New Haven Documentary Series: Part 1, “The Hill”

by Janis Jin

On Monday night at 7:30 pm, New Haven community members led by Jonathan Hopkins of BEEEP! (Bicycle Education, Entrepreneurship, and Enrichment Programs) organized a viewing of The Hill at the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-Op. A bike garage lined with boxes of bicycle parts and metal tools thus turned into a makeshift movie theater, with an audience of 20-25 gathered together to watch.

The 2013 documentary directed by Lisa Molomot follows the construction of the John C. Daniels School from 1998-2002 and the conflicts between homeowners and New Haven city officials as the Upper Hill neighborhood was set to be demolished under the city’s eminent domain claim. The film is a powerful story about one community’s fight to save their home, and explores issues such as gentrification, urban renewal, and affordable housing.

Set in the Upper Hill neighborhood of New Haven, whose residents are primarily low income African-American families, the film begins by explaining that the city of New Haven and the Board of Education are set on building a new school. The new school project is to be part of a 15-year school reconstruction program in the city and will be the largest school reconstruction program in the state.

However, to the anger of residents, the area of construction is destined to span three residential blocks in the Hill. 123 housing units are to be demolished. 94 families will be forced to relocate. Many families say that they were never notified of the city’s eminent domain claim, and are forced to live in homeless shelters until they can find affordable housing. Under federal law, the city is responsible for resettling the Upper Hill residents, but families slip through the cracks with no word from city officials about helping them find new homes. Pleas are spray-painted in red on houses across the neighborhood: “SAVE THIS HOME.” “WE LOVE OUR STREET.”

The school board defends the school project as a boon to the Upper Hill in the long run – a community that has slowly been on its way to “deteriorating into nothing,” in the words of the new school’s president. However, the magnet school will not serve the children and families who have made their homes and lives in the Upper Hill. Residents and community organizers point out that the Hill is just blocks away from the Yale-New Haven Hospital. Many wonder, is a scheme for Yale and the city of New Haven to push low-income African American families out and away from the Yale-New Haven Hospital?

Ultimately, families and community members rally together and take a case to the U.S. District Court with the help of civil rights lawyer John Williams. In the words of the attorney, “Often it is the struggle itself that is the most important fight.”

Hopkins said he organized the viewing because he wanted “to get the word out, and hopefully get some people to see the film who might not otherwise know about what happened.”

There will be another showing of The Hill on Thursday, September 15th, at 7:30 pm in the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-Op (138 Bradley St, New Haven, CT 06511). More information is posted on the Facebook event. The Hill viewing is part one of a three-part New Haven documentary series. Later events will be announced in the upcoming weeks.