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Putnam Heights Revisited

Kerri Provost

February 21, 2011

Due to an overwhelming influx of topix-style comments, which regular readers know are not the norm here, I felt pressured to simply pull the original post about the fire on Putnam Heights. This blog is commercial-free and provides me with no payment for my time and energy. I found that the time required to moderate Thursday’s onslaught of nonsense and offensive comments — not dissent, mind you, but off-topic and irresponsible gibberish — was cutting into the time I spend on my professional work. I have since received some technical help that will allow me to deal with comments more easily — regular readers/commenters will have comments automatically approved, and new ones can wait in a queue until I have time to address them — and without delaying the discussion that most regular readers want to have. I will say that I regret deleting that post, but given the circumstances, it was the best thing for me to do at the time, as I am dedicated to my professional career and to not allowing my blog to be a hang out for LCD comments.

Some of those comments were likely the result of people reacting to something they “heard” was on my blog, but I contend that my meaning was misrepresented; those who read this and who know me know that if nothing else, I do not mince words. The removal of that post was intended as a temporary measure, so as I considered how to rewrite it and include updates (several readers were disappointed, as was I, that the post was removed) I was reminded of why I began blogging here in the first place. Far too often, I have felt that how events are presented in the mainstream news media are not wholly reflective of what ensued. I have been unsatisfied with the usual lack of depth that important issues receive, while more frivolous ones — like analyzing Lady Gaga’s choice of transportation to an award show that does not directly effect the vast majority of readers — is given the analysis we should be applying elsewhere. Beyond this shallow and sometimes inaccurate treatment of news stories, I find that the corporate news media relies too heavily on what so-called officials have to say.

This is where my observations about the fire on Putnam Heights come in. Over the past few days I have been told — from various people in a number of ways — that I was flat out wrong to suggest that there was any delay in the ability for fire trucks to drive down the street. Those informing me that my perspective was incorrect were people who read about this story, watched it on the news, or did not arrive on the scene until later in the evening. It felt maddening to have others attempt to discredit what I had witnessed, and which at least four other neighborhood residents had seen as well. Though I usually carry a camera with me, I had left it at home that evening, and to be quite frank, the thought of photographing or videotaping anything at the time seemed utterly crass, insensitive, and was not on my mind. When a building is engulfed in flames so close to one’s own property, the first thing that comes to mind is to watch that the firefighters are getting it under control — not to stand there and document everything. I did take some photographs the following day, which are included in this post.

A small shrine stands in front of the burned out house. Ash covers the snow throughout the neighborhood. Ash covers the street and sidewalk from where it either fell or was washed away from the water run-off. Days later the air still smells like smoke. A smoke detector still beeps from somewhere. Every single time I look out my back window, I am reminded that a woman, my own age, can die so unnecessarily, so preventably, and that in spite of such sad circumstances, there is an utter lack of compassion from too many people. It was not surprising to hear that a deceased mother was being judged by others who have never — at least not by the tone of their comments — made poor choices during a highly stressful situation in which panicking is easy to do. When the terrorist attacks set the World Trade Center aflame and some hurled themselves to their deaths, these victims were not met with half the harsh criticism as I have been hearing made about someone who decided that her beloved pit bull was worth trying to save.

In the news media, there were mixed reports about this detail. Some claimed she had returned to the house to save her daughter, but in every conversation I have had with neighborhood residents, I have heard otherwise. Most of us should be so lucky that when we make poor choices daily, we do not suffer such horrible consequences.

There were also reports made about how the delay in calling 911 was in part responsible for the severity of the fire. While this may be so, I am curious as to how long of a wait is considered a delay. How many of us have not set something on fire at some point in time, but instead of calling 911 instantly, attempted to put it out on our own and had success at it? I would say most of us have done so. Who has not ruined an ovenmitt but squelched it before anything worse happened? We live in a society where the norm appears to be to blame the victims — and since the only certain and consistent detail so far has been that this fire was not intentionally set — and in this case, there are many victims. There is the woman who died from smoke inhalation. There were at least two cats and a dog that perished. Several families permanently lost their home (and in some cases, all of their possessions) and others were temporarily displaced. The sense of loss in the neighborhood is palpable and I am not sure how to convey this.

When I wrote the original article about this, I was utterly exasperated by the way that my requests for snow removal had been dismissed. I had not stated that the woman died because firefighters were impeded by the snow and ice still on this street, but that this delay in response time could have contributed. It had been two weeks since the last snow/ice event and one would expect streets to be reasonably cleared by that point. One other occasions I had watched school buses execute k-turns because snowbanks in the street at intersections made it impossible to make the turn easily. Nobody parks at the street corners, so the typical “blame the cars” response does not quite work here. Last weekend the city’s massive, sexy, expensive snow blower cleared snow from Putnam Street, but the side streets were not addressed. Herein lies the issue. I am quite aware that all of Connecticut got snowfall; however, not all places received equal plowing. During the last storm, a plow did not ever appear to touch my own street, and by the looks of it, never made it to Putnam Heights either.

