West Hartford is Mostly White, While Bloomfield is Largely Black. How that Came to be Tells the Story of Racism and Segregation in American SuburbsBreaking News
tags: racism, segregation, Connecticut, local history, suburban history, zoning, Exclusionary Zoning
For more than two years, homeowners in one West Hartford neighborhood rallied fervently against a proposal for multifamily housing they say would change their community.
The fight began in 2018, when 181 residents signed a petition opposing the development, which had been proposed for the corner of New Britain Avenue and Berkshire Road. It continued last fall, with residents again seeking to block a zoning change that would enable the housing to move forward.
Residents, echoing others across Connecticut and across the nation, said multifamily housing would destroy their residential neighborhood, which sits in a census tract that is more than 90% white and largely middle class. They worried the new development would not, as one homeowner put it in 2018, “fit the complexion of the community.”
The residents ultimately did not get their way, with West Hartford’s town council approving the development after a five-hour hearing in December. But their effort, like others in other majority-white towns across the state, raise a question that often goes ignored in these debates: How did these communities come to look the way they do in the first place?
To some residents of Connecticut suburbs, the racial and socioeconomic composition of their towns can feel obvious and predestined, as though determined by some immutable force: West Hartford is majority white and middle class, while Bloomfield is majority Black with lower levels of income and wealth.
A glance through history, though, shows that isn’t remotely the case.
“We think that it’s just happenstance. We think it’s totally free will,” says Tracey Wilson, West Hartford’s official historian and author of a book about the town. “And then we realize it wasn’t all free will. There are other factors at work here.”
This is the story, recorded by local historians, of two neighboring Hartford suburbs and how they came, throughout the 20th century, to represent the racial segregation persistent in Connecticut and across the the nation.
During West Hartford’s formative years during the first half of the 20th century, local, federal and real estate industry officials took steps that would ensure the town remained overwhelmingly — almost entirely — white.
West Hartford’s transformation from an agricultural outpost to a modern suburb began in the 1920s, when the popularization of cars allowed some who worked in Hartford to move out from the city. In less than a decade, census records show, the town’s population more than doubled.
But as West Hartford’s population increased, town leaders quickly stepped in to shape the composition of their community, as chronicled by Trinity professor Jack Dougherty, author of a book-in-progress about segregation in the Hartford region.
In 1924, West Hartford became the first Connecticut town to enact zoning regulations, dividing residential areas by home size to functionally segregate citizens by socioeconomic class — a process whose effects would ripple for the next century. Robert Whitten, a consultant from Cleveland who guided West Hartford’s zoning process, wrote in a zoning plan that the new guidelines would “make it un-economic to build two-family houses.”
“The development of crowded tenement house conditions such as exist in many larger communities will be effectively prevented in West Hartford,” Whitten wrote.
On the surface, the guidelines were race-neutral, but in practice they were anything but that. Black residents were far less likely to be able to afford single-family homes in the area, meaning they were less likely to be able to move to West Hartford at all. The town, like most other Hartford suburbs, remained essentially all white.
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