A True Story of Defiance and Courage
I often listen to audiobooks when I’m in my car. This stop-and-go ‘reading’ means that it often takes me several weeks to plow through a single book. By last Thursday, I was already hooked by the audio version of Jeff Benedict’s Little Pink House. The weekend was fast approaching. I didn’t have much driving/reading time planned, but I couldn’t wait to finish the book. So, I picked up a hardcover copy, which I then devoured in two marathon sessions.
As soon as I put the book down for the last time, I contacted Benedict. He readily agreed to answer questions but cautioned that he is in the middle of a book tour and his time is not his own. Ordinarily, I like to toss out short, insightful questions, giving interviewees many opportunities to share their views. Because of Benedict’s time crunch and the need to give some background, this interview, regrettably, has longer questions and shorter answers. Rather than delay or forgo the interview entirely, I settled for this imperfect format. The issue of eminent domain is both critical and timely.
Little Pink House is the complex human story behind one of the most controversial Supreme Court cases of recent history - Kelo v. City of New London. It follows a group of blue-collar Connecticut homeowners set on a collision course with powerful forces in government and private industry. Benedict’s tour de force weaves the actions and motivations of all the major players into a seamless tableau spanning nine years. I couldn’t put it down!
First, a little background
Dr. John Mullin gave expert testimony in the Kelo case. He evaluated 100 similar, recent projects and concluded that it was “very uncommon” to destroy all existing housing. In fact, the only other instance in all New England was a Bridgeport, CT, project site which was so badly contaminated, it needed a massive clean-up.
That was not true in New London. The homeowners did not oppose economic development or resist it in order to get rich. They just wanted to stay in their homes. And,the plaintiffs’ property was only 2% of the total 90-acre project. It seems that the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), the city, and the state were more interested in overpowering their adversaries than in listening to their concerns or seeking a compromise.
Six plans drawn up for consideration by the NLDC. Only one incorporated the existing neighborhood homes. It was drawn up by John Steffian, a local resident, who had been Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Maryland. He deemed the NLDC’s plan to demolish all the homes completely unnecessary. His alternate proposal was drawn up late in 1999, released to the media, and sent to the NLDC. You report: “No one at the NLDC cared to see Steffian’s design - not Claire, not Goebel, not Percy. A staffer merely stuffed the plan in a file cabinet.” (p. 139)
Was this a major missed opportunity? Does this imply that the acrimony, polarization, and tremendous cost generated by the state’s actions was all unnecessary?
Jeff: Certainly a great deal of money was wasted. However, had a compromise been reached – and there were ample opportunities for compromises that would have avoided the end result – then the money invested by the state would have been well spent. Ego and hubris trumped reason and practicality.
What in particular hooked you on this story, Jeff?
Jeff: Compelling characters, a story with great arc, and so many moving parts.
I agree. And it’s fascinating to witness Susette Kelo’s transformation into an effective spokesperson for a movement.
I know that all of the homeowner plaintiffs have left New London. When you went back afterwards to get people’s stories, were feelings still strong?
Jeff: Yes. Emotions and anger were still raw …very raw.
Did you anticipate the amount of cooperation that you got from the various factions?
Jeff: I go into every project realizing that one of my most important objectives is to gain people cooperation, which really means gaining people’s trust.
You were clearly successful. The revealing personal details you include could only have come from those involved. A few poignant examples that stuck in my mind: Susette grew up so poor that her mother made her mittens out of socks. They ate two meals a day, breakfast and supper. She discovered what lunch was on her first day of school. Her nemesis, Claire Gaudiani, set her alarm each day for 4AM. She’d climb out of bed, put on her makeup, and get back in bed, so that she'd be at her best when her husband awoke. With a few well-chosen words, you offer a glimpse into what makes these people tick.