On the night of the fire I had walked home from an event and noticed the smell of burning plastic. After a few moments I began to hear a smoke detector. We walked toward the sound to see if we could figure out what was going on. We saw flames in the window of that house, immediately agreed to call 911, but then heard the fire engine sirens. According to Google Directions, it should only take 46 seconds to go the .2 miles from the fire station on Park Street to this location. Even if people waited longer than they ought to have to place a 911 call, these firefighters had little distance to cover and always respond quickly.

As a homeowner and part of this community, I felt invested in checking out what was going on. We walked around the block and arrived before the first firetruck did, which only illustrates that it’s a short walk and that we were on the scene from the start. While one truck seemed to have no trouble negotiating the turn, another opted to stop and let firefighters out at the corner of Putnam Street and Putnam Heights. These men ran down almost the length of the block with axes and equipment in hand while the truck took a few minutes to get around the corner. Others witnessed this happen.

While some parts of the sidewalk were not clear and while there were vehicles parked on the street, what delayed that truck was not an icy sidewalk or cars, but an intersection narrowed by snowbanks. Who knows what effect this had, but as stated before, firefighters do not allow civilians to enter burning buildings. Nobody seems to know when the now deceased woman had re-entered the building, but I contend that anything that would create delays of any kind to firefighters is not acceptable.

The irony in this is that the next day, when some officials began to check out the situation, temperatures rose greatly, melting away a lot of the troubles we had been enduring for weeks. Regardless of any role this may have played in the severity of the recent circumstances, the street conditions here have been shameful and inexcusable. It was not as if the snows at stopped that afternoon. I noticed how the streets and sidewalks in downtown were well cared for, yet over here in el barrio, it still looked like it did when Mayor Segarra declared Hartford to be in a state of emergency.

When residents ask elected officials to do something about the snow, I do not believe anyone is asking for them to magically make it stop snowing. Certainly nobody is asking for all problems to be cured instantly. But Mayor Bloomberg of NYC was denounced when that city was not up and running within 24 hours. Parts of Hartford had been harshly affected for weeks, yet residents are treated with disrespect when we ask about what is being done. Since nobody seems to have any solutions and is better practiced at passing blame, I have a few ideas that the City might perhaps consider:

•Insist that every person employed with the Department of Public Works is doing his/her job correctly. If drivers are told to follow a certain route, but they decide to skip a few streets here and there, then they must be held accountable.

•Plow to the curb and remove snow from intersections. As it has become abundantly clear, when one performs his job with a show of incompetence, and snow builds up with each storm, the situation becomes more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to correct. Streets are narrowed dangerously. Large vehicles have difficulty making turns. People driving small vehicles have obstructed visibility and have to take risks by inching out into a street that has also been narrowed by snow.

•Enforce parking bans. Seriously. It is a privilege, not a right, for people to own cars. Don’t hesitate to assign parking tickets for those who can not be bothered to move their vehicles off the streets. Even if residents do not want to park in the public school lots, they can at minimum negotiate with neighbors who have off-street parking. This will not make you popular, but it will prevent a lot of the nonsense we have seen this winter.

•For those with outstanding tickets or who are repeat offenders, tow their vehicles during parking bans. It does not matter if it is some official’s cousin or girlfriend or whatever — if there is a serious snow storm, get the cars off the streets. If real consequences occur, people will begin to take things more seriously.

•Do what some other cities do. Have a winter-long parking ban. People will not be able to claim they did not know about a declaration because they will not be allowed to park on street at all during the regular snowy season.

•Fine homeowners/landlords who routinely shirk their responsibility to clear sidewalks and hydrants. I have seen a complete lack of political will this winter when I pass certain visible blighted properties. Blight is not just “butt ugly buildings” that ruin the aesthetics of suburban commuters’ drives home. It’s also the inability to walk down half a block without wearing crampons because an absentee landlord has cleared no snow from his property all winter long.

•Listen to resident complaints seriously. If it is not your job to fix it, then politely and respectfully help your constituents find who to bring concerns to. When 311 does not fulfill this need, residents ask others in power. People who are working for the City need to have a basic understanding of who is in charge of what so that residents can have a better quality of life. While some people really want to know about crime, jobs, and schools when considering where to live, others care about quality of life issues.

Why this matters — besides that a fatality can leave people endlessly asking “what if” questions — is that before this fire, there were two reports of others in recent weeks which involved firefighters’ efforts being thwarted by snow/ice conditions on streets, sidewalks, and around hydrants. Is it not worth trying to eliminate some of those “what if” scenarios? But instead of being responsible and checking out the scene or even, God forbid, believing what residents have to say, the initial response to my concerns about street conditions was lacking, to say the least. It goes back to that question about how the news media selects its sources of information. Do we listen to what officials — who were not present — have to say, discounting any varying perspectives that eyewitnesses provide, or do we admit that though residents may not have training in rescue missions, they can make such determinations about at least basic facts from what they see?

I did not see firefighters struggling to access hydrants, but I have heard neighbors testify as much. Because these are people who were there, who had as much of an interest as I did in seeing this fire get under control, and who may have been on the other side of the burning structure from where I was, I believe that this may be a possibility. I trust many of my neighbors more than the officials because they have nothing to lose or gain in conveying such information.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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