March 5, 2008
By Ken Krayeske • 12:15 PM EST
This is the best we can do.
I joined about 40 other people in the Ayslum Hill Congregation Church Monday night for the monthly meeting of the Asylum Hill Problem Solving Revitalization Association (aka the NRZ), a regular ritual of frustration and futility.
This meeting didn't fail to disappoint. Unfortunately, I walked in a few minutes late, which I hate to do. I didn't miss much, though as NRZ chairman Bernie Michel gave the report for HPD Community Service Officer Jim Barrett.
Barrett, who is recently back safe and sound from his National Guard tour of duty in Iraq, unfortunately couldn’t be at the meeting. But if this meeting represents the kind of democracy we are trying to export to Iraq, he's better off in Mesopotamia.
I first heard Agenda Item number two, Judge Curtissa Cofield, who is the presiding judge at the Community Court on Washington Street. She discussed problems on the street and how her court deals with them.
Judge Cofield, Connecticut's first African-American female judge, quoted the great French dramatist Victor Hugo, "Every time you build a school, you close a jail." She rattled off statistics about Connecticut being America’s lead incarcerator of 16-18 black and Latino boys. She seems to understand the cycles of recidivism.
When she opened the floor to questions, Dana Rondel, a local writer and resident, asked Judge Cofield what the court was doing to eliminate poverty, the heart of all these issues.
"Networking," the good Judge said. Talking to Superintendent Stephen J. Adamowski, trying to convince him to change the policy that fails a student for a semester if they have five absences.
That struck me oddly, so Michel let me have a question. I challenged the judge directly – these laws clearly target minorities, they are not statistical anomalies, and perhaps may be labeled genocidal, so how can you sit on the bench and enforce them? Maybe it wasn’t fair of me. As she was leaving, Judge Cofield gave me her card, and she asked me if there was anything she could do for us in the future to let her know.
"Stop enforcing marijuana laws, to start with," I said.
The next topic on the agenda covered the Hartford's plans for the old Mass Mutual complex. The NRZ created a list of statements and conclusions about what it wants to have happen with the building, but it couldn't vote on them.
Despite the fact that 40 people were there, the board didn't have a quorum. Possibly because board member Jennifer Cassidy, Asylum Hill stalwart and City Council Aide for Jim Boucher, snuck out of the meeting during Cofield's presentation.
Following her was City Councilman Matt Ritter, who will be interviewed for an upcoming column. Apparently, they both had tickets to watch the UConn women run up a 20-point win against Rutgers for, ho-hum, their sixteenth regular season Big East basketball title.
Michel said he hoped the Hartford would be at the meeting to tell the neighborhood its plans for the historic structure. But, alas, the corporate giant wasn't. Apparently, we are midway through the 90-day waiting period before they can tear the structure down.
Rebuilding the 1926 Georgian revival now would cost more than $100 million, Michel said, quoting experts like architect Tyler Smith.
"We need more than 90 days, we need more than that amount of time to consider the fate of that building," Michel said. Granted. But corporations don't need that much time, and Mayor Eddie Perez won't step in to stop the destruction.
If it was a priority, his Community Liaison, Glendowlyn Hall, who piped in later in the meeting, might have had something to add here. Experience tells me that historic preservation is worth less than a footnote to Perez.
As part of the education and culture discussion, a professional woman named Jennifer, who refused to divulge her last name, announced that if parents wanted to sign up their kids for Magnet Schools, they had better do it soon because applications are due on March 7.
Apparently, the school system doesn't distribute the applications very well, Jennifer the mystery woman said. The applications are online, but parents who are computer illiterate can't access them, another parent said, this, her peers miss out. Shocking, I know.
Transportation, the next agenda item, proved the show stopper. NRZ regular Jackie McKinney started with an overview about the Aetna Viaduct project, where the state wants to spend $180 million to refurbish the crumbling concrete on the I-84 overpass between Sisson Avenue and Asylum Street.
Like I trust ConnDOT with I-84 after what it did in Cheshire? My thoughts of incompetence interrupted; Bernie Michel's cell phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, glanced at it, and put it away. He's only been president of the NRZ since 2001.
No matter, because McKinney moved swiftly to the marquee topic: the proposed removal of the barriers on Sargeant and Ashley Streets, opening them to east-west traffic, all because St. Francis Hospital is moving its emergency room.
But some 25 or so residents of Sargeant Street showed up at the meeting to voice their displeasure with the proposal.
Jennifer Stephens, a Sargeant Street resident who moved into the city five years ago from Windsor, heeding a call of civic duty, waxed eloquently about not wanting a Sargeant Street speedway from Woodland to Garden. "I see what Homestead Street is like," she said, noting that the city shouldn't bear the burden of all those suburban commuters.
Sargeant Street residents oppose opening the street by a 4-to-1 ratio, said city transportation official Kevin Burnham. Conversely, Ashley Street residents are in favor of opening Ashley by a smaller margin, Burnham said, according to two question survey mailed to residents by the city and the NRZ.
"We came out collectively to say we don't want this," Stephens said. "We want Sargeant Street to stay the way it is. We are willing and ready to fight for our neighborhood."
Michel then congratulated Stephens and the Sargeant Street protestors for coming to the meeting.
"We are part of Asylum Hill too," Michel said. "We invite you to come back. We come to these meetings all the time."
Stephens, I don't think, appreciated Michel’s Johnny-Come-Lately message.
"Who is going to have the final say?" Stephens wondered.
"It won't be us," Michel said.
About there meeting descended into chaotic shouts across the tables. Michel shouted a call for order. City officials Hall and Burnham piped in. They explained that the Mayor was on the community's side. A St. Francis rep added a benign comment, as well.
The survey combined with the "Eddie is listening" line from Hall add up to something that seems an awful lot like pretext to me; the deal is done, St. Francis rules this roost and the streets will open, so live with it. Burnham assured us it was not a slam-dunk, even though the city issues such surveys for projects it has already decided on.
That, and something else, I don't know, maybe like a grand jury investigation into the Mayor's potentially corrupt administration - one that siphons city employees away to New Britain to testify for hours on end - tells me not to believe anything that comes from his office. Ever.
And thus ended this monthly journey into the best Asylum Hill can offer in terms of local governance. More than 300 years of democratic tradition, and we can't even pass a resolution in favor of historic preservation.