Property Rights Foundation of America®

(Reprinted from the New York Property Rights Clearinghouse, Winter 2010)

Worth Commenting

My Two Bricks

By Carol W. LaGrasse

Attorney Robert Anthoine presents Carol LaGrasse with two ordinary looking, worn bricks at his home north of Stony Creek on Thanksgiving Day. But the bricks are something more.
Photo: Peter J. LaGrasse

The two dull red bricks sit in our living room. There is nothing distinctive about them.

They are obviously used. The mortar has been cleaned away and the only marks on them are the stains where the mortar blended with the hardened clay and formed an erratic pattern on the surface.

In fact, the bricks are from a demolished building in New London, Connecticut. They were offered to me a day after the closing of the Pfizer research center in the Fort Trumbull section was announced.

After dinner, as a sort of Thanksgiving Day observance, Robert Anthoine, a lawyer who practices in New London, presented the bricks to me at his family's secure, secluded Perservance Ranch up on Wolf Pond Road north of Stony Creek.

It was as far as a person could be from the origin of the bricks, for they were taken from the rubble of Susette Kelo's house.

So, you see, the bricks are now a relic, in the tradition of holy things. After functioning as weights for lobster traps, they are now sequestered as a reminder of the temporary triumph of evil, and all that it brings, and as a symbol of good in the face of evil. The bricks had seemingly ended their usefulness as tools for the lobsterman who unload their catch at the wharf that is almost all that is left of the old neighborhood.

They tell of the suffering and despair that evil brought to ordinary, hard-working, good people, which Michael Cristofaro so well described at our annual conference in October 2005 after the citizens of Fort Trumbull lost their battle in the U.S. Supreme Court. Michael Cristofaro's family had come to New London from Italy in 1962. His father worked for the City of New London and purchased his first home in New London after the first year. The City came to him and wanted that house, and he let them take his first home. What else could he do? He had owned that home for eight years. Nine years before Bob Anthoine handed me the two bricks, the City served the eminent domain notice on Mr. Cristofaro for his second home, on the day before Thanksgiving in 2000.

But when the City took his father's second home for its grandiose urban project to accompany the Pfizer center, the property owners resisted, some of them ultimately joining the case known as Susette Kelo vs. City of New London. However, in the most detested U.S. Supreme Court decision in my lifetime, the families lost, with Justice Stevens' holding for the majority that as long as the City had a "plan" that justified the Taking with a "public purpose" (which they deemed to be synonymous with a "public use"), such as a "plan" that would increase tax revenues, the taking of private property to transfer it to another private entity was constitutional.

When Michael Cristofaro spoke at our conference, nothing had been built on the property that had been taken in his neighborhood to accomplish the City's plan to increase the tax base. An urban wasteland of rubble and weeds remained. Who would develop the area for not only Pfizer's envisioned future expansion, but the high-priced hotels that Pfizer had foreseen as an accompaniment to its plant, when the potential upper story view toward the waterfront is dominated by the city's sewage treatment facility?

After the Supreme Court's decision, an angry movement surged across the country. "Kelo" became a symbol of injustice. People saw in their hearts the meaning of the ruling, which was exactly what Justice O'Connor had written in her dissent, "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party," with the beneficiaries being the ones with "disproportionate influence and power" and the victims "those with fewer resources." Reacting to the angry populace, state after state passed laws to tighten the requirements for eminent domain.

After their defeat, the plaintiffs gradually settled with the City of New London. Only Susette Kelo and the Cristofaros remained. In the end, Susette Kelo held out for a deed to her house so that she could move it to make a permanent historic landmark and for enough money to buy another small house outside of New London. When the city finally conceded to the modest demands of the Cristofaro family, including a plaque erected in the neighborhood in honor for Margherita Cristofaro, the family matriarch who had died during the battle with the city, the last two holdouts moved out without the feared confrontation by radicals from elsewhere in the country who had expressed the intention to defend the homeowners.

The wasteland of what was his old neighborhood torments Michael Cristofaro. On November 12, 2009, Pfizer announced that it would pull 1,400 jobs and leave New London. Bitterness spread like an epidemic throughout the city. The "plan" was the justification? Anyone can see that it was simple greed and corruption. But not four of the men and one of the women in the country's highest court. So I will give a place of honor to my two bricks, cleansed by the salt water of Long Island Sound, and look to the heroism of Susette Kelo and the Cristofaro family.

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