Vigil at 41 Goshen Street

March 1, 2001

Jefferson’s quip returned to me as I lay freezing on the dusty floorboards that 20-degree February night: “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.”  I listened for the bulldozers I expected to soon stand before, bulldozers sent by the government to destroy a home it didn’t own.  “If this is the price to ensure a man’s house is free,” I thought, “I’ll happily pay it.”

Richard Beyer, the rightful owner of 41 Goshen Street in New London, Connecticut, poured himself into restoring his newly purchased property.  With his neighbors’ help, he hauled away dumpster-loads filled with refuse from the yard.  Rather than taking the easy route of razing the property and starting afresh, the stonemason preserved the outer structure and tore out everything inside down to the studs, the floorboards and the home’s outer shell.  He planned to renovate this home in a Victorian style as he had done with a property next door across the 20,000-brick parking area he had laid by hand.

In the middle of his refurbishment, however, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) informed Richard it was taking both his homes to build a private health club.  NLDC-hired goons then “inspected” his property, taking claw hammers to the siding he had installed, vandalizing the tinning he spent hours painstakingly bending around each window, and tearing a gash in the porch ceiling.  They padlocked the front door and hung a sign warning the home was slated for demolition.  Unwilling to pump more money into a project he might ultimately lose, Richard stopped the renovation.  He tore out their padlock and replaced it with one of his own, leaving 41 Goshen hollow and dark.

As the effective date  approached for the NLDC’s permit to destroy Beyer’s home, IJ sought  assurance that the corporation would not bulldoze Beyer’s home in the 12-hour gap between midnight on February 5, when the permit would take effect, and noon, when a court conference would decide the immediate fate of his and other homes.  But the NLDC refused even such a reasonable assurance.  Left unguarded, the home could be destroyed.

With IJ attorney Scott Bullock needing to be fresh for the court conference and the home owner having to work the next day, I traveled to New London to keep a vigil in Beyer’s home to block any demolition.  I was joined by a Christian Science Monitor reporter who recognized a good story and wanted to be in the best possible place to report first-hand on any developments.

Before we headed over, neighbors streamed in with provisions, like homemade brownies, a thermos of hot coffee and flashlights with extra batteries.  These salt-of-the-earth people are used to looking out for one another, a quality that defines a neighborhood much more than the promise of an expanded tax base or possible new jobs.

At 3 a.m., while staring through cracks in the home’s outer walls at the black, night air, it struck me, “According to Connecticut law, I’m trespassing.”  (When an agency like the NLDC moves to condemn someone’s home, title immediately—and unconstitutionally—transfers from the owner to the condemning authority.)  I laughed and informed the reporter of this fact.  He jokingly reassured me that at least he would be bailed out by his editor the next morning.

Throughout the night, I arose to make sure no heavy machinery that passed by was our awaited guests.  At 5 a.m. a truck stopped out front.  I stood to greet whomever it was.  There was a pounding on the door and a voice bellowed, “You in there?!”

“This is it,” I thought.  “It’s either the police or the demolition crew.”

It was neither.  It was Matt Dery, another neighbor who, despite having the day off, woke up at God knows what hour to drop off the best Dunkin Donuts coffee I have ever had as well as some breakfast sandwiches.

As morning broke, I stood outside greeting still more neighbors and local activists who gathered to form a human shield around the threatened home.  As it turned out, I did not come face to face with any bulldozer’s steel blade.  What I did confront, however, was an even clearer realization of how wrong the NLDC is in destroying the properties of such decent people … properties to which the NLDC has no right.

Jefferson was right. We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.  Sometimes we must lay on cold and dusty floorboards on a sub-freezing Connecticut night.  To preserve freedom requires action and sometimes sacrifice, perhaps even putting yourself in harm’s way.  The idea that “freedom isn’t free” doesn’t just apply to donors.  It applies to everyone who truly cherishes the freedom others before us won and passed down to us to be guarded for the next generation.

John E. Kramer is IJ’s vice president for communications.

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