by John Dankosky – When Jeff Cohen, WNPR’s exceptional Hartford reporter, told me that he was covering the pending demolition of the Nelton Court housing complex in the city’s North End, I immediately thought of the suburbs.
Nelton Court is, as Jeff describes, “The last of the city of Hartford’s postwar, low-income, federally-financed public housing units,” and it’s been home to thousands of residents over the years. It’s a style of life that’s existed in stark contrast to planned communities and leafy streets only a few miles away in suburbs like Windsor or West Hartford.
Nelton Court has also been a place to buy drugs – for local people, and those from surrounding communities. In 2001, the complex played a small role in a spotlight series I reported for NPR on drug violence in Hartford.
That summer, people in Hartford were mad. Pastors and other activists staged marches through the city’s North End, responding to gang violence that had resulted in the accidental 4th of July shooting of 7-year-old Takira Gaston as she celebrated the holiday with family. Residents said that they wanted to find the shooter responsible for Takira’s injury, and they knew he, or she, was likely involved in small-time drug gang activity in the city.
As Jeff is finding today as he covers the city, these gangs were not part of major, multi-state cartels, but were small groups of loosely affiliated teens – teens with “for real, for real” guns as one young man told me for this 2001 story for NPR’s All Things Considered.
John Rowland – today a talk-show host, and former convict himself – was then a governor with big aspirations for Hartford and for himself politically. He sent in state troopers and parole officers to “sweep the streets” of dealers and their guns. Rowland told me at the time that the Gaston shooting had forced him into action, and that city residents might better “accept” more cops in their community following the high-profile harming of a child. It was the first of several “crackdown” summers in the city.
But some residents balked at the idea that this was a “Hartford problem” alone. They started asking questions about who’s really fueling the drug economy that’s bringing violence to their doorsteps. The Rev. Cornell Lewis, a long-time city activist, used the police report of a drug bust at Nelton Court to find some very interesting names. Nearly 70% of those arrested came from outside the city, in towns like Glastonbury. “We just want to know why someone from an affluent suburb would be caught up down at Nelton Court,” Lewis told me for this story on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered.
Lewis loaded up a couple dozen activists onto a bus (a few having driven into the city in Volvos from the suburbs) and took the group to a cul-de-sac in Glastonbury, where he staged a full-on, bullhorn-driven march past big one-family homes. As you can hear from the introduction to the NPR story, the movie Traffic was still very much a cultural touchstone, with one of its intersecting plot-lines focused on rich (and annoying) white high schoolers scoring drugs from a stereotypical city dealer.
The whole event was a staged affair. And, in hindsight, my report reads like a bit of a love letter to the Rev. Lewis. But it did present a rare chance to explore the relationships between the city and surrounding communities, and how suburban drug use impacts urban residents.
Tearing down Nelton Court won’t change it’s history as a place where wealthy teenagers could find easy access to drugs. But replacing the old, barracks-style buildings with 80, nicer apartments will change the environment for the people who live there. As resident Evelyn Cortez told Jeff Cohen, “The way I’ve seen how everything’s going to change, because I’ve seen the maps of how they’re going to do Nelton Court, I will decide to come back.”
(Note of apology: The audio for my NPR stories pre-dates their current web system. You’ll have to click on “Real Media” on each page to listen.)