Little Pink House, a film by Courtney Balaker, depicts the true story of a Supreme Court case that tested, and ultimately reshaped, the use of eminent domain in the U.S. Based on the book by Jeff Benedict, the film suffers from its oversimplifications. But sometimes a movie matters more as civics than cinema.
The story of the case, Kelo v. City of New London, begins in the 1990s, when New London, Connecticut—a former whaling city whose fortunes declined badly over the twentieth century—sought to create a glitzy downtown development anchored by a convention center and a research facility run by Pfizer, the pharma giant. To do this, the city needed to bulldoze a down-at-the-heels working-class neighborhood known as Fort Trumbull. I know this setting well, having grown up in New London in the 1960s and ‘70s; a childhood friend lived in Fort Trumbull, and my family’s favorite Italian restaurant, Hughie’s, was located on its fringes. Two decades later, Pfizer, having made a fortune marketing Viagra, sought to take over the neighborhood. Most residents agreed to be bought out, but a core of refuseniks held out, led by a paramedic named Susette Kelo (played in the film by Catherine Keener). Her nemesis was Claire Gaudiani (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the leader of the city’s development group orchestrating these buyouts. And so my hometown hosted a lopsided face-off between the little blue pill and the little pink house.
Kelo was the first significant eminent-domain case argued before the Supreme Court in two decades. Historically, eminent domain had been used to create structures and amenities—roads, bridges, tunnels, public buildings—for what the Fifth Amendment calls “public use.” But gradually, in the second half of last century, municipalities extended their use of the policy. The groundwork for this expansion was laid in a 1954 Supreme Court decision, Berman v. Parker, which held that the economic benefits of private development can amount to a legitimate public use, and authorized a municipality (Washington, D.C.) to use eminent domain to transfer private property to a development corporation for the purpose of eradicating blight and facilitating modernization. Unsurprisingly, under this kind of pressure, the definition of blight proved elastic; as George Will writes in a recent article on the film, “corporations in cahoots with city governments found blight in cracked sidewalks or loose awning supports.”
To justify taking Susette Kelo’s house, New London put forth blight remediation as well as a more amorphous rationale, citing Berman to argue that “public use” and “public benefit” were one and the same. In other words, if the public could be shown to benefit from a private development in a greater-good kind of way, then that development effectively constituted a public use. Other controversies were taking shape along similar lines. Around the same time Kelo was being argued, the town of Long Branch, New Jersey tried to seize several-dozen waterfront cottages in order to build not a bridge or highway, but an upscale condo development. Also citing Berman, Long Branch officials argued that the redevelopment of an urban area is a public purpose. Central to all these arguments was the lure of bulked-up tax revenues generated by upscale new developments.
Little Pink House draws out its oppositions in obvious terms with conniving politicians and developers on the one hand, and the hardworking citizens who heroically resist their depredations on the other. Thus we see Kelo in jeans and a sweatshirt, banging nails around her ramshackle cottage and supping on pizza and beer, even as sleekly dressed politicians and developers and corporate CEOs meet in pricey restaurants to dine on lobster, drink wine, and darkly machinate. Such clarities constitute a missed opportunity. Might there be a better case to be made for the city’s action—or at least, a better way of presenting it—than oily insincerities about “partnerships” and embarrassing pep talks for “a new vision for a New London that is vital and hip”? The issues are presented without nuance; it’s craven ambition versus neighborly virtue.