Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Scovill Homes

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 " 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.


Anonymous said...

Why not acknowledge any of the good things that the City is doing for the North End?

I seem to recall a rather expensive drainage project on Division Street last year and surely the brand new $48 million school on contaminated property off of Griggs St is worth mentioning. And if genuinely you haven't had any sidewalk improvements in the North End neighborhood in your recent memory, I'm certain something is in the works. Call the DPW and ask.

Every neighborhood in Waterbury has the problems you have mentioned (blight, poor sidewalks, drainage problems, and traffic concerns). No one neighborhood gets every single thing fixed, especially when you're focusing your attention on a single street. I'm not sure where you derive this feeling of isolation, but I don't think it's "the City's" fault. I do think you'd have difficulty proving to someone in Waterville or the South End, for example, that your neighborhood is the one that's being ignored.

Anonymous said...

I forgot about the Police Activity League (PAL) Rec Center on Division Street. Surely, that is worth noting.

Waterbury Girl said...

There absolutely are some great things happening in the North End, but I am talking specifically about the Scovill row homes, which have some unique issues. Normally a development like this would be a condo, with condo fees that pay for property maintenance and for an umbrella insurance policy.

The Scovill homes are not a condo development, but each house is attached to the others with only 16 feet between each property line. When I bought my house, I almost couldn't get a mortgage because I had trouble finding an insurance company willing to provide hazard insurance, because there is no guarantee that the attached home(s) are insured. (Rosario Batista at Main Street Insurance, on the corner of West Main and Meadow Streets, was able to find an insurer for me.)

The Scovill residents have been asking for new sidewalks for at least a decade. Last year a woman on Ives Street tripped and broke her hip because the sidewalk was in such disrepair. The city has told us that we essentially can't get new sidewalks, because of the nature of the Scovill row homes. Most of the houses have retaining walls in front of their yards, which would have to be rebuilt during sidewalk construction (according to city officials), therefore they will only take care of the sidewalk problem if every single homeowner signs a waiver allowing the city to demolish their front yards. If even one single resident refuses to sign, the city will not take care of our sidewalks. This is what city officials have told us on more than one occasion. So yes, I will hold the city responsible for that.

The feeling of isolation, if you read again, is not so much a situation of us feeling ignored by the city as it is a feeling of each individual resident feeling like they are on their own even though we have communal property.

I'm not saying the feeling of isolation is anyone's "fault". In fact, I really am not interested in wasting time finding someone to blame for any of our problems. I am interested only in solutions.

ironrailsironweights said...

Wood Street ... years ago my father used to rhapsodize about the Good Old Days growing up on Wood Street in the 1930's and 1940's. He'd make it sound like it was the most wonderful and charming neighborhood imaginable, but eventually would admit that even back then it was rather skanky.


Anonymous said...

Re: 256 Wood vs. Austin House. Unfortunately, 256 Wood is a victim of a poor policy decision in the 1990s. It's not that the city doesn't care, it's that the property itself was tied up with third party tax liens. We do have a process now to get around some of that to a limited extent. If you like, I can see about getting that property on the auction list. We sold another one of the Scovill Homes in a similar auction a year ago.

There is some limited sidewalk work slated for the area this season, but we haven't determined the extent.


Anonymous said...

first, let me applaud you on your very nice web site on Waterbury and in particular on your efforts re the Scovill Homes... i grew up in Waterbury and lived in a Scovill Home on the upper end of Wood St from 1949 until 1967... i lived in a home very nearby the 256 Wood St property you describe, but on the opposite, odd # side of the street... 256 Wood St does not share the 'common ground' between Wood and Ives... the back of 'our' home was on the 'common ground' between Wood and Ives Sts... the 'kids' growing up between Wood and Ives used to call this area 'The Backs'... this is where i learned to play baseball and all the other sports... there was always a 'game' going on in the Backs... we made sure of that... it was a great place to grow up at the time... i went to school at Sacred Heart and also Walsh during this time... the neighborhood was very safe and made up of families of many different ethnic backgrounds... your commentator/contributor 'ironrailsonweights' comment that this neighborhood was 'rather skanky' in the 30's and 40's could have been true during that difficult 'post depression, WWII era' ... i don't know... but 'skanky' was far from the truth during the 18 years i lived there... it was a great place to grow up... keep up your good work...

joan said...

I lived on Wood Street, in a Scoville house from 1942 to 1958. It was great! We used to slide down that "no man's land" hill in winter and on the Fourth of July fathers would put together a fireworks display one block over in vack of the other houses. The beauty of it was we could take a bus downtown or walk and our family members who worked at Scoville could walk to work.
I'd love to write a book that would compile interviews with folks who grew up in those houses while we're still around. Thanks for pursuing your blog. joan