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
"The first ones now will later be last"
Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', 1963
"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,
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