Home for Christmas
By MELANIE KIRKPATRICK
December 24, 2005; Page A8
NEW LONDON, Conn. -- It's the week before Christmas, and as my train from Manhattan nears this old New England seaport, I can't help but hum a few bars of that seasonal favorite, "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays."
I'm here to meet with New London's most famous resident since Nathan Hale, the schoolteacher-spy who was hanged by the British in 1776. Susette Kelo's life isn't in jeopardy, but her home is -- and her fight to keep it has taken her all the way to the Supreme Court, making her a national celebrity along the way and igniting a nationwide movement to protect private property rights. If June's ruling in Kelo v. City of New London is carried out, this could be Ms. Kelo's last Christmas in the home she loves.
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In Kelo, the Supremes interpreted the "takings" clause of the U.S. Constitution to say that local governments have more or less unlimited authority to take private property. For Ms. Kelo, that means that the state-financed New London Development Corp. may seize the house where she's lived for eight years, tear it down, and put up a private development that would include more expensive condominiums and townhouses that would return higher property-tax revenues for the city.
"For public use -- for a bridge or a road or a school or a hospital -- that's bad enough," says Ms. Kelo over tea at the kitchen table of her little house at 8 East Street in the Fort Trumbull section of the city. "But you add insult to injury if somebody else can live here. That's exactly what they plan on doing here. Making it so somebody else can live here." But "I live on East Street. I live on East Street. Why can't I live here?"
Ms. Kelo has been asking that question since early in 1998, when she first learned that the drug maker Pfizer Corp. was going to build a $300 million global R&D center in New London and that there would be a municipal redevelopment plan for the adjacent Fort Trumbull area. "I read that residents in Fort Trumbull were going to be bought out of their properties and that those who refused to sell were going to be taken by eminent domain. That's how it all started. I read about it in the newspaper."
Ms. Kelo says, "I called the mayor and told him I wasn't interested in selling my house." She and her neighbors soon formed a local advocacy group, getting together every Tuesday morning at 7:30 in someone's kitchen. "We would meet and do things. You know, who would get billboards rented . . . who would send out flyers, who would write to the editor, you know. Stuff like that."
The lady of 8 East Street is an unlikely public advocate -- unless you happen to believe that redheads are born with an extra dose of determination. The daughter of factory workers, she grew up in New London in the 1950s and '60s, went to local Catholic schools, and moved to a nearby town in the 1970s to marry and raise five sons. When her youngest boy left high school, Ms. Kelo went to college, earning a nursing degree. She's 49 years old now, and holding down two jobs, working for a local hospital as a cardiac nurse and for the city testing lead levels in children. She recently quit a third job. "Eminent domain is a full-time job," she says.
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Ms. Kelo came home to New London in 1997 after a divorce and bought the house on East Street, less than a mile from where she had grown up. The 1893 cottage was so ramshackle that "I actually had to cut brush away to get to the front door because it was so overgrown." "I bought it in July," she says, "and started fixing it up. . . . Everything in the house is new, really. . . from the cement in the basement to the shingles on the roof."
Today the house is a homey hodgepodge of antiques, family photos and framed samplers cross-stitched by Ms. Kelo. The chairs around the kitchen table were crafted by Hitchcock, a venerable Connecticut furniture maker, and bought for a song. "Honey, I'm a bargain shopper," she boasts. The exterior is painted pale pink -- the color of the sky at dusk in the view from the front porch, which overlooks the spot where the Thames River meets the Atlantic and the Long Island Sound. On an outside wall, not far from where a Christmas wreath hangs, is a sign that reads: "Not for Sale." Those three words are her manifesto.
Ms. Kelo's picturesque home on East Street is like thousands of clapboard New England cottages found in towns up and down the Atlantic coast -- with one distinguishing feature: It stands in the middle of nowhere, on a treeless block that has been razed and cleared. Most of Ms. Kelo's neighbors moved out years ago, after receiving their condemnation notices. "As soon as [the development corporation] acquired a property, they'd come in here and tear it down. So when you'd go to court it would be a moot point because there would be nothing left to fight for."
Also gone are the street signs. The development corporation "wanted to strip the neighborhood of its identity," she says, her voice rising in outrage. So "they renamed our streets 'blocks.' This is supposedly Block 4A . . . to make it seem like nobody lives here." There were 90 houses in Fort Trumbull in 1997. There are about a dozen left today.
Even without street signs, Ms. Kelo has no trouble getting her mail. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled against her, she's heard from people all around the country. "They call ya, they write ya," says Ms. Kelo. "Absolutely. [I've got letters] addressed to 'Susette Kelo, Somewhere Near Pfizer's'; 'Susette Kelo, Fort Trumbull'; 'Susette Kelo, Eminent Domain, New London, Conn.'" Within days of the Supreme Court decision, she says, "the whole country rallied, which really was the best part" of this whole ordeal.
Will Ms. Kelo get to keep her home on East Street? Scott Bullock, her lawyer at the Institute for Justice, the public-interest law firm that has represented her and six other Fort Trumbull plaintiffs from the start, thinks the politics work in her favor. When the development corporation sent her an eviction notice in September, the public outcry was so great that Gov. Jodi Rell ordered it rescinded. Ms. Kelo says she's content if the condos go up around her. "I never was against the development," she says. "We simply want to stay. You know. Build your condominiums."
And the past? "Well, jeez. What have I learned? I'm from the government and I'm here to help you?" No way, her look makes clear. "That the government is not here to help you. That you can fight city hall. . . . This really isn't about me anymore. It's about every American across the country. Of course, there's . . . always going to be somebody else with more money who's going to able to come into [a neighborhood] and create jobs or taxes and take out someone like me -- or you."
And what about next Christmas? Where will she celebrate? "I've always realized in the back of my mind that we could be forced to leave and they could tear down the property. I try very hard not to think along those lines. . . You have to think positive. You really do. That perhaps people like me can win."
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When we leave her pink domain on East Street to head back to the railroad station, Ms. Kelo gives me a tour of her favorite residences in old New London. We drive past Monte Cristo Cottage, where playwright Eugene O'Neill spent his boyhood summers. She shows me the neighborhood where she thinks her house originally stood, before it was moved to Fort Trumbull. She describes the 19th-century whalers' homes that once stood near the harbor before they were destroyed in an urban renewal program.
We are cruising along Pequot Avenue, a waterfront drive lined with grand, old homes that once were visible from Ms. Kelo's front porch before the Pfizer complex went up and blocked that view. One house is so immense that it contains two Christmas trees, and we can see their lights twinkling in the windows. "I love my house," she says with a fierce shake of her head. "I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it."
Ms. Kirkpatrick is the associate editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.