South Green Sheldon Oaks
“The longer a Puerto Rican lives here, the weaker his ties with home become. He learns more English and sees some of his friends make the grade in industry and in city jobs”
James M. Owens, Hartford Courant
South of Hartford’s central business district exists a community called South Green. It is bounded on the north by the northern edges of beautiful Bushnell Park, the Capitol grounds and on the east is Main Street. To the south are Hartford Hospital on Retreat Ave., as well as historic Essex and Morris Streets. On the west South Green is bounded by Washington Street, also known as Justice Row, as the major courts are located there. South Green currently contains some of the City’s major institutions as well as some of the most deteriorated housing.
At the south end of Hartford’s Main St. across from the east side entrance of Park Street is a triangular open recreational space. From its creation this park was the designated space where people could congregate in the southern reaches of Hartford. The park was officially named Barnard Park in 1899 after Hon. Henry Barnard who owned a home and lived in the neighborhood. Its eastern and western legs are bordered by Main Street, which splits into two sections to create the triangle, its apex pointing North, and its base being Wyllys Street. Barnard park dates back to the 1630’s when the land was laid out as common pasture and utilized as grazing space for horses and cattle. Later the city enclosed it with a wooden fence to prevent these animals from destroying and damaging the shrubbery. Between 1837 and 1851 major efforts where made to beautify the Green by planting shade trees. In the 1860’s it was one of three public spaces in Hartford, and by 1868 the ‘South Green’ continued to be used as the central gathering and exhibition place for circuses and the like. In that same year the care of the park was entrusted to the Park Commission. This triangular thirteen and one-half acres park continues to mark the entrance into the Southside of Hartford from Main Street.
South Green historic district is an area of approximately 26 acres centered on five blocks of Hartford’s principal North-South artery Main Street through to Wethersfield Ave.
The neighborhoods mass of buildings is dense and their height is uniform. The tallest structure is the spire of St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Construction throughout the neighborhood is mostly masonry, and as in the Clay Hill area, brick was the favored building material, although occasionally stucco and stone were utilized.
In 1959 the ethnic makeup of South Green was predominately Italian and Polish, but they where beginning to move out into Wethersfield and East Hartford where they began to develop political strength. As they moved out, slowly the Puerto Ricans and Blacks from the poorer tenements, mainly from Clay Hill, began to relocate and rent in the South Green neighborhood. This marked the first intra-city Puerto Rican migration.
An estimated 6,000 Puerto Ricans lived in Hartford in 1959 who were predominately Roman Catholic. Of those, approximately 120 were receiving supplemental aid from the city welfare department and 450 children attended the Arsenal (Quirk Middle), Hooker and Kinsella schools. (Hartford Courant) Also due to the rising migration in 1959, the Puerto Rican government sent a field representative from the migration division of the Puerto Rican Labor Department to help the new migrant adjust to life in Hartford. These representatives would teach their rights and duties in his new surroundings, including instruction on how to conduct oneself in the community, what attire was appropriate, how to prepare meals, and how to speak English. Students received booklets regarding police laws, clothing, how to buy on credit, where to find food, workman’s compensation laws and schooling for their children.
In addition the Puerto Rican government sponsored yearly seminars for social workers and teachers from the U.S. in Puerto Rico. The American’s aim was to achieve a better understanding of the Puerto Rican people. The Puerto Rican’s aim was to learn how to operate in America, because everything ‘allá fuera’ seemed better.
Puerto Ricans in Hartford: Rapid Growth
Operation bootstrap displaced many Puerto Ricans, as industrialization took over the island; it forced the farm laborer off the farm through lack of work, and it all but eliminated farming. There was no place on the island for the uneducated and unskilled worker. In 1970 there were an estimated 25,000 Puerto Ricans in Hartford, an enormous rapid growth, and the 6,000 in 1967 were “concentrated within the South Green on Buckingham St., on North main St. up to Westland St. in Clay Hill, the Tunnel Area, South Arsenal, North Arsenal, Charter Oak Terrace, Farmington Ave. and other areas”. The bulk of Hartford’s PR community was from inland Puerto Rico, the migrants were farm laborers who worked with sugar, coffee and tobacco. They came to Hartford to work on the farms. Click here to listen to Councilman Luis Cotto’s family’s arrival to the City. For the most part they were poor, unskilled and young with limited education. Puerto Ricans were attracted to Hartford because of the work, friends and relatives, and word of mouth.
