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Jobs & Sticking To The Script; Dispatches From Garden Street

Helen Ubinas

August 07, 2009

Three of Hartford's 21 homicides this year have occurred on Garden Street; another six nearby. Courant columnist Helen Ubinas and photographer Rick Hartford spend the week in and around the North End neighborhood talking to residents about living, and surviving, one of Hartford's tougher neighborhoods. Below are excerpts from her blog.

And on day four . . . Espinoza shows up.

That's Gus Espinoza, from the city's housing department.

Turns out, one of his building inspectors put in a call Wednesday (how's that for a coinkydink) to have the dilapidated porch of 634 Garden taken down.

That's right across the street from Mattie Laird's place.

New England Demolition and Construction was there bright and early to oblige.

Workers told me the thing was rotting.

And then Espinoza came by to take pictures of the neglected property in order to cite the owner - which in this case is apparently the bank.


One down, Gus.

So many more to go.

"There's mad jobs out here . . ."

"Don't let anybody tell you that there's no jobs out here," Rafael Caldero tells me when I stopped to watch him and other workers from New England Construction and Demolition take down that rotting porch on Garden Street this afternoon.

"There's mad jobs out here. It just depends on how bad you want one."

And when Caldero got out of prison at 27 after serving a long stint on drug charges, he wanted one bad. So bad that when the owner of the construction company that maintains and demolishes properties for the city gave him a bum number, he tracked down someone who knew him. And when the owner blew him off a second time, he went looking for him.

"I hunted him down," he says, laughing. And that's how the guys out here have to do it if they really want to change," he said. "But they have to want it."

Look, he tells me, he understands how tempting it is to turn to the easy money on streets like this one. He did it for years.

In fact, there are times he looks at his paycheck at the end of a long, back-breaking week and has to laugh at the realization that he used to make the same amount in just a few hours on the street.

But then, that money mostly went to lawyers to get him out of prison. Or long phone calls to family from the inside. "At some point, all these guys out here have a choice to make. Either they make it for themselves, or it's made for them," he said.

"It's either make $400 or $500 the right way or by watching your back all the time, worrying about the cops or someone else who's looking to get you. So then you have to think, 'Damn is the money really worth it?' " These days, he's up at 5 a.m. and if ever he forgets what's at stake, he just looks at the picture of his 9-year-old daughter that he keeps on his dashboard.

Stick to 'the script'

No one was quite sure why cops stopped and cuffed a man on the corner of Garden and Capen. I asked one officer, who apparently thought I looked like a threat. "Step away from the car."

Another officer kindly informed me it was nothing but a misdemeanor. Fair enough.

"Street speculation was that his biggest crime was getting mouthy with cops. And the guys taking it all in at a nearby convenience store could just shake their heads and comment on the proper way to deal with police.

"You gotta follow the script, man" one said. And what is that?

"Yes, sir."

"No, sir."

"I'm sorry, sir."

"I didn't know I was doing anything wrong, sir."

No garden on Garden

There are plenty of challenges to having a community garden in Hartford's neighborhoods. Just go back a few Dispatches and you'll see that growing some plants is serious, and dangerous, business.

But it seems beyond odd that here in a place called Garden there's no, well, garden.

By my count there are at least a dozen empty lots to put one in.

Maybe with some security measures, some neighborhood commitment, one can thrive here.


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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