How infrastructure improvements can aid inclusive revival
The Brooklyn neighborhood in the south end of Waterbury once was a city within a city, a self-sufficient ethnic enclave, originally with a large Lithuanian population. But like many urban neighborhoods in the state, it was badly wounded by disinvestment and highway construction in the last century. It was left without a single park for neighborhood children.
Soon that will change. Though it is a poor and somewhat shopworn area, it has a very active neighborhood association. That group, led by a woman named Lisa Velez — until she passed away from cancer last year — pushed the city for several years to build a park.
Though it has been delayed by the coronavirus crisis, Brooklyn will get a small park. The city acquired the half-acre site of a former restaurant that had burned down, and completed environmental cleanup earlier this year. Officials are now selecting a designer, and they expect to begin construction in the spring, said Dan Pesce of the Waterbury Development Corporation.
Though it is a small park, it’s a start.
“At least kids won’t have to play basketball in the street,” said Frank Perella, a board member of the Brooklyn Neighborhood Association.
As many cities try to include struggling neighborhoods in their downtown revivals — known as inclusive growth — the Brooklyn park offers two lessons. The first is that focused, well-led neighborhood activism can improve the built environment. The second, which perhaps should be the first, is that the built environment is important.
Inclusive growth is a multi-faceted challenge, made more so by the coronavirus crisis. The primary thrust must be the people — getting the residents of a distressed area the education and training to take some of the jobs coming to the city. But the physical neighborhood, the place where the people live, also is important. If an area can be made safer, functional and attractive, then residents’ lives will improve and, as Perella said, people with choices might choose to live there and even start businesses.
Renovating older urban neighborhoods is hardly a new idea; the post-World War II era has seen a plethora of programs aimed at urban revival. These have had mixed results; the problems persist. But recent years have brought new approaches in at least three areas: blighted properties, environmental justice and street design.
New tools to eliminate blight
Blighted or abandoned properties are millstones around the necks of neighborhoods. Run-down, litter-strewn, dilapidated structures invite crime and public health problems, depress property values and drain city dollars. Almost no one wants to buy a house next to one that is abandoned.
In the past, dealing with such properties has often been a long and frustrating process for city officials. But two companion pieces of legislation passed last year by Connecticut’s General Assembly should expedite things.
One of the new laws allows towns or groups of towns to create land banks: nonprofit entities that can acquire, hold and dispose of properties. The first such program in the state was created this year in Hartford and is headed by Laura Settlemyer, who formerly directed the city’s blight remediation effort.
Using $5 million in seed money from the state and other grants, the land bank will take foreclosed properties off the…