The Puerto Rican population explosion of the city created a need for bilingual Puerto Rican skilled workers. The need was particularly for teachers, firemen, policemen, social workers, department store clerks, and bank tellers and officers. It also established a specialized cultural need where small Puerto Rican owned businesses began to operate in the city. Puerto Ricans also began to run a Spanish radio station and operated two major Spanish language theaters on Park (The Lyric) and the other on Main Street. Dances were also periodically held at the Lyric threater on Park and the Spanish-American club located at the Labor Temple Building. Amidst the poverty, Puerto Ricans celebrated life. Click here to listen to Fire Marshall Casares explain why living in Hartford was not bleak.
In the South Green, like Clay Hill, the mass Puerto Rican community was hampered by the language barrier which translated into it being difficult for them to exercise their full citizen’s rights. Puerto Ricans had trouble with urban living, in frustration many turned to drugs and alcohol, and leadership was lacking. In 1960 a seven-week unique leadership development program was conducted by Greater Hartford Chapter of NCCJ, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the San Juan Catholic Center, and the Family Service Society , it engaged the newly arrived in discussions and workshops regarding basic concepts of democratic groups, responsibilities to group officers and vice versa. The program provided the ‘basic’ leadership skills needed for a newly arrived minority group to help themselves and take their rightful place in the community. The incidents that would follow cannot be directly attributed to this leadership program, but it might have played a part, as more might be attributed to the poor urban conditions that force a rapidly growing, overcrowded population of people to act and demand equal treatment.
“In 1633 Dutch fur traders came to what is now called Dutch Point in Hartford, They erected a fort which they called ‘The House of Good Hope’, Hartford has been that for thousands of people who came here.”
Prelude to the Hartford Riots
In 1965 the Hartford Housing Authority dropped a policy designed to keep all of its housing projects except Bellevue Square and Stowe Village at least 75 per cent white. Civil Rights leaders pushed for the change, whites began to move out (it was easier for them to find jobs and housing elsewhere) as Blacks and Puerto Ricans moved in. In South Green the 221-unit Dutch Point Colony was 33.7 per cent Black and Puerto Rican. The percentage of African-American’s and Puerto Ricans in the public housing projects continued to increase at a steady rapid rate, and by 1970 Dutch Point Colony was 47.8 minority. (Hartford Courant) Living conditions deteriorated and unemployment caused high “white flight” and inflated the ghetto, leaving behind economically and socially depressed conditions for poor African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Racial discrimination and police brutality was also on the rise.
In 1967, Hartford’s Puerto Rican and Black community took their place in the fight for equal rights. Clay Hill and South Green were hotbeds of political activity. Racial violence broke out in August, as Blacks and Puerto Ricans protested the lack of open housing, police brutality, segregated schools, rats, and a lack of jobs amongst the many other injustices poor minority city dwellers where forced to endure. In their march towards the “South Green” more than a dozen Puerto Rican and Blacks were arrested .
By August 1969 things had not gotten better for the Puerto Rican; police brutality and sadism infected the Police Station, and officers demonstrated this by loosing a police dog on Victor Clas and Carlos Natal . A meeting was called at the South Park Methodist Church to address the community’s concerns. The meeting ended with a speech by Louis Rivera, a then 19 year old student from Eastern Connecticut State College: “Policeman, the issue here is not what is being done about the group called the Commancheros, but about a small gang which uses tactics like beating people with clubs and turning animals upon them to chew them up. The gang is known by the title of The Policeman….” With that James Frazier, Treasurer of NAACP urged the Puerto Rican to understand that they were considered people of color and that they should join a civil rights group: “If you don’t think you’re colored like me, you’ve got something to learn”, he said as he walked out.
“The Puerto Rican will share his apartment with any number of friends who do not have a home. His readiness to do this is not always understood. He is only offering the same hospitality he would back home, the Puerto Rican has strong family ties, they embrace relatives and friends alike. All activities are on a family basis this was one of the ‘strange’ customs to the ‘American’ way of living and caused friction with landlords and government officials.”
