Julia Borowski and Rudi-Ann Miller
At the population center of the state of Connecticut rests the 32.9 square mile town of Cheshire. Once an 18th century farming village, it became a 20th century manufacturing hub before evolving into a modern and growing suburb of New Haven. Two hundred year old clapboard houses, rolling hills and farmland now yield to substantial amounts of new construction, reflecting the increasing appeal of the suburb.
Cheshire retains much of its agricultural past as reflected in the town motto, “the bedding plant capital of Connecticut,” and the continued operation of family farms, apple orchards, greenhouses, and plant nurseries. Thus, despite being an easy commute of 30-40 minutes from the city centers of Hartford, Danbury and New Haven, Cheshire continues to offer a small-town, rural atmosphere for its residents. However, the sleepy community was shocked by what the New York Times has described as “the worst crime in Connecticut history” on July 23, 2007, when home invaders brutally murdered a mother and her two daughters. Despite the fear and tension that this highly publicized murder-robbery case generated, Cheshire continues to be ranked by Time Inc.’s Money magazine as one of the top 50 places to live in the United States.
Cheshire’s population of 29,250 thrives economically with a growing median household income of $107,716 and low unemployment and poverty rates of 4.4% and 2.1%, respectively. Although most income earners commute to jobs in the surrounding metropolitan areas, the town also has several businesses, including 23 law firms, 16 financial and investment services, 15 restaurants, 8 banks and credit unions, 2 college consulting firms, and 4 food stores. Major job industries of the population include government,retail trade, health care and social assistance, or manufacturing industries,with job growth at 5.2% in 2015. The major employers in 2014 included the Corrections Department, Macy’s Logistics & Operations, UTC Aerospace Systems, Cox Communications, and Bozzuto’s Incorporated. Cheshire is noted as a very healthy, active community with many running and hiking trails and 94.3% of the population covered by some form of health insurance. Cheshire’s positive economic state yields to a housing market with larger price tags and high home ownership.
Housing Options and Market
Figure 1. Median home values for the various suburbs of New Haven.
Cheshire boasts an array of housing options from condominiums to single family homes to luxury colonials. Roughly 88% of occupants owned their homes, a trend supported by the median income level of residents. With an average home listing price of $327,151 between 2010 and 2015—current home prices ranging from $95,570 to $1.2 million—Cheshire’s home market limits the socioeconomic diversity of the town in a similar fashion to other New Haven suburbs like Branford and Orange. Furthermore, renters face an average cost of $1,184 per month, and property taxes in Cheshire average $6,352.12 Only one of Chester’s 8 housing zones allows for the construction of affordable housing resulting in only 4% of Cheshire containing affordable complexes. Most recently, in 2013, the Cheshire Housing Authority (CHA) invested $3.7 million to build 20 subsidized housing units that would be awarded to qualified applicants via lottery. However, for months after the project’s completion, most of the houses remained vacant as the CHA battled with the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority to decide on the qualifications for applicants. It was reported that the Cheshire agency wanted to accept tenants who made up to 80% of the town median household income while the state demanded that criterion to be lowered to 60%. This strategy of limiting access to affordable homes suggests a resistance to increased diversity of the town’s population encompassing not only socioeconomics, but also matters of race.
Figure 2. Percentage of the total population of Cheshire with the racial designation “White” in 2014 and 2000, respectively; darker shakes of blue are indicative of a larger White population.
Cheshire’s majority White population mirrors that of its neighboring New Haven suburbs, comprising 87% of the townspeople . However, this marks a decline from 93% in 1990; in the same time, the Asian population has increased from 1.9% to 5.7% and the African-American population from 3.9% to 5.3%. However, the variation in African American population may be due to the presence of two correctional institutions; the census tract containing the Cheshire Correctional Institution yields the highest African American population at 19.8%—17.4% greater than the next highest census tract. Combined with the socioeconomic barriers in Cheshire, these racial demographics form a homogenous community that can be seen in a similar fashion within the classrooms of the public schools.
The Cheshire public school district consists of five elementary and middle schools, one high school, one alternative high school, and one special programs elementary school. Each maintains a racial composition largely reflective of the town as a whole, with a majority of the schools at or above 80% White students. Some socioeconomically mobile White families opt for school choice, causing slight deviations to the school demographic data. A 13% increase in the percent of minority students in the district over the past 20 years correlates with White families exercising school choice and the town’s overall demographic shift. Future shifts in school demographics would necessitate a more in-depth examination of how residential patterns and school choice cause change.
