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City tales | The government took and destroyed the homes of Fort Trumbull, but so far the only thing to go up in their place is weeds

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

NEW LONDON, Conn.- Michael Cristofaro stood in a weed-flecked field here and pointed to a stretch of sand between two telephone poles: "The driveway used to go right in here." The driveway used to lead to a Victorian home where Cristofaro's mother cooked Italian dinners for her six children and a yard where Cristofaro's father grew grape vines for his homemade wine.

Now, almost three years after the United States Supreme Court allowed New London to raze the Cristofaros' home in the interests of economic development, there is just a barren acre of land where the neighborhood once thrived. In Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court expanded the local government's power to take private land for public use, redefining "public use" to include the "public purpose" of economic revitalization.

The Supreme Court based its ruling on the "comprehensive character" and "thorough deliberation" of the developer's plan, but the developer has yet to saw a board or drive a nail. Corcoran Jennison has missed each construction deadline so far, and it now faces a May 29 deadline to start construction on the townhouses and apartments that were supposed to replace the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. "They just came right here and ripped everything out," Cristofaro said. "And what did they create? A dust bowl, a giant dust bowl."

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Cristofaro's parents, Pasquale and Margherita, moved to New London from Italy in 1962. Less than 10 years after the Cristofaros arrived, New London took their first home by eminent domain to build a sea wall. The Cristofaros complied because they came from a country where you didn't question the local government. The city never built the sea wall, and a parking lot covers the lot where the Cristofaros' first house once stood.

They moved down the road to a four-bedroom Victorian house in Fort Trumbull, a working-class neighborhood with roots stretching back to the Revolutionary War and where people knew their neighbors and didn't lock their doors. Cristofaro said his father gardened every inch of their half-acre yard, including plants he dug up from their first home and carted to their second since they didn't have a car. When the Cristofaros threw a neighborhood party, they set up picnic tables in a back yard covered with Pasquale's grape vines and flowers. One brother took a birch tree from his own home and transplanted it in Pasquale's yard. "To my father, dirt was gold," Cristofaro said. "Land was very valuable to him."

The Fort Trumbull home housed three Cristofaro generations. Pasquale and Margherita lived there until their family outgrew it, but after they moved they kept the house as a family stepping stone. Two of Cristofaro's brothers lived there with their young families until they outgrew it, too.

In 1997, the Cristofaros gained a neighbor in Susette Kelo, a paramedic who was answering an emergency call when she saw a Victorian house facing the Thames River in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. She walked in and later said, "It was like I had been there all my life." The house was for sale for 10 years-almost as if it were waiting, she said-so she bought it and began to refurbish it. "Everything in the house was new," she remembered, "from the concrete in the floor to the roof and the shingles."

In February 1998, Pfizer, Inc., announced that it was building a global research facility in an area adjacent to the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. In 2000, the New London City Council adopted a development plan to increase tax revenues and bring more jobs to the area. The private, nonprofit New London Development Corporation (NLDC) began to acquire the property it needed for development.

NLDC bought 90 acres and then encountered opposition-the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The corporation offered to buy the Cristofaros' land, but the Cristofaros couldn't bring themselves to sell, even when the price reached $100,000: "It's not for sale for even a million dollars. This is not about money." Kelo felt the same way: "I just couldn't do it."

But the city council gave NLDC the power of eminent domain to take the land anyway. The day before Thanksgiving in 2000, Cristofaro said the sheriff showed up on their doorstep, handed his mother the condemnation papers, and said, "You no longer own this house."

"My mother sat down and she started crying," Cristofaro said. Since her son and his family were living in the Fort Trumbull home, her first question was, "What about my family? What about my son?" Then, "What about our neighbors?" Margherita said they had to fight the condemnation. This was their second tussle with eminent domain, and this time they knew the importance of property rights and also that the government's good plans didn't always come to pass.

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