Owens, The Hartford Courant
The drug epidemic ripped through the Puerto Rican family like a hurricane leaving behind skeletal families who suffered from drug addiction, domestic violence, overcrowding and child abuse. The city was sieged by the influx of drugs, and 2 deaths due to overdoses prompted the creation of a regional drug squad. In the North End a heroin raid produced $10,000 worth of the product. The Puerto Rican was suffering and confused. The migration and assimilation process set us back tremendously. Click here to listen to Community Activist and Educator Glaisma Perez-Silva speak about the the issues that set Puerto Ricans in Hartford back. However, what was in the Puerto Rican people’s heart was just as important as what was in their heads. Many of us hung on to the ‘old’, while embracing the new in order to survive in this new environment. We semi-assimilated.
The Puerto Rican comes from poverty to poverty, but from a simple poverty to a subtle and complex poverty with no escape. Some became victims of our cultural make-up. The emotional and social culture of Puerto Rico was ‘foreign’ to Hartford. Puerto Ricans soon learned about discrimination, both by suffering it and practicing it. There were few truly common spaces in Hartford, and Puerto Rican learned it is not good to be black and tried to disassociate themselves from the black community, but the whites did not readily accept them. The Puerto Rican acceptance into U.S. society then became slowed by cultural and racial conflicts that had to be defined and processed. This process still happens today. Mayor Eddie Perez explains his racial discrimination theory.
In South Green, the Puerto Rican people learned a hard lesson: that America is a proverbial melting pot, where assimilation is the goal, but an elusive one. For us assimilation is not easy, for it was only made harder because we were condemned due to economic and racial status to live in substandard housing and suffer discrimination, without even understanding its concept.
Puerto Ricans who pull up roots to move ‘allá fuera’ looking for a job and a better life are not lazy; we have ambitions and we wanted to work and make an honest contribution to America. Housing and employment discrimination based not only on race, but on culture as well, limited us. Racial discrimination was and still is confusing and complex to us- as is the cultural bias, as we find ourselves caught in an emotional tug of war. We were not white or black, we are American, but treated as foreigner, and further limited by a set of unfamiliar social norms.
In Hartford the Puerto Rican was forced to search for a new identity; the ‘Harforrican’ emerged and earned his position within the places and spaces of the Hartford community. Today we boast of having the first Puerto Rican Mayor of the city, quien se crió en Clay Hill/South Green.
On Labor day night 1969 a large group of Puerto Ricans gathered at the fire house at Main and Belden streets in protest of a Hartford Times article in which Puerto Ricans were referred to as “Pigs”. The article was to be the first in a series of articles regarding the Puerto Rican situation in the South Green area. Three days of the city’s worst rioting ensued. It caused more than $1 million worth of damages. 4 people were shot, more than 500 were arrested in the chaos, and 71 were charged with breaking and entering; 258 were charged with violating the city-wide imposed curfew. The courts were so crowded that night sessions became necessary. Firemen answered 179 calls; almost all fires were set by firebombs, and cars and garbage burned as the people in the ghetto, most Puerto Rican, vented their frustration by looting and burning more than 70 businesses. (Hartford Courant)
Most of the rioting was contained to a 40 block area, from Main Street in the North End to South Green. Residents were exposed to tear gas, and “some 60 children and 16 adults were put in downtown hotels because the fumes made their homes inhabitable.” Click here to listen to Fire Marshall Ed Caseres describe the riot athmosphere.
Antonina Uccello, then mayor and the first woman mayor of a Connecticut municipality, was reported to have said, “poor housing conditions or uncomplimentary newspaper articles are no excuse for criminal action and those who say they are do a disservice to the total community and to the people whose conditions they wish to improve…[the riot] was instigated by hoodlums looking for an opportunity to loot and burn, who would steal no matter the social conditions. They were joined by irresponsible young people lacking parental control, who were influenced and egged on by these hoodlums and swept into a carnival of violence and destruction that was soon beyond their capacity to control let alone understand…agitators who seek power within their own group…these lawbreakers are not representatives of the Puerto Rican community or the Black community, but they are able to produce havoc…that brought suffering to thousands of their people.”  This is a classic example of ‘blame the victim not the conditions that make them so desperate that they would express their daily internal havoc in the form of physical destruction of the space in which they live.’ However, at the time the Mayor’s rational seemed persuasive although it furthered the problem of discrimination. The question will always remain as to whether the city would have taken steps to aid the community in bettering itself without the Riots. South Green and Clay Hill today still remain the poorest neighborhoods in Hartford. The spaces chosen for the trail for South Green reflect where we lived were educated.