Figure 3. Percent minority students in Cheshire Schools; the Humiston School with the larger deviations in racial composition is one of two alternative schools that has a small population (20 students in 2013-2014). Low minority percentage in this school could be indicative of minority families having greater difficulty advocating for their students who require an alternate educational experience.
Students in the district performed higher than state averages on the Smarter Balanced Assessment in both English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics in 2014-2015 and yield higher graduation rates across all demographics.[18, 19] This degree of academic success correlates with the extensive academic and extracurricular resources offered in Cheshire’s schools, as demonstrated on the easily navigable and detailed websites. The Cheshire High School website’s school profile lists a total of 20 Advanced Placement (AP) courses, covering diverse disciplines across science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. Other unique course offerings include technology and engineering, performing and visual arts, business, and independent study options. Students are able to earn college credit through the University of Connecticut Early College Experience program by applying to take courses at the high school that can be transferred to applicable schools. Among the class of 2015, 86% of the 389 graduates planned on attending 4-year colleges, with enrollment at 134 different colleges including four Ivy League schools, Amherst College, Duke University, Williams College, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Extracurricular offerings include 29 boys’ and girls’ athletic teams and 54 clubs, spanning from a FIRST Robotics team to Model UN to Peer Advocates.
Figure 4. Performance of Cheshire Schools relative to the average performances in Connecticut on the Smarter Balanced Assessment in 2014/2015.
With such a broad and extensive set of school offerings, Cheshire’s public schools receive largely positive reviews on popular school ranking and reviewing websites, with some polarized results. Reviewers on Great Schools note the quality of academic offerings and the “excellent” sports programs and “championship level marching band.” However, these are countered by reviewers who describe a “widespread drug and alcohol problem” and unwelcoming environment; as noted by one reviewer, “If you don’t have money forget about having many friends most students look down on the ones that aren’t rich.” A poll on Niche asking for one word to describe the average student yielded “affluent” as the top answer. With only 7.18% of students receiving Free and Reduced Price lunch in 2013-2014, it is possible that a lack of socioeconomic diversity that leads to isolation of lower socioeconomic status students. Combined with racial homogeneity, students not of White middle- or upper-class backgrounds may find themselves distanced from the larger school community. Nonetheless, the schools serve as a selling point, increasing the Cheshire’s desirability for upwardly mobile families. The public school district serves to reinforce stereotypical perceptions of a majority White suburban town—perceptions that continue into the town as a whole despite its troubled past.
Typically seen as an idyllic, safe setting, Cheshire remains scarred from the home invasion that shattered the “illusion of safety.” In the immediate aftershocks, town residents scrambled to set up security systems and purchase handguns to regain their sense of security. This event persists in national news outlets, with The New York Times alone having an online file of various pieces, making a small Connecticut suburb a focus in larger discourse on the perception of safety and crime in suburbia. However, beyond this persisting wound, the town of Cheshire makes few appearances in news outlets. This relative calm combined with high socioeconomic status and well-resourced schools establish Cheshire as a desirable town for families seeking suburban residence within reach of Connecticut’s bustling urban centers. Yet, this desirability faces the limitations of racial and socioeconomic boundaries presented by its historically homogeneous composition.
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- “Welcome to the Town of Cheshire.” Town of Cheshire. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cheshirect.org/>.
- Fernandez, Manny, and Alison Leigh Cowan. “When Horror Came to a Connecticut Family.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 06 Aug. 2007. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/07/nyregion/07slay.html?_r=0>.
- “Best Places to Live 2015: Cheshire, Connecticut.”
- U.S. Census Bureau. Social Explorer Tables (SE), Census 2010, Median Household Income, Unemployment, Poverty Level.[Data set] U.S. Census Bureau and Social Explorer. Web. 9 February 2016.
- “Business Directory.” Cheshire Chamber of Commerce. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cheshirechamber.org/business-directory/>.
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- “Cheshire Town, New Haven County, Connecticut.” American FactFinder – Community Facts. US Department of Commerce, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/community_facts.xhtml>.
- U.S. Census Bureau.
- Zillow Group. Average Home Listing Price 2010-2015 Cheshire, CT. [Data set] Zillow Data. Accessed 13 February 2016.
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