A story built on property rights and eminent domain

Susette Kelo outside her Connecticut house, which became a protest symbol. Susette Kelo outside her Connecticut house, which became a protest symbol. (Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times)
By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2009
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A month ago, the MBTA added the name "West End" to the Green Line stop previously known only as "Science Park." As the Globe's story noted, it has been 50 years since bulldozers demolished the brick tenements of that Boston neighborhood, the homes of 7,000 people, to clear land for the urban renewal project that became Charles River Park.

For readers with long memories, that story should resonate as they take up "Little Pink House," Jeff Benedict's well-paced account of the destruction of a long-established neighborhood in New London, Conn., to clear land for a planned - but still incomplete - redevelopment project.

In 1997, the "little pink house" of Benedict's title had just been purchased (and painted in a pinky rose) by Susette Kelo, when the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced plans to build a global research and development headquarters on a site on the Thames River that included her neighborhood. What ensued was an eight-year struggle that brought the entwined issues of property rights and eminent domain to the US Supreme Court in 2005, and into the national consciousness.

Benedict, an investigative journalist who grew up in eastern Connecticut, came late to the story, five months after the court had ruled against the homeowners. Forced to reconstruct the story from interviews, Benedict was fortunate in being able to build his account around Kelo, a very private nurse in her 40s who developed into a most combative fighter for her rights - "the poster child" for the eminent-domain fight, as the city's mayor put it.

The legal issues at stake are somewhat downplayed by Benedict, and his morality play revolves around a good-guy/bad-guy cast, each side equally intransigent and determined to resist whenever a compromise appears in the offing.

Leading off for the purported bad guys was Claire Gaudiani, the ambitious president of Connecticut College who also chaired the New London Development Commission. The Pfizer development with its attendant hotel and high-end housing - and a state park at the restored Fort Trumbull - was to be her landmark, the author writes. To that end, the long-dormant commission was revived with a promise of $100 million in state money and, not too surprising in a Navy town, with a recently retired admiral as its chief operating officer, working with Gaudiani.

Among the purported good guys was Reid McCluggage, publisher of the New London Day, who was turned off by Gaudiani's aggressive charm campaign. With his strong backing, reporters from the Day broke damaging stories about the development commission's actions.

And there's the "irresistibly unpredictable" Billy Von Winkle, another neighborhood property owner, who scavenges the development commission's dumpster to retrieve incriminating documents.

The homeowners prove considerably more difficult to remove than the development commission had imagined, stalling the project through legal challenges, public protests, and just plain stubbornness. After the bulldozers finally move in, three years after the project had first been proposed, the homeowners got the support of the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that had recently won a New Jersey case against the taking of private homes for an Atlantic City casino.

Benedict tracks the story as it moves through the courts, ultimately to the Supreme Court in 2005.

Even if the homeowners had prevailed, most of the houses had already been demolished. Gaudiani herself had been forced to resign in the wake of a faculty revolt over her support for the bulldozing of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

And, by then, a certain sense of fatigue had set in, allowing Governor M. Jodi Rell, who had succeeded the disgraced pro-development John Rowland, to move toward a too-long-thwarted compromise over the New London properties. In reaction to the Supreme Court decision, a number of states have acted to protect property rights.

Kelo has moved, just across the river, but as for her little pink house, it has been moved and reconstructed by the Institute for Justice. As Benedict reports, "it remains an emblem of the fight [for property rights] waged in Fort Trumbull and other places throughout the country."

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

LITTLE PINK HOUSE: A True Story of Defiance and Courage By Jeff Benedict

Grand Central, 397 pp., illustrated, $26.99

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