Seeing whether good fences make good neighbors

Yesterday, I went to look at the fence that separates the city of Hamden from West Rock, which is home to New Haven’s most desolate and dilapidated public housing projects — a gray and profoundly depressing monotony of unit after unit of abandoned public housing.

Last week, the mayor of New Haven and the mayor of Hamden met to discuss the future of the fence, and whether it could be torn down. I wanted to see the fence and the two communities it separates for myself.

In Hamden, I expected to find a community full of upper and middle class white people determined not to let the ghetto encroach upon their way of life. Why? I don’t know. Maybe in my mind oppressors only come in one color.

But the truth, as I found, is far more complicated. It literally ranges the entire visible light spectrum.

First, we drove down the West Rock side of the fence. We drove past the children playing between cement housing units with “Suck me —-” scrawled in large letters on the sides. We drove past the dumpster overflowing with bag after bag of garbage that no one felt compelled to pick up. We drove past the broken glass of beer bottles crushed into patches of grass.

Finally, we reached the fence.

It was green and massive and tall and I definitely could not jump over it. Peering through the cracks, I could see Hamden on the other side. The houses were painted blue and brown, with brightly colored swing sets on the front lawns — the kinds with slides and see-saws attached. We drove back to where we could cross into Hamden and drove alongside the fence. The fence encircles the projects, separating them from Hamden. We followed the fence to Fawn Ridge, a nice Hamden street with very large nicely kept homes that all had two or three cars parked in the front.

I began to knock on doors and talk to people.

Everyone had something to say about the fence.

Harold, a black man, opened the first door. I was surprised — I expected a white man. Harold, who works for the post office and has two cars, a small daughter and one of the colorful swing sets, asks me if he can be honest.

“With the type of community over there, the fence is definitely a good thing,” he says.

He doesn’t want the kids on the other side of the fence near his kids. They use profanity, throw rocks at the dog and have absolutely no respect for anyone or anything, he says.

Harold doesn’t understand why the kids don’t see the value of the fence. They try to destroy it every summer, forcing the Hamden homeowners to rebuild it. Two summers ago, the kids burned it down.

Ron, the son of West Indian immigrants and an educational psychologist at a high school in inner-city Waterbury, keeps paying for the fence to be rebuilt.

“I don’t have a fence with any of my other neighbors,” he says. “But with neighbors who don’t understand boundaries there is a privacy issue and a safety issue.”

Children from the other side of the fence have thrown rocks at Ron’s house and have stolen a briefcase and patio furniture. And they keep destroying the fence.

Ron, being an educational psychologist, cares about the people on the other side. He just thinks he has the right to enjoy his property.

He, like Harold, attributes the kids’ behavior to a lack of respect, a lack of priorities, a lack of discipline and to arrogance. He, like Harold and the others, believes that the kids destroy the fence — kick it, tear at it and burn it –because they are bad kids. Why do the kids behave this way?

“Isn’t that the million dollar question?” he asks. “It has nothing to do with socioeconomics. These parents don’t teach their kids boundaries or respect.”

Jeff, a black machinist, who, like many West Rock residents, works in Hamden, lives on a street in which all of the units are boarded up. He walks to work every morning through a hole in the fence near Rock View. It takes him 20 minutes.

“You wanna know how long it takes without that hole?” he asks me. “It takes two hours.”

But the hole doesn’t solve all of Jeff’s problems. Hamden policemen often stop black men walking on the Hamden side of the fence and ask to see ID. Those living on the West Rock side, or without ID, are often given trespassing citations and forced to appear in court. The charges are always dismissed but West Rock residents are interrogated, harassed and sometimes locked up, according to Jeff.

“It’s worse for the elderly,” Jeff says. They are too old to walk the mile or mile and a half it takes to get to the supermarket. Instead, they are forced every week to spend an hour and a couple precious dollars on the bus to the Green, before they can transfer and get to the super-market for groceries.

Jeff believes that the fence should have come down a long time ago.

“They think everyone who lives here steals and does drugs. That’s just a stereotype. It’s not true.”

Do good fences make good neighbors? “No. Fences between neighbors are OK. You can’t block out a whole community. That is just wrong.”

A fence has separated West Rock from the rest of the world for at least the last 30 years. It has helped create an abandoned desolate ghost-town on one side and a bewildered group of Latino and black middle class families who never expected to be the oppressors on the other.

Is the problem that the kids in West Rock don’t know enough about boundaries, or that they know far too much about them? And is it race that poses the ultimate obstacle to equality, or is there something else, inherent to the capitalism that our society embraces?



Shonu Gandhi is a junior in Saybrook College.

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