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The Consequences of Panthermania

Five thousand living units were demolished between 1954 and 1966. A scant 1,500 units replaced them. Of these 1,500 (according to architectural scholar Vincent Scully), only twelve public-housing units were designed for low-income people, 793 were luxury housing and the rest went to middle-income and elderly New Haveners.

Where lives and tacky bars and derelict frame houses went down, a new architect's supermarket went up. Former Mayor Richard Lee, working with Yale for political mileage, sought the biggest names in architecture. The city lavished design excellence on such (humanist?) projects as Eero Saarinen's giant parking garage . . . a Knights of Columbus building by Kevin Roche . . . a rubber company headquarters by Marcel Breuer . . . Philip Johnson's new Epidemiology Lab for Yale.

It was a fair example of urban redevelopment in America, to quote the scornful Mr. Scully—"Cataclysmic, automotive and suburban."

Forty per cent of black New Haveners were affected by re-development. They began to catch on. Politicians were playing the old game. The way they were spending federal renewal funds to finance capital improvement projects amounted to socialism for the middle class; the poor had to get along on free enterprise.

New Haven emerged with its nose powdered—a "model city." A shopping mall, graced by the Park Plaza Hotel and a Macy's branch, encloses the sounds and smells of modern commerce. The air is washed in cosmetic perfumes and essence of Muzak.

New Haven's new downtown is dedicated to drivers: to docile black families who drive stubby Mercuries and to the farmers who roll in from the Naugatuck Valley to shop every Saturday. Above it all soars the basilica of Saarinen's cathedral for cars. Yes, another St. Peter's for an American Model City.

". . . Panthers in New Haven? Too absurd. In 1968 they were still a mysterious aberration of California-style nut politics . . ."

Waiting . . . Warren Kimbro kept waiting for an opening in community work. Married to a pretty New Haven girl, father of a son and daughter, he went back to pass the high school equivalency test. When the Development Agency took shape in 1963, he applied to be a housing inspector. "High school diploma required." Friends advised Warren to lie about how he got his diploma. Not me, Warren said, these things have a way of catching up with a man. "Application denied."

To appease the finest black families, architect John Johansen was commissioned to do a new Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church. Something about it—the hidden windows?—makes white people hurry past. A big circular fortress, the church backs off the street into a dust lot. Secretive, defensive. Every window is hidden behind a gusset of concrete. It's as though the architect's hand was guided by news accounts of the future to design a refuge from the urban race war.

While New Haven's so-called redevelopment was going forward, disturbances tripled in the inner city. Rioting bent the city to its knees in the summer of 1967. The Irish and Italian shore towns are still nervous with the memory. A gun by the bedside goes without saying.

But community groups had been quietly organizing a politicized black citizenry for some time. The riot only blew the whistle on shocked white liberals. It signaled the beginning of real fights to make poverty programs work for people, of empty churches being reborn as teenage soul centers, and of rising expectations.

Passing thirty, Warren Kimbro broke away from the security of making fruit pies. He volunteered as a youth counselor for Community Progress Inc., supported by federal funds. He loved kids and worked conscientiously. CPI promoted him to Community Coordinator in his own neighborhood. Things were happening, but slowly.

By 1969 a strong Black Coalition got itself together. Combining the forces of some 40 local groups, it began to turn the tide. Residents of the inner city insisted on manning their own redevelopment offices. The "community advocate" became a recognized figure in negotiations between black citizens, the mayor and Yale.

Into this climate of fragile, hard-won hope burst the Panthers.

To be exact it all started in January, 1969, with one Panther sister, Ericka Huggins. She was the wife of a New Haven favorite son, John Huggins, who strayed to UCLA and rose to Panther leadership in Southern California. He died a revolutionary martyr in a shootout with rival black militants. After Christmas, when John Huggins' body came home to New Haven, the widow Ericka came with it.

From the moment Ericka hit town, little tremors fanned out and quickly grew into barbaric rumors.

Had Ericka brought any of those crazy California Panthers back to Connecticut? The Hugginses wouldn't talk. Inquirers dialed a knowledgeable and sympathetic white man to ask about the girl.

"Ericka was described to me quite frankly by a young black community leader," the white man began, confidentially speaking, "as a black Ilse Koch . . ." letting this penetrate . . . "Koshh, you know, the Nazi. Of course the black community here is in terror of the Panthers. And frankly, I am told by some young militant black men that the Panther women are uncontrollably aggressive. Man-haters. They take it out through the Panther movement, you see."


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