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To Live And Die In New London
March 14, 2006: This morning brought a mailing from Michael Cristofaro in New London, Connecticut. It contained a link to a newspaper story about the death of Wilhelmina Ciavaglia Dery, an 88 year old resident of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood in New London. Also this comment by Michael: "At least she spent her last days in the house she loved."

Like Michael Cristofaro, Wilhelmina Dery was one of a group of Fort Trumbull residents who fought to save their property from being seized via eminent domain. With help from the Castle Coalition, they made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The land grab was launched by New London's municipal government, the quasi-public New London Development Agency (NLDC), local corporate biggie Pfizer Pharmaceutical, and assorted state officials. The latter included corruption convicted X Governor John Rowland and his equally sullied chief of staff, Peter Ellef. The grand plan was to bulldoze Fort Trumbull and replace it with an upscale development of offices and condos which would enhance the facilities of nearby Pfizer.

In June, 2005, the effort by Fort Trumbull's resistors to save their homes was met with the Supreme Court's infamous "Kelo v. New London" decision. But though the battle was lost, the war was just beginning. The American public, in overwhelming numbers, responded with revulsion to the ruling. And in New London, what should have been a cake walk for landgrabbers, turned into a long march through a mine field of public scorn, local legal wrangles and political ramifications.

But that's another story.

With her abiding attachment to place, Wilhelmina Ciavaglia Dery was an increasingly uncommon sort of American. The Ciavaglias immigrated to New London from Italy in the 1890's. Wilhelmina (some called her "Mina") was born in 1918 at 87 Walbach Street in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. She married her husband, Charles Dery, in 1945 and they moved into the very same house. When one of their sons married, the Derys gave him the house next door as a wedding gift. Until 1995, Wilhelmina, Charles, and their sons operated Ciavaglia's Market, a small neighborhood grocery store. When Wilhelmina Dery died on March 13th, she did so in the house where she was born and had lived all her life.

Over the years Fort Trumbull experienced the kind of changes common to blue collar neighborhoods in former industrial cities. But when Fort Trumbull became tired and worn, the Derys, like a number of other residents, hung on in the neighborhood and homes they loved and kept their properties well maintained. That their loyalty and perseverance was rewarded with the threat of being ejected by their own government wielding the power of eminent domain was a great injustice. Of a sort that is not uncommon.

When the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) filed briefs in support of the homeowners of Fort Trumbull with the Supreme Court re Kelo v. New London, they stated that eminent domain abuse falls "disproportionately upon racial and ethic minorities, the elderly and the economically disadvantaged." And when Jane Jacobs, author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", did likewise, she described how "people who get marked with the planners' hex signs are pushed about, expropriated and uprooted much as if they were the subjects of a conquering power. Thousands upon thousands of small businesses are destroyed....Whole communities are torn apart and sown to the winds with a reaping of cynicism, resentment and despair that must be seen to be believed."

It is indeed a good thing that Wilhelmina Ciavaglia Dery was able to die in the house she loved. But it would have been a far better thing if she hadn't had to spend her last years fighting to keep it from being bulldozed.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

"The holdouts will be losers."

Corruption convicted New Jersey developer Joseph Barry of Applied Development, re resistance by local homeowners to eminent domain in Long Branch, New Jersey. Asbury Park Press, February, 2000. As quoted in "Razing New Jersey," Jonathan V. Last, The Weekly Standard, 02/13/06

"The first ones now will later be last"

Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', 1963

Sources include:

"Wilhelmina Dery, Who Fought Eminent Domain, Dies In Her Fort Trumbull Home," Elaine Stoll, The Day, 03/14/06

"Razing New Jersey, in which developers in league with city hall have come up with a curious definition of 'blight'," Jonathan V. Last, The Weekly Standard, 02/13/06

"'Friends of the Court' File Briefs Urging U.S. Supreme Court to End Eminent Domain Abuse", posted by Greg Yoko, LDT News Service, 12/14/04

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Copyright (c) 2006 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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