Part 1: My Introduction to the Lines

Learning My Lines

“Are you looking to buy a home?” came a voice from behind me. I turned around and faced a white man wearing a big smile. Somehow, he knew exactly what I was doing.

“Just looking,” I replied. “Got a job interview tomorrow and I’m just looking around.” It was a warm Sunday afternoon in May 1999, on my first visit to the City of Hartford. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of a three-story house with a for-sale sign, on a street somewhere near what local residents called the West End neighborhood, based on my limited knowledge of the city at that time. There was no open house, nor did I have an appointment to meet a real estate agent. I simply wanted to get out of my rental car and walk around to get a feel for this neighborhood. My hands held the real estate section of the Sunday newspaper and a city street map, which I had purchased at a nearby gas station about fifteen minutes earlier.

“Hold on a second. My wife’s a Realtor. She’s right next door and I’ll bring her over.” The man walked back across the street, and returned a minute later with a woman. She introduced herself, mentioned that she happened to be visiting a client on this block, and asked what brought me to Hartford.

I explained that I had a job interview the next day at Trinity College, located about two miles from where we were stood, but was just looking around. What I also knew—but didn’t tell her—was that the search committee seemed interested in my application, it was very late in the academic hiring season, and if all went well and they offered me a job, they would expect a speedy reply. Time and money were tight for my partner Beth and me. She worked full-time, we had two young children, and I didn’t have a steady job. Leaving home to do another multi-day job interview was a major strain on our family life. That Sunday afternoon probably would be my only opportunity to scope out local housing opportunities in case we needed to make a quick decision about moving to Hartford.

The real estate agent rattled off names of people we might know in common. But none of them were familiar to me, since I had not yet met anyone at the college or the city. She turned the conversation to ask what kind of home I was looking to buy. All of this was premature, I explained. The interview was not until Monday, and I didn’t know whether or not they would offer me the job.

“Do you have children?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “Two kids, ages five and two.”

“You might want to look on the other side of Farmington Avenue,” she suggested, pointing to a major street a couple of blocks north. The agent handed me her card, we exchanged goodbyes, and she departed in a car with her husband.

I stood there on the sidewalk, dumbfounded, trying to make sense of what had just happened during my first half-hour in Hartford. This agent had gently steered my housing search based on what she had quickly learned about me as a white middle-class professional, and more importantly, as a parent of two school-age children. Somewhere down the street there was a line—not yet visible to me—but one that clearly stood out in this agent’s mind, and most likely in the minds of families living on opposite sides of it.

Memories of that sidewalk encounter rolled around in my head over the next few days, weeks, and years. The job interview at Trinity was successful, but that opportunity forced my spouse and me to face several difficult decisions about moving our family to the Hartford region, a theme that we will return to later. While living and learning about the city and its suburbs, my eyes now sharply focused on the lines that differentiate where families reside and send their children to school. Boundaries that were once invisible to me now vibrantly stand out in my mind, while crossing over them on foot, bike, or car. At work I teach my students about the lines, and together we map them on computer screens, measure their influence, record their meaning in people’s lives, and write about what we learn to share with the public. Three types of questions—on the history, pedagogy, and policy of these lines—have captured my attention over the past fifteen years:

  • Why did schooling and housing boundary lines become so influential in shaping US metropolitan life over the past century?
  • How can we make these hidden lines more visible, and amplify the voices of people who challenged them, to educate future generations?
  • What does the evolution of these boundaries, and different activists’ strategies to challenge them, tell us about our present-day policies?

This book seeks to answer these questions in a format designed to invite readers like you into the story, to explore the evidence, pose your own questions, and perhaps share comments about the influence of these lines on each of our lives.