Burr School
who was once named student of the month in her class, says she
struggles to draw her own images and would rather trace the lines
of a print. Jacquelin, a second-grader at Kinsella School, has
no such problems, freely taking her crayons wherever she wants
them to go.
Sanchez is still trying to figure out where she will live. She
may move to Massachusetts for a better-paying job. Failing that,
she hopes to find a quiet apartment in the Hartford's South End,
where a soon-to-open Wal-Mart will be hiring at the end of the
"We've been pretty happy here," Sanchez says as she
herds the girls outside to drive them to school. "If we
weren't being forced to leave, I'd rather stay at Dutch Point."
`Ain't Gonna Be Like That'
Rayshawn Ledbetter sits back on a kitchen chair in his family's
apartment, talking confidently about the path before him. Once
he graduates from college, he says, he'll go into business -
first a line of clothing stores, then department stores. He'll
snap up success like a quarter on the sidewalk.
Smiling warily at her son, Sylvia Ledbetter brings him back
to reality, reminding him that he needs to get started on his
homework. Rayshawn, 17, frowns and rolls his eyes, but knows
he has no choice.
"I'm just holding on to the day I see him walk across that
stage," says Sylvia, who has lived at Dutch Point for about
30 years, raising three children along the way. "When he
graduates, I told him, I'm gonna throw a bouquet of roses at
him, and he said, `Please, Mom, don't do that in front of everyone.'
But I'm gonna do it anyway."
Her dreams have kept Rayshawn in school - he is a senior at
Bulkeley High School - even as many others dropped out. At Dutch
Point, she says, most people use their poverty as an excuse when
their kids fail to graduate, but Sylvia kept after her son even
when she wasn't sure where their next meal would come from or
how to pay for his school clothes.
Now, Rayshawn says, it's his own dreams that keep him going.
Growing up in the cramped confines of Dutch Point, Rayshawn
says he always wished he had more money for nice clothes and
other comforts, a wish that translated into an interest in fashion
As he walks to school every day, Rayshawn says he sees kids
his own age who have dropped out and are selling drugs on the
street or aimlessly hanging out.
"They're angry because they think people owe them something,
but no one owes them anything," he says. "That's motivation
for me. I ain't gonna be like that."
Growing up at Dutch Point has meant getting used to the sound
of gunfire at night and the spectacle of police chasing drug
dealers between buildings and down alleys. Rayshawn says he's
stayed out of trouble by avoiding the shadowy corners of the
project and its walkways where desperate addicts sometimes wait
to jump someone for drug money.
His mother is hoping to move the family to Mary Shepard Place,
a smaller complex in the North End. If the city can find room
for them there, Rayshawn says he will still go to Bulkeley, crossing
Hartford by the city bus. He says he's maintaining a passing
average at school, and he wants to keep it that way.
"I'll do what it takes," he
says as his mother, standing behind him, nods her head.
"You're damn right you will," she
says back with a laugh.
One Man's Trash
It's a drizzly, humid afternoon
at "The Point," as
some tenants call it, and hardly anyone is out walking around
or hanging out on the stoops. But one woman and her young son
are scrounging for food and furnishings in the Dumpsters near
the entrance to the project. With so many tenants moving, a lot
is being tossed out, and this woman is taking advantage.
The woman and her son are from Liberia, and the woman wears
a colorful head-wrap and dashiki as she pulls discarded clothes
and towels from the Dumpster and places them in a plastic trash
bag. Her son sits in the weeds next to his mother, playing with
toys he has pulled from the trash.
The boy and his mother and father, none of whom speak English,
live a block away in an apartment house that's not being torn
down. The mother takes a stuffed plastic trash bag and places
it on her head for the walk home, and the boy totes a bag of
his own. As the rain seeps into the bags, the smell of trash
rises around them and their hands become soaked in the pungent
juice that drips out. Yet when they get home, they proudly present
their loot to the boy's father, who nods approvingly as the mother
empties one of the bags on the floor.
Where To Go?
Carlota Beardsley lives with her family in a brick apartment
building right next to Dutch Point on the corner of Norwich and
Stonington streets - the epicenter of the project's crime problems.
The building is one of seven slated for either demolition or
refurbishing as part of Dutch Point's revitalization, and her
family will have to move, too.
In the five years she's lived here, Beardsley says, conditions
have deteriorated to the point that cockroaches have infiltrated
her kitchen and leaking water seeps constantly through her ceiling
from the apartment above.
