Artist Enox Shabbaz begins a street mural in the Beman Triangle area of Middletown. The project has since been modified to comprise new crosswalks. Sacha Armstrong Crockett

In 1847 Middletown was the birthplace of one of the first all-Black-owned subdivisions in Connecticut. Cesar Beman purchased a triangled shaped lot, subdivided and sold off 11 lots to other freed Black people in a spot which was later named The Beman Triangle.

The triumph of these new homeowners was a test of faith and social constructs. They weren’t a generation away from slavery; they represented the formerly enslaved in Connecticut. They were defiant, steeped in love of God and love of their people. They understood that owning a home is the foundational pathway to develop wealth.

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Yet despite that hopeful history, today Middletown is grappling with housing segregation and an impending Black housing crisis if action isn’t taken. In the 19th Century the Beman family and Middletown’s newly founded A.M.E. church proved that land is power, even if it’s the “dead swamp” that white people didn’t want. Now, local organizers hope honoring the ancestors who once built this all-Black community will help inspire a new path home in Middletown today.

The 2023 Data Haven Equity report shows that Black residents in Middletown are twice as likely as whites to be housing-cost burdened. A cost burdened household spends more than 30% of its income on rent and utilities. A previous report in 2021 classified 59% of Middletown’s Black population as renters, while only 18% of white residents rent. The 2023 report shows white and Latino homeownership either maintaining or increasing by 1 point. While Black homeownership data was not available for ages 18-64, the 65+ community showed a decrease of 17%.

In other words, if you’re Black in Middletown you’re more likely to be a cost-burdened renter with limited areas of town for your rental options. You may also be burdened with additional systemic issues like lower incomes, generational land loss via land theft or the subprime crisis, redlining or an illegal eviction or having no familial experiences with homeownership altogether. Rent is at an all-time high, the low housing market inventory and interest rates just add more affordability barriers to the preexisting ones many Black homebuyers already experience.

Sacha Armstrong-Crockett Yehyun Kim

This is personal to me because I was raised in Middletown. All the data has real faces and real stories attached. The solutions and strategies created to close these gaps have to be as forceful and pointed as the ones that got us here. The enduring effects of Middletown’s generational opportunity hoarding and racialized wealth building systems have been amplified by COVID. The result of ignoring this will ultimately be a more exaggerated housing segregation crisis in Middletown.

Just like the Beman family, we have to think local. What can a small, diverse municipality do to make housing more equitable and homeownership more than just a dream for its most under-resourced and underserved populations? It turns out there are some practical, achievable steps we can take:

  • Expand the affordable housing supply:
    • Approve more accessory dwelling units in areas of town with limited rentals. This opens opportunities for Black households to live in parts of town with more resources, potentially higher performing schools, parks, trails and overall better quality of life
    • Create micro home communities. Smaller homes have smaller price tags which could help ease the wage gap barrier for Black homeowners
    • Redevelop existing, unused city real estate into new affordable housing options 
  • Offer free fair housing education with a restorative approach. Discrimination can come into every aspect of housing for Black people from signing a lease to obtaining a mortgage. Fair housing education and asset mapping to local financial resources could offer resolution and ease common housing issues.
  • Tell the truth; provide racial demographics in the Affordable Housing Plan. You can’t fix a problem you’re not willing to study.
  • Invest and partner with Black-led organizations rooted in anti-racism work to take the lead in organizing town forums, community town halls around the state of Black housing 
  • Create incentives for local banks to create special purpose credit programs (SPCPs) which provide credit with favorable terms to residents from underserved and historically disadvantaged communities. In 2019 Middletown-based Liberty Bank entered into a $15 million settlement of redlining charges. It’s time for the oldest bank in the state to invest in their hometown. Owning their role in a flawed housing finance system can look like launching a down payment assistance program that specifically targets buyers of color like Bank of America’s Community Affordable Loan. That program offers loans with no minimum credit score qualification but is only available in Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte, Dallas and Los Angeles.

Today The Beman Triangle is home to Wesleyan students as their campus housing. The town’s Anti-Racism Task Force recently chose Rise-Up and local artist Enox Shabazz to lead a beautification project in the triangle.

His initial plan for a street mural has been modified: the eventual project, due to be finished next month, will include three Beman-inspired Black Lives Matter crosswalks. Enox beautifully connected how BLM and The Beman Triangle intersect.

The artist eloquently tells a story through his art. Vibrant triangle-shaped roses rise up into the light of the sun from the once-dead swamp surrounded by the A.M.E. gravestones of our local ancestors. The bright pan-African colors of red for the bloodshed, black for people, green for the fertile land and yellow to represent the riches of our homeland will replace the once-white crosswalk lines.

Enox shared that “it felt almost spiritual” working in this historical town space that’s overdue for its proper recognition and preservation. “A beautiful black monarch [butterfly] landed right on the gravestone…really told me I was doing a great job,” said Enox.

Since 1847 countless obstacles and man-made barriers have made home ownership only a dream for the majority of Black Americans. When majority-white Connecticut towns had a crumbling foundation issue there was a swift resolution and government intervention. Black people’s foundation has been crumbling for years, the cracks are widening and the support structure is rotten. The gap between Black and white homeowners has reached its largest divide in 10 years.

Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University

Calling on the ancestors for help is in my roots. We are calling on the Beman family. This beautification project is more than just crosswalks. It’s honoring the uplifting work of this family, its space-claiming for Black folks and inspiration for all.

It’s also a deeply jarring reminder that it’s unlikely that anyone in the Black community could achieve the same thing today if they wanted to.

Sacha Armstrong-Crocket is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.