“Hell’s Court,” 40 Years Later

Last month, I wrote a story on Hales Court.  Construction is well underway on 78 housing units there, transforming what was once a housing “project” into a 21st-century neighborhood.

To illustrate its previous incarnation, I said that Hales Court was “once derided as ‘Hell’s Court’ by a teenager living there.”

It was one quick line — but it resonated a month later with one other person, somewhere in America.

The other day, I got this email:

For some reason, I was thinking tonight about an essay written by a classmate in my 9th grade English class at Bedford Junior High.  The essay won an award and was published in the Westport News, if I recall correctly.

My classmate lived on Hales Court and was someone I thought of as a tough kid.  After he read his essay to our class, I saw him in an entirely different light. That 15-year-old boy was carrying more on his shoulders than any kid should ever be expected to bear.

The essay writer was the teenager who referred to the street as Hell’s Court.  Actually, he explained in his essay that his mother called the neighborhood “Hell’s Court” because of the misfortunes his family had suffered after they moved there.

I left Westport 36 years ago.  41 years have passed since that student read his essay to our class.  It was so moving, so powerful, that when I remembered it tonight, I googled “Hale’s Court” “Hell’s Court,” hoping that I might find it online. That’s how I found this blog post.

I won’t mention the writer’s name out of respect for his privacy, but for as long as I live, I will never forget him or that essay.

It’s been years since anyone referred to “Hell’s Court” — and, thanks to new construction, it’s doubtful anyone ever will again.

But one junior high essay, written by one marginalized boy, had such a powerful effect on one other boy that he remembered it as a man 4 decades later.

That’s powerful stuff.  And it’s a powerful reminder that everything we say, everything we write and everything we do, affects someone, in some way.

Sometimes, for the rest of his or her life.

Hales Court today -- a far cry from "Hell's Court."

7 responses to ““Hell’s Court,” 40 Years Later

  1. The individual was very proud in a quiet way about his accomplishment so why not recognize him, Bill Simpson was my classmate at BJHS. He was a tough kid but very quiet, you did not mess with his big brother. Bill took his class, the school and the town by total surprise with his “Hells Court” writing.
    Bill went on got married and worked for a number of years with the Miolis at Westport Pizza and moved onto California in the 80’s.. Bill’s essay was from a different time, a time when we paid little attention to the fact that there was (and is still) poverty in our town, kids that did not “fit in” were relegated to “Special Ed (Mr Riccio’s) class, and a time when you as a student, in Dr HIghtower’s newly renovated BJHS, did not mess with the Greasers. Bill’s essay seemed to lower our blinders for a very short moment. I still have a copy of the year end Bedford literary magazine with his essay from 1969 or 70.

  2. The new Hales Court is great, no chipping lead paint, leaky bathrooms or huge holes in the ceilings. The new houses are very nice. Hales court is a changed place,but to the outsiders it will always be “eewww THAT place” or ” oh the Westport projects”. Just once I would love to hear someone say oh that is a beautiful neighborhood.

  3. The Dude Abides

    At either period, it is/was a roof over your head. A home is what you make of it and not what everybody thinks of it. Interesting insight by Simpson, however. The so-called “greasers” in my time hung out on top parking lot adjacent to the arts department at Staples and at the Crest drive-in on the Post Road. Many were good friends in K-9th but were very alienated in high school for some unknown reason. No sports and they usually had poor grades. Always smoked (and you could in certain open areas at Staples). As usual, a very interesting notice by Professor Woog. Larry Shay wrote a piece in 10th grade Decker-English at Staples about attending his first funeral. It was absolutely brillant and I remember it to this day whenever I have to attend a passing. Larry would incur problems at Dartmouth after graduating and ended up writing poetry while driving a cab in NYC. Died young of cancer. Great writer.

  4. I grew up in Saugatuck so “greasers” were the norm there and never outcasts. Some of their dads had been terrific athletes at Staples in a different time and town. My neighbors were also excellent athletes — and tough. Nearly all played football for BJHS and annually mangled Long Lots teams stocked with guys who would go on to star at Staples. As the Dude, notes, however, they stopped participating in sports at Staples, although Paul Lane was relentless in his attempts to persuade them to go out for football and track, and one or two actually did. Greasers called the rest of the Staples students “si’s”, short for “high society.” Their world in Saugatuck was a universe away from the Westport — in a good way. Good guys, though, once the fear factor was surmounted. Hales Court, btw, was not the lone “housing project” in Westport; Vanni Court, off S. Compo Road, was the other.

  5. This is some great stuff! Dude, are you from the class of ’65 or ’66? Always a fun time at Hales Court. This “si” married a “greaser” from Norwalk (now that’s bad)……haven’t thought of those handles in a long time.