DATELINE: CONNECTICUT

The beast creeps up on the beauty

Rita Christopher December 14 1981
DATELINE: CONNECTICUT

The beast creeps up on the beauty

Rita Christopher December 14 1981

The beast creeps up on the beauty

DATELINE: CONNECTICUT

Rita Christopher

Americans burnish giltedged dreams of Connecticut, the promised land where executives in grey flannel suits and monogrammed attaché cases are met at the railway station by slim, blond women in tennis dresses; where a dip in the family pool and a double martini before dinner are as integral a part of life as docksider moccasins, au-pair girls and the elegant coolness that high-WASP upbringing imparts. Affluent New Yorkers believe divine providence placed Connecticut’s green meadows and classic New England villages a mere two hours from midtown Manhattan in special recognition of the need of tension-fatigued city residents to unwind at weekend watering holes.

Yet behind this cherished illusion, Connecticut (population, 3,107,576) suffers from the same intractable problems of race discrimination and poverty, the same urban blight and the same industrial pollution as does the rest of the industrial northeast. Beneath the illustrious patina that Yale University gives to New Haven, the city noted for innovative approaches to urban design 20 years ago, now struggles with dilapidated housing and an unskilled under-class. Similar problems plague other metropolitan areas from the capital of Hartford to Waterford and Bridgeport. Connecticut’s problems

are compounded by

its identity crisis.

“This state has to decide whether it wants to be part of New York or New England,” says Richard Mooney, former executive editor of The Hartford Courant.

Creeping urban

growth has left the state with an estimated 3,800 working farms, down from 4,500 in 1969, and two months ago the historic Danbury fairgrounds were plowed under to make way for a shopping mall.

In the once agricultural communities of

Meriden and Scotland, the biggest events of the past year were Ku Klux Klan rallies attracting, to be sure, more reporters and television cameras than local sympathizers.

The Connecticut Yankee, the hardy figure of New England legend as popularized by Mark Twain, has all but disappeared in his native haunts. The state

has the second largest Italian population and one of the largest Roman Catholic populations in the U.S. In addition, the state has significant pockets of ethnic population ranging from Polish to Portuguese. “Everybody is still very nice to us” says retired insurance executive John Alsop, whose ancestors were among Connecticut’s earliest settlers, “but there are just a few of us Yankees left. We are a dying breed.” Nonetheless, stereotypes die hard. “If you say Connecticut, people think of something like Mystic Seaport,” says Thirman Milner, referring to the famous restoration of a 19th-century seafaring village. “In the media version of this state there are only quaint towns—never any minorities.” Milner knows better. Recent balloting in Hartford (population, 136,392) made him the first popularly elected black mayor in New

1 England. The city he inherits is “about 50 per cent black and Hisópame. “It was likely a process of turban spillover from New York ^ City,” says Prof. Everett Ladd of

2 the University of Connecticut. “Whatever is down there ultimately comes up the railroad tracks to Connecticut.”

The current plight of Hartford’s minority population is obvious to anyone who drives down garbage-strewn Albany Avenue in the city’s north end. Grown men sip pint bottles in paper bags, and teenagers nod out in the abandoned hallways of decaying houses. The city has one of the fastest growing crime rates in the nation, and Nicholas Carbone, a former city council leader, maintains that 40 to 60 per cent of the city’s residents subsist on government transfer payments, from food stamps to welfare. z“The people I deal °with have no real ^identification with Connecticut,” says Ned Coll, who heads a poverty organization in the north end. “They don’t feel a part of the state. They

only feel a part of their problems.”

Still, greater Hartford could hardly be classed as depressed. The downtown area, in fact, is undergoing a major construction boom. The city has the economic muscle provided by the headquarters of giant insurance companies such as Aetna Life & Casualty and such highly visible multinationals as the high-technology conglomerate United Technologies Corp. “We have industry here, but it’s not helping the poorest residents,” maintains Coll. “The city core is gutted out. People get on the highway, come in to work from the sub-

urbs and get back on the highway to go home. As far as the city of Hartford goes, the commuters are nonexistent.” To dramatize the distance between ghetto life and the flourishing business community, Mick Carbone has put together a slide show he calls “The Tale of Two Cities.” “The corporate city works fantastically well”, says Carbone, “but in the north end we’ve really gone from simply a crisis to a prolonged degenerative disease.”

Only too aware of the problems, Mayor Milner nonetheless hopes the very fact of his election will make some

difference. “You know what happens? They see in Washington that a black man has been elected mayor and then somebody says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, that city must be in really terrible shape,’ and they start throwing money and programs your way,” he says optimistically. While that may have been true in the past, Reagan administration budget cutting makes extra federal help for Hartford, a traditionally Democratic city, highly unlikely.

