New London, Conn.
"See that pole with the transformer hanging from it?” Michael Cristofaro asked me. “That was where my family’s home was.”
I looked up at a line of high telephone poles marching diagonally against a blanched winter sky across a vast, empty field—90 acres—that was entirely uninhabited and looked as though it had always been that way. New London, population 27,000, a rundown onetime whaling port on the Atlantic coast that never recovered after the whaling industry died at the end of the 19th century, is a desolate-looking city. Cristofaro, a 52-year-old New London-born computer network engineer, and I were in its most desolate neighborhood—actually, ex-neighborhood, for there was not a residential property left standing on the entire tract. Just below us lay the mouth of Connecticut’s Thames River (unlike in London, “Thames” rhymes with “James,” and the “th” is pronounced as in “thumb”) where it joins the northerly end of the Long Island Sound. An icy New England January wind—cold enough to freeze the ink in my ballpoint pen into a gray, spidery scrawl as I scribbled notes—ripped across the only signs of life, actually former life, on the deserted incline: waist-high dead weeds, probably the remains of the goldenrod, yarrow, pokeweed, and high grass that grow everywhere during warm months on the North Atlantic coast.
Cristofaro and I were walking through a section of New London called Fort Trumbull, a fist-shaped peninsula jutting out into the Thames. It is the battleground of what must be the most universally loathed Supreme Court ruling of the new millennium, Kelo v. City of New London (2005). The case is named after its lead plaintiff, Susette Kelo, a nurse who had owned a home a few blocks away from the Cristofaro house. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that the city of New London and a nonprofit quasi-public entity that the city had set up, then called the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), were entitled to seize, in a process known as eminent domain, the homes and businesses of Kelo, the Cristofaros, and five other nearby property owners in the name of “economic development” that would generate “new jobs and increased revenue,” in the words of since-retired Justice John Paul Stevens, author of the majority opinion.
That is, the city and the NLDC were entitled to condemn and then bulldoze people’s homes solely in order to have something else built on the land that would produce higher property taxes—such as the office buildings, luxury condos, five-star hotel, spacious conference center, a “river walk” to a brand-new marina, and high-end retail stores that were part of an elaborate “economic development” plan for Fort Trumbull that the NLDC had launched in 1997. The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment bars governments from taking private property unless the taking is for a “public use.” Historically “public use,” as courts had interpreted it, meant a road, a bridge, a public school, or some other government structure. But in the Kelo decision, the High Court majority declared that “economic development” that would involve using eminent domain to transfer the property of one private owner to a different but more economically ambitious private owner—such as a hotel—qualified as a public use just as much as, say, a new city library.
The nationwide outrage that followed in the wake of the Kelo decision spanned from left to right and back again on the political spectrum. It didn’t help that one of the chief beneficiaries of the NLDC’s economic development plan would have been the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc., which New London had lured into the city via an 80-percent, 10-year property-tax abatement for a $300 million research facility—an expansion of the company’s research operations in Groton, Connecticut, across the Thames. The properties seized from Kelo, the Cristofaros, and others would be adjacent to Pfizer’s facility. It also didn’t help that Susette Kelo, a feisty working-class woman who had raised five sons and put herself through nursing school by working as an emergency medical technician, was an appealing lead plaintiff, and that her 900-square-foot Victorian house, lovingly refurbished by Kelo and painted a vintage shade of salmon pink with white trim, was a showplace of devoted homeownership.