INVISIBLE WALLS Connecticut’s Separate and Unequal Housing

Housing does not simply determine where you live, or what kind of housing you live in. It also determines where you go to school. The story of how housing segregation keeps people of color out of high-performing school districts is well documented. My experience was somewhat different though.

Jamil Ragland

Our neighborhood school was R. J. Kinsella Elementary School. Long before it became a magnet school for the performing arts, Kinsella was another “failing” elementary school in Hartford. My parents decided that I couldn’t go there, not if I wanted an education that would prepare me for my future. Their only choice was to enter me into Project Concern – a program that allowed Hartford students to attend public schools in nearby suburban towns.

I was bused 15 miles away to Latimer Lane Elementary School in the Simsbury school district. My day started at 6  a.m. when I woke up to get dressed, eat breakfast and be driven across town in the morning traffic to the North End, where my bus stop was located on the corner of Blue Hills and Albany Avenues. There were a handful of other children there too. We were the “lucky” ones, the students who were being allowed to transcend our geographical boundaries and see how the other half lived and learned.

I returned home to Van Block Avenue each night. Even if education was the great equalizer, it wouldn’t equalize anything for years. My parents still worked in low wage jobs which made leaving our apartment complex impossible. In that regard, my parents were like so many other parents living in the city.

After my parents divorced, my mother decided we were done living in apartments and being carted around Greater Hartford for a shot at opportunity. The realities of money and racial housing segregation constrained the choices she was able to make. Still, there was one place where it was at least possible to make the dream a reality. That place was Bloomfield.

Bloomfield is one of the main destinations for upwardly mobile Black people moving out of Hartford due to a past racist practice known as blockbusting. As more Black families moved into Bloomfield, real estate agents persuaded white families to move out of homes in integrating neighborhoods, which they then turned around and sold to other Black families. Ultimately, this created a pattern of segregation which is not seen in official statistics of the town’s racial makeup.

Our home was in one of the Black neighborhoods adjacent to Hartford. The home we eventually moved into was almost 90 years old. It lacked many of the amenities of a modern home. But it was a house, with a yard. The neighbors lived in houses with yards too. The street was quiet and safe. Despite its shortcomings, it was miles better than where we’d come from. It was available due to the generosity of our family. The house had belonged to one of my great aunts. When she passed, the house fell to her sister, who leased it to us on extremely generous terms.

After a year of living at that house, my mother had saved enough money to take the next step and buy a home herself. To say that we were excited would be an understatement. Our own home! We moved only a few hundred yards away, but it felt like our new home and the old one was worlds apart. It felt good to be out in the suburbs and lay claim to the trappings of middle-class life that come only with a house in a certain area.

After two years of struggling to make ends meet though, the bank repossessed the house, and we were out on the streets. What followed for the rest of my childhood were years of bouncing between different apartments, houses and family members as we tried to get back on our feet.

The reality of housing insecurity is different than the narrative, where people fall into homelessness due to substance abuse issues, poor money management or some other circumstance which can be dismissed as a personal failing. My mother tried her best and did things the right way to provide for her family. The dream of home ownership remains just that for so many people, constrained by decades of racial and social forces too much to overcome.

Jamil Ragland is a writer living in East Hartford. Read a longer version of his housing story at www.pschousing.org.