To make matters worse, Connecticut has lost its strongest national political voices. During the glory days of the Kennedy brothers, when Connecticut’s John Bailey was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the state had political clout that belied its status as the third smallest in the union. Bailey’s protégés included such national figures as U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff and representative, later governor, Ella T. Grasso. But Bailey died of cancer in 1975, Ribicoff has retired from the Senate, and Ella Grasso, one of the most impressive vote-getters in Connecticut history, died of cancer shortly after resigning in the middle of her second term as governor last January. Adding to the Democrats’ woes, Congressman Robert

Giamo of New Haven, who chaired the powerful House Budget Committee, also retired last year, and another senior Connecticut congressman, William Cotter, died of cancer in August. At one of the funerals that are becoming all too familiar for Connecticut’s Democrats, Frank Donovan, a longtime observer of the political scene, recalls an employee of the Democratic State Central Committee lamenting publicly on the roll of the dead: “We’re losing them—and we’re not even losing them to Republicans.”

The loss of Governor Grasso, known throughout the state as Ella, has proven particularly hard to absorb—both emotionally and politically. Despite her quick temper and a fine command of invective, even Republicans like John Alsop admit, “Ella has achieved the status of a saint.” Barbara Bailey Kennelly, Connecticut’s secretary of state and daughter of the late John Bailey, explains, “Ella held this state together.” That is more than her successor, former Lt.-Gov. William O’Neill, a tavern owner who rose through the state legislature, has been able to do. “He’s a modest man doing a modest job,” says Richard Mooney, and even supporters like Kennelly’s executive assistant, Robert Croce, accord him only such lukewarm praise as, “He’s getting better.” Faced with a projected budget gap of some $121 million, the hapless governor may have to violate Connecticut’s most honored political taboo by imposing a state income tax. (Connecticut is one of the few states that does not have such a levy.) Last month, at the beginning of a special state legislative session called to deal with the budget problems, O’Neill suffered a mild heart attack, undoubtedly further undermining his leadership.

No amount of political confusion, however, seems able to slow the corporate boom in Fairfield County, the section of Connecticut closest to New York city. In 1967, Fairfield County boasted the headquarters of only two companies on the Fortune 500 list. Now it has 25 such financial giants, including Xerox Corp., The Singer Co. and Champion International Corp. Downtown Stamford, where new headquarters crowd cheek by jowl along Interstate 95, has become a monument to the excesses of modern corporate architecture. Instead of an uncomfortable commute on the aging New Haven railway, executives drive to work from such exclusive enclaves as Westport and Greenwich, where modest homes can start at $250,000 and more lavish estates defy both imagination and mortgage rates. “When you say you are from Connecticut, all people ever say is ‘Oh, yes, Greenwich,’ ” laments John Alsop, a resident of the Hartford suburb of

Avon. “I tell them that there’s a whole state out there beyond Greenwich.” Indeed, many Connecticut residents believe their state doesn’t really begin until you cross the Fairfield County line. Frank Donovan, who admits he gets to Boston’s Fenway Park for ball games several times a year, gives the litmus test for separating a true New Englander from a transplanted New Yorker who lives in Fairfield County because it’s quicker to get to the tennis courts: “There’s a bump on the road, and on one side they root for the New York Yankees, on the other side we New En-

glanders root for the Boston Red Sox,” he explains.

However difficult it may be to forsake Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s histrionics, Connecticut’s “gold coast” will have to develop a greater recognition of the state’s problems, from the slums of Bridgeport right under the very noses of affluent Fairfield County residents to the chronic unemployment of machine tool workers in the onceprosperous Naugatuck River valley, if the state is to avoid the kind of endemic economic and social ills that beset its neighbors. State economic planners

foresee growth in such highly technical areas as computer software and micro chips, but it is doubtful that such complex industries will offer entry-level jobs for unskilled minority youths from the slums of Hartford and New Haven. No one argues Connecticut’s ills are yet unmanageable. Some observers feel the gloom and doom, in fact, are highly premature. “It’s like the mouse that saw its first dog and thought it was an elephant because he had heard so much about them,” says Homer Babbige, president of the Hartford Graduate Center. “I think we’ve heard so much about other areas we are overreacting to our own situation.” But Barbara Bailey Kennelly, running for the congressional seat left vacant by William Cotter’s death, feels Connecticut is at a crucial point in determining whether it will face severe economic decline or hold its own against the burgeoning Sun Belt states. “We’re right on the head of the pin. Connecticut could go either way right now,” she says. “And we don’t have the luxury of time. What happens in the ’80s will tell what our next 50 years will be like.”