In 1972 I was studying medicine in London, England. I was approached by a charming young lady, a fellow medical student, who invited me to a meeting of Anglican missionaries. She said they would be discussing issues of vital importance to world peace. I was delighted to be invited and in desperate need of friends and activities. Consequently, I put on my only suit and tie and showed up on time at the designated location. Most of the attendees were younger than I, but they greeted me with a cordiality that I had found lacking in my contacts with older medical professionals. There was re-assuring small talk, and at 7:00 pm, a modestly-dressed, affable young man stood at the front of the room, introduced himself as the presenter for the evening’s discussion, and announced, “We are here to discuss the Jewish problem in England.” I soon realized they were not concerned with ‘world peace,’ at least as I understood it. The man posing as a missionary for peace and progress proved to be a spokesperson for the hate coalition. The usual antisemitic trash talk went on for an hour. I left early.
And so it was with the same naivete that I thought I had shed in 1972 that I went to an Easton Planning and Zoning Commission meeting featuring a speaker from Desegregate CT. I assumed that an organization that included ‘desegregate’ in its title was in some way concerned with eliminating racial inequality or de facto segregation. The website for this organization describes itself as a “coalition of neighbors and nonprofits dedicated to reforming local and state land use policies to create a more prosperous, equitable, and sustainable Connecticut for all.” How that mission statement fit with the racially charged term ‘desegregate’ eluded me, but I went to the meeting to listen and learn.
At 7 p.m., a modestly-dressed, affable young man stood at the front of the room, introduced himself as the presenter for the evening’s discussion, and announced, “We are here to discuss ‘Desgegrate CT.’” Within 5 minutes of his opening comments, I realized he had no interest in or recommendations for desegregation in Connecticut, Alabama, Mississippi or any other state. This was a discussion of the ‘zoning problem’ in Easton and other small towns in Connecticut that dared to resist ‘development.’ Once again, I had been duped. The man posing as a missionary for progress and prosperity proved to be a spokesperson for the landholder/construction coalition.
He did, of course, intermix his threats of state underfunding of projects in noncompliant towns with assurances of ‘environmental protection,’ “affordable housing,’ and ‘transportation projects,’ but these laudable suggestions lost their credibility several decades ago. Building ten dwellings on one acre of land and installing sewer systems to manage the waste from high density population areas as he suggested neither protects the environment nor provides ‘affordable’ housing. And how does changing the zoning in a distinctly rural community affect segregation or desegregation? The cities and towns and villages in Connecticut that allowed or encouraged high density developments, such as multistory apartment buildings and multipurpose commercial zones, found the promises of affordable housing, less traffic congestion, and environmental protection were empty and unfulfilled.
The modestly dressed young men with engaging personalities and highly polished visual aids may not, after all, be there to get us to embrace universal goods. As unappealing as the notion may be, those presenters who entice us with titles like “World Peace” or Desegregate CT” may be nothing more than modern snake oil salesmen, intent upon convincing us that a poison will eventually benefit us. The poison in this case is allowing builders to populate our town with high density dwellings that can be sold at great profit to the unwitting buyers who think they are getting the peace and quiet of the countryside when in fact they are financing the destruction of the environment they seek.
Most of the meeting attendees were remarkably polite in addressing the “Desegregate CT” presenter. I suspect they felt they should not kill the messenger or perhaps they did not want to antagonize the advance contingent of an impending invasion. Throughout history, money talks and crushes whatever interferes with its growth and influence. There is much money to be made by those who would enable rezoning in Easton. Our town is a rural gem. As with any gem, the more it is cut into ever small pieces, the less value each piece has. The housebuilders and land sellers can make fortunes through rezoning, but those of us who live here will pay the price of development.
At this meeting I heard no mention of desegregation, but I did hear about solving a traffic congestion problem that we do not have, about ignoring the impact of sewage on fragile wetlands and reservoirs, and about addressing a housing shortage problem that does not exist. If there is de facto segregation in Connecticut, intolerance of cultural diversity in its towns and villages, or prejudice against educators and administrators who dare to discuss racially sensitive ideas, we should have a town meeting to discuss these issues and formulate plans to address them. If we are urged by lobbyists and politicians, unconcerned with the character of our town, to rebuild it in a manner that will financially enrich a select few and environmentally impoverish the great majority, we should resist with every tool available to us.
I suspect that the developers who came up with the title “Desegregate CT” were hoping to quell criticism of their plan by suggesting that their opponents were bigots seeking to block the racial and cultural integration of their communities. It is a familiar ploy. Call something what it is not and then point fingers at the people who insist on calling it what it truly is.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.