Book Review: Little Pink House (2009)

One woman’s historic battle against eminent domain
A true story of defiance and courage
by Jeff Benedict
Review by Brian Wright

Kelo_Pink_HouseIt’s with the greatest pleasure that I review this epochal action-crime drama of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Little Pink House is the exhilarating literary ride about the Kelo vs. City of New London eminent domain case that shook the country. It’s chock full of heroes (Susette Kelo and her many partners in the freedom fight) and villains (the several local, state, federal, and corporate poobahs who think nothing of bulldozing the poor and handing the vacated land to the looting rich… minus a healthy commission for their thuggery). If you ever entertained doubts about the confiscatory evil of eminent domain (ED), this book will dispel them: ED = Erector-set Dysfunction. The book makes crystal clear that public takings are nothing but expropriation of some persons for connected, well-to-do other persons… and those who participate in the action are the slimiest scum: cowards who steal under protection of law.

Little Pink House is not so ambitious as to explicitly challenge ED on a level of core-human rights. But by constructing his true-crime story with the moral flair of a Mickey Spillane, author Benedict gives us a compelling tale that cries out for a Hollywood rendition—maybe Eastwood(?). During the crucial years of the endgame—the development plan was hatched in 1997 and Kelo vs. New London was not decided until June 23, 2005—I personally had emigrated to the Free State of New Hampshire. Several Free Staters were actively sympathetic to the state-targeted landholders; one woman I know and admire greatly, Lauren Canario, did hard time for defying the ‘dozers.

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 In 1997, 40-year-old emergency-nurse Susette Kelo scraped up the money to buy her own home, an old cottage in a blue-collar neighborhood overlooking the seacoast in New London, Connecticut. Ms. Kelo had spent the greater part of her life scrambling to keep body and soul together, first as a snow-poor child in rural Maine whose father had walked out on them, then falling into a financially supportive but loveless marriage in which she raised five kids of her own. The sons were grown-and-out now; it was time for her. She was drawn strongly to this new place, something precious of her very own, with a clear view of the Thames River and Long Island Sound. Friends helped to clean up the dwelling, painting it Odessa Rose, a subtle shade of pink.

Origins of the plot to develop Susette and her neighbors’ homes away lay in the office of a popular Republican governor, John G. Rowland: at 37 the young guv was on a roll politically, a Red stud from a Blue state, the national stage beckoned. He aimed to be reelected in 1998 in a dramatic way, by carrying the state’s most Democratic cities—of which New London was the mostest. Idea: take a big, gooey wad of OPM[1], resurrect a state-funded development entity, find an ambitious jetset/in-crowd go-getter to ramrod my vision of a ‘sparkling city rising from the ashes,’ then in a few years stand back and revel in the adulation of the people of Connecticut.

The governor, through a series of highly prestigious lackeys, relaunched the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) as the agency, then found his ideal HMFWIC[2] in Dr. Claire Gaudiani. Ten years earlier, Claire became president of Connecticut College arriving “… with impressive credentials: a PhD in French literature, a slew of published articles, the Rolodex of a socialite, and a knack for fundraising.” Claire was a deadly mixture of hard-charging executive, coquette, and psychotic busybody. George Milne, the milquetoasty overachieving president of Pfizer, Inc., became the perfect Bonnie to her Clyde. Together with the governor’s gang they finagled tens of $millions of OPM into their Trainwreck of Busted Homes… without ever having to say, ‘Stickem up’ or brandish a firearm.[3]

The only obstacle impeding their perfect crime and getaway: Susette Kelo.

Well, Susette and a cast of characters willing to fight for the property rights of residents in her Fort Trumbull neighborhood. Won’t recount the story here, you must read this book! It is such a remarkable tale, a roller coaster of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, you will have a hard time putting it down. Benedict is adept at weaving the parallel paths of different characters, he also captures the dialect, mannerisms, and patterns of speech of all the actors: Little Pink House reads like fiction.

For those who are aware of the broad issues of the court case, but know little of the persons taking part in the conflict, Little Pink House fills in some blanks. For example:

  • Most people are not aware that the chief private interest benefited by this particular ED was Big Pharma Pfizer, Inc. Are you also not aware that Pfizer was about to come into some serious cash when its new product Viagra (speaking of ED) was approved and marketed, which would help fund the development in New London?
  • The Institute for Justice—a Washington, DC-based law firm that litigates cases about property rights, pro bono, for clients who are facing state aggression—joined the plaintiffs. Attorneys Scott Bullock and Dana Berliner come off as living examples of the Randian heroes who inspired them as teenagers; they argued the case before SCOTUS.
  • The perpetrators of the ED were fully aware of their actions and had zero sensitivity to the people they were expropriating, just as a serial killer has no feelings for his victims. In response to suggestion of a minor change in the plan that would spare the holdouts’ homes, Claire lashed out: “Fred, the state is a blunt instrument. The plan has to be approved the way it is.”

Your blood will boil. Mine did. My lead villain in the picture is New London city attorney Tom Londregan. Ol’ Tom, like banal bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann turning live bodies into dead ones in the Nazi concentration camps, never once questioned the justice of evicting living humans, many of them aged and helpless, from their homes… so the city could gain tax revenue. He liked it. And he never considered that his actions were immoral: they had the proper bureaucratic imprimatur.

You will appreciate how convincingly and deftly Jeff Benedict describes the whole seedy culture of the takers (all the nice things money provides), not to mention the widespread existence of such culture. He also nails the culture of the would-be takees (real people). Refusing to be taken, Susette stood her ground. From her statement before the US Senate in 2005:

“My neighborhood was not blighted. None of us asked for any of this. We were simply living our lives, working, taking care of our families, and paying our taxes. The city may have narrowly won the battle on eminent domain, but the war remains, not just in Fort Trumbull but also across the nation. Special interests who benefit from this use of government power are working to convince the public and legislatures that there isn’t a problem. But I am living proof there is. This battle against eminent domain abuse may have started as a way for me to save my little pink cottage, but it has rightfully grown into something much larger—the fight to restore the American Dream and the sacredness and security of each one of our homes.”

Thus spake the new Rosa Parks of human-property rights.

From the final paragraph of the epilog of Little Pink House:

As of the fall of 2008—more than three years after the Supreme Court approved the City of New London’s plan to take private homes and replace them with buildings capable of generating higher tax revenues—the NLDC has still not broken ground. [The NLDC announced that its developer had failed to secure adequate financing.] Nonetheless, every home in the ninety-acre redevelopment area has been demolished. The former Fort Trumbull neighborhood is a barren wasteland of weeds, litter, and rubble.

One more thing: the book has an OUTSTANDING index, something seldom seen in this day and age, kudos to editors and publisher (Grand Central Publishing).

[1] OPM = other people’s money

[2] HMFWIC = head mover farther what’s in charge

[3] It’s worth noting that when all the smoke had cleared from this famous confrontation between the New London property owners and the NLDC/ED minions, the latter, almost without exception, returned or advanced to very high-paying positions within the New England academic/government/corporate ‘club.’

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