Wednesday, September 01, 2010
We're a few years away from the 100th anniversary of the construction of Scovill Manor, or, as they're known now, the Scovill row homes in the North End. Like the city's Municipal Building, also nearing its centennial anniversary, the homes have fallen into disrepair.
Last year I began attending meetings of the Scovill Homes Association and have subsequently gained a lot of insight into the problems we face. In no particular order, the problems include the following:
1. The Scovill Homes Association was very nearly defunct after an effort to acquire grant funding to restore the houses fell apart. The details of what happened aren't entirely clear to me--there are some pretty serious allegations of wrong-doing--but the end result is that the SHA fell apart. It's been sustained on life support by acting officers. On the upside, I think the SHA is making good strides towards getting back on its feet. Patricia Sockwell, in particular, is making good things happen.
2. Neighbors bicker and squabble and nitpick, letting their personal differences and grudges get in the way of working together to make our neighborhood better for everyone.
3. Many people in other parts of the city look at my neighborhood and see only crime and blight. As a result, this neighborhood is treated differently. A month or so ago, I had to get out of bed around midnight, when I had to wake up for work early the next morning, to go ask someone to turn down the volume on their car stereo. The owner of the car was very apologetic, and explained that he doesn't live in this neighborhood, he just comes here to "hang out."
4. Isolation. I look at my neighbors and I see a lot of good people doing their best to take care of their homes, but on their own. All of them are frustrated--they do what they can, but they can't do it all on their own. One of my neighbors sweeps the sidewalk every morning. Another neighbor spent three days cleaning up the alley behind her house. Some of my neighbors are elderly and can't maintain their property.
5. A certain portion of the Scovill homes is a sort of no-man's land. The area behind the rows was originally intended as a play area for children (which is why there is no playground here). When cars came along, some of those areas became parking. On older maps, the area between Wood and Ives Streets (seen below) was still Scovill property decades after the row homes were built. Scovill is now gone, but the ownership of the property is in limbo. As a parking lot, it is communal property, but no clear owner means no one is responsible for maintaining it. One of my neighbors, a renter, takes it upon himself to keep it as clean as he can, but it's too large for one man to maintain on his own.
6. Slumlords are another problem. While many of the Scovill homes are owner-occupied, many others are rental units. A few of the landlords do a respectable job of maintaining their properties, but most don't care (see point no. 3 above).
7. Abandoned properties are a big part of the problem. There are more than a few Scovill homes that are abandoned. Take, for example, 256 Wood Street. It's been abandoned for years. Children have broken the windows and last year broke in the front door (and, yes, it was children, not junkies). The property has unpaid tax bills dating back to at least 1997, totaling more than $20,000. The Mayor's aide, Steve Gambini, was recently quoted in the newspaper as saying that "...in Waterbury, you can’t get out of [paying taxes]." I'm not seeing anything to support that claim. (On a side note, that quote was in reference to the city auctioning off the Austin House because the owner has $13,000 in back taxes owed, even though she is working on paying off her debts. Hello! What about 256 Wood Street, which has more than that owed in back taxes?!?! Maybe this goes back to point no. 3, maybe the city simply doesn't care about this neighborhood.)
8. While I'm on the topic of whether or not the city cares about this neighborhood (so it wasn't that much of an aside after all), I'm going to have to mention the degree to which this neighborhood feels abandoned by the city. First, however, I want to emphasize that Mike Gilmore and his team have been very responsive to requests from the Scovill Homes Association to help us clean up the neighborhood. But we are still left with other problems: sidewalks that are in such terrible condition they are dangerous (do we need a million dollar injury lawsuit to get them fixed?); lack of drainage causing further decay of the sidewalks; blighted properties at the school bus stop; and dangerous intersections that could be made safe by simply adding more stop signs.
Those are the more immediate problems. There are other issues that we can't even begin to address (like the porches enclosed in cheap vinyl) until we fix these problems. We've been making progress, but it's been slow. I think the biggest problem is the feeling of isolation, that we're struggling entirely on our own. That sense of isolation leads to crippling frustration. It makes people want to give up. It's going to take a lot of energy and a lot of noise and a lot of effort to counteract that frustration, but I think we can do it. We just have to keep trying.