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Fort Trumbull goes national, again

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published February 09. 2014 4:00AM

It's been a while since New London took a big spotlight in national headlines, although a lot of stories did bounce around the Internet a few years ago, when the whale fountain was shut down because homeless people were accused of using it for personal business.

The big mother lode of national news attention on the city, of course, goes back to Kelo v. City of New London, when the city went to the Supreme Court to defend the taking of homes in Fort Trumbull by eminent domain, and won.

Kelo became a rallying cry nationally for conservatives, who often frame the debate as a war of liberal interventionism versus property rights.

So imagine the glee at the assignment desk of the conservative Weekly Standard, when they learned that nothing, NOT A SINGLE THING, has been built on the eminent domain properties in New London, takings blessed by the Supreme Court in Kelo.

And so not long ago, a writer for the Weekly Standard parachuted into town, to report in great, painful detail about the nothing that is now Fort Trumbull.

Of course this is not news to us here.

The long resulting cover piece in the Weekly Standard by Charlotte Allen is predictably in the conservative slot of thinking on the subject, blaming the liberal wing of the court for the Kelo debacle.

She even complained that New London won the case after hiring a "prominent civil rights lawyer" from Hartford. Those liberals ruin everything, it seems.

What was startling in the piece was the way in which Allen chose to validate the failure of Kelo by sharpening her pen and focusing on New London's continuing woes.

She starts out by describing New London as a "rundown onetime whaling port on the Atlantic coast that never recovered after the whaling industry died at the end of the 19th century."

Not only is that especially harsh but it is not exactly true; New London had a few good years in the 20th century, too, thanks.

She goes on to relentlessly tear down the city, from the steam leak in City Hall (who could miss it) to its drug trade.

I thought she also drifted into what has the makings of racism.

"Police raids on heroin and cocaine rings run by Dominican immigrants are a staple of New London news," Allen wrote.

Couldn't she complain about eminent domain without smearing an entire ethnic population?

I have been critical of Mayor Daryl Finizio and his slow development of an antidote to the harm eminent domain has done to the city, a campaign promise he has hardly begun to fulfill after two years in office.

Still, I thought he did surprisingly well in his interview with the race-baiting writer from the Weekly Standard.

Finizio, correctly, I thought, pointed out that the whole long controversy played out differently here than the way it was perceived nationally, through political prisms.

Indeed, much of the will here for the takings came more from a middle class belt of the city, worried about the tax base, than some intervention by extreme liberal interventionists, Finizio suggested.

"On the local level the case was about taxation and corporate development," Finizio was quoted as saying, adding that the debate before the Supreme Court, about the limits of government power, was different than the debate held here, around issues of economic development and lower taxes.

"There were a lot of people on the south side of the city who were tired of paying high property taxes, and they felt that something had to be done.

"My response to that has always been: If your taxes are too high, you need a smaller house. You don't have a right to bulldoze someone else's house."

Of course, others make the legitimate argument that there is middle ground in there, too, between paying higher taxes or living in a smaller house, a middle ground that stops somewhere short of bulldozing other peoples' houses. These are lower spending advocates.

I noticed some ripple effect in national news blogs, after the Weekly Standard story ran. But I think that will die down.

The story that nothing was ever built at Fort Trumbull is not that compelling beyond New London.

It will continue to be part of the diet of news and politics for a long time here, though, especially if more of that antidote does not appear by the next mayoral election.

If only some national news editors could notice soon that no one has been making personal use of the whale fountain.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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