As bad as it's been inside, she says, the scene unfolding in
front of the corner store is often worse. Looking out her window,
Beardsley points to a crowd of 20 people. The cops had busted
five people for dealing or buying drugs the night before, but
people are back on the corner, and a fight quickly breaks out.
A woman and a man are shouting at each other as the people stand
around watching. About a block down on Norwich Street, a Hartford
police officer assigned to patrol Dutch Point sits in a parked
cruiser finishing a report, and he does not move as the exchange
gets more heated. After a few minutes, the two people calm down
and walk away.
Beardsley's 10-year-old son, Jose, looks on from a seat near
the window. The TV is on, but he and his mother are more interested
in what's going on outside.
"This happens all the time, and there's usually gunshots," Beardsley
says through an interpreter. She is from Puerto Rico and speaks
passable English, but prefers to speak Spanish. "That's
why I don't let my son go out at night, because of everything
going on down there."
In the apartment above her, Carmelo Caldero has been living
on his own for five years, attending services at his local church
so faithfully that he was recently named parishioner of the year.
Most of his family still lives in Puerto Rico, and he keeps in
touch with steady phone calls.
Caldero says that despite the roaches and the decaying roof,
he would rather not leave. He says he has met with city housing
officials to find a new place to live, but so far he has not
heard whether they have found anything for him.
"I guess I'm supposed to move, but I don't know when it's
going to happen or where I'm going to go," he says, also
through an interpreter. "I like living here because it's
close to my church."
Wanda Bilbraut-Moore, the Dutch Point director for the Hartford
Housing Authority, who has been overseeing the relocation effort,
says tenants such as Caldero will be placed in suitable new apartments
by the end of October. She says Caldero and many other remaining
tenants are difficult to assist because they have not attended
tenant meetings to learn about the relocation.
"It's a big enough job trying to take care of all the people
who have contacted us, but there are still lots of people we
need to reach out to, and we will," she says.
Moon Over The Point
As night falls on the project, Lumen Velez, a whirling dervish
of a 7-year-old, resists calls from his mother to come inside
and pulls the trigger on a toy machine gun. On the other side
of a chain-link fence, a heroin junkie walks into a row of tall
weeds where, over time, Lumen has lost countless errantly thrown
balls and toys. The junkie gets his high, emerges from the weeds
and walks away. Lumen's mother steps out of the apartment and
pulls him inside.
In a neighboring rowhouse, Maritza Pelletier, the vice president
of the tenants association, keeps her door open as she sits on
her stoop to watch the moon coming up. At a nearby courtyard,
shadowy figures walk back and forth across a crumbling asphalt
path, including one woman who stops to cry softly to herself,
her shaking form captured in silhouette against the backdrop
of a streetlight.
Pelletier, who has lived in Dutch Point for 17 years, was key
to making sure the city didn't abandon Dutch Point's residents.
She helped secure an agreement that will give tenants first rights
to buy or rent the new apartments and townhouses that are coming.
Many tenants will not be eligible because of criminal backgrounds
or poor credit histories, but Pelletier meets all the requirements,
and she hopes to buy one of the townhouses when they open up.
Meanwhile, she's hoping the city will be able to find her family
an apartment at the Martin Luther King Jr. housing complex next
door to Dutch Point.
One of Pelletier's strongest allies in the fight to protect
tenants is Carol Coburn, executive director of the nonprofit
Coalition to Strengthen the Sheldon-Charter Oak Neighborhood,
On her way to visit another
family, Coburn stops by to say "Hi" to
Pelletier, taking a seat on the stoop and thanking her for the
work she's done for other tenants.
"I didn't do anything," Pelletier
says, lighting a cigarette and following the antics of a puppy
the family has just taken in.
Behind her building, a block away on Norwich Street, customers
are driving up to the corner near the convenience store, making
drug buys and screeching off.
In a windowless room in the second floor of Pelletier's apartment,
her 10-year-old son, Oscar Diaz, is playing Monopoly with his
best friend, 9-year-old Jaznay Davenport. They roll the dice
and move their pieces around the board, oblivious to the shouts
echoing from Norwich Street.
Pelletier says she never lets her son out after dark because
of the drug dealing, and looks forward to the day when she will
own her own home in a revitalized part of Hartford. The city's
dream has become hers.
"I've actually enjoyed my time here, mostly because of
the friends I've made," she says, snuffing out her cigarette
and heading back inside. "But it's time for a change."