"Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage" (Grand Central Publishing, 389 pages, $27), by Jeff Benedict: Neighbors, a city and lawyers fight over a plan for eminent domain evictions to make way for development.
The story line here is familiar from headlines after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 decision that almost everyone hated. It allowed the destruction of a Connecticut neighborhood through eminent domain; it said ordinary people would lose their homes to make way for private development. Even a dissenting justice wrote that no property was safe or sacred anymore.
A torrent of news coverage answered the who, what and when of the dispute pretty well, but not the elemental question: How in the world could this happen? For an answer, we now have Jeff Benedict's "Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage."
It's the tale of a decade-long wrangle pitting a group of dogged, salt-of-the-earth neighbors and their activist Washington lawyers against local officials whose hubris is often breathtaking, and their allies, a corrupt state administration and a slick Fortune 500 company. In the end, just about everybody loses.
The court case was called Kelo v. City of New London, and the heroine of the story is the redheaded lead plaintiff, Susette Kelo, who bought the pink cottage of the title as a means of escaping an unhappy marriage.
On a notepad after the closing, she wrote: "I know I have never been happier in my life than I am now, sitting on the porch rocker watching the water go by."
Benedict, an investigative journalist and author, uses journals, e-mails and other personal documents as well as court transcripts and interviews to present a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the battle over Kelo's and several neighbors' property, after officials of economically struggling New London determine that it had to be razed.
The land-clearing was part of the sprucing-up envisioned by the local development board when it wooed the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer Inc., to locate a research center nearby. The small houses would give way to a hotel and upscale condos, according to the plan, which was pressed by relentless state and local leaders. The issue was whether this was a "public use" that an eminent domain taking requires.
At a number of points, pettiness and bullheadedness snatch away chances for compromise and victory for all. The neighbors get some of the blame for intransigence — and yet their banding together and deepening friendship gives the story heart.
Kelo, ornery but shy when we first meet her, grows steadily in assurance, so that by the end she triumphs in TV interviews and even before a Senate committee, where she testifies:
"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, paying our taxes. ... 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."
Her pink house is still standing — but moved and erected elsewhere in town as a monument to the bulldozed neighborhood's lost cause. Another monument that Benedict points out: More than 40 states' legislatures have rewritten their eminent domain laws to prevent a repetition of the Kelo case.