Thirty-Seven Howe St. lies fittingly at the crossroads of Yale and the rest of the world.
My first visit occurred during the summer of 2007, when a high school friend invited me to see a screening of Michael Moore’s “Sicko” at this place called the New Haven People’s Center. I was excited to see the film; staunchly in favor of universal health care, I wanted to be able to argue for it.
Two years later, I think I can make a pretty good argument. But what I learned from my experience that summer night and from my visits to the People’s Center that followed was more than just facts about health care. I met people — 30 or so local residents, a diverse crowd, though mostly middle-aged and elderly, who buy insurance if they can afford it, who have preexisting conditions and who congregate to watch the relevant documentaries and talk about them.
This was real-world civil society in action — not an extracurricular activity, but a way of life.
After the screening, I lost touch with the People’s Center until last October, when a few of its regulars came to an Obama Works community service event. Unfortunately, I again lost touch until last week when I had the opportunity to speak with Center coordinator Joelle Fishman.
We met upstairs in the office of the local bureau of People’s Weekly World — the main publication of the Communist Party USA. Fishman is the head of the Party’s Connecticut chapter and ran for U.S. Congress on the Communist Party ticket in 1980. In a nation whose politicians are often afraid to be labeled liberal, Fishman is proud to be a member of the liberal tradition.
And what a tradition it is. The building that houses the People’s Center was put up in 1937 by Jewish immigrants who had left Eastern Europe to escape oppression but arrived in New Haven only to find striking inequality and segregation.
What started as a center for union organizing became over the past seven decades a bastion for labor, equal rights and the entire spectrum of leftist causes.
In the 1930s, the building served as headquarters for the Red Wings and the Unity Players, New Haven’s first racially integrated basketball team and theater troop. In the 1940s, labor leaders founded New Haven’s first teaching college, which eventually became Southern Connecticut State University.
Fishman came to the center shortly after arriving in New Haven in 1968. The next year, the center served as a haven for workers on strike against U.S. Repeating Arms Company, when people would continually come in and out, hold strategy sessions and pack meals for workers and their families. When workers at Yale struck in 2003, the People’s Center was one of many off-campus locations where, in solidarity, professors held class.
The stories, Fishman told me, “can go on for hours.” In the 1990s, 37 Howe St. became the site of the country’s first homelessness drop-in center run by the homeless. The idea for the nationally touted Elm City Resident Card grew out of a meeting here. Today, alongside open mic nights, movie screenings and advocacy for issues ranging from degentrification to the public option, the People’s Center plays host to a displaced Latino church on its third floor and a highly frequented Crisis Center where people can come for economic advice.
As I listened to Fishman shuffle through issue upon issue, I couldn’t help but feel that my history — not just the people who came before me, but an essential part of my cultural identity – was slowly being revealed.
After our meeting, I stumbled upon a sizable library filled with tracts on Marxism, Leninism, feminism and civil rights, and hundreds of leftist pamphlets dating back to the turn of the century. In an adjacent art gallery, I found paintings and sculptures by Bob Ekins, whose work is also displayed in Hue, the first Vietnamese city to have a sister city in America — New Haven. It was as if I were a devout Christian who just stumbled upon the Bible or a first-generation German-Jewish American absorbed in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.”
For the wing nuts, the progressive agenda is a conspiracy to undermine American values. But the history and continued activism of the People’s Center suggest an ongoing movement, sustained by a grassroots spirit, directed toward nothing else but, in Fishman’s words, “concern and care for each other as neighbors and as equal human beings.” And it’s in our own backyard.
America has a love-hate relationship with radical change. For every Obama campaign, there’s a Forrest Gump, a sentimental depiction of enduring Americanism in the face of failed cultural projects. But the story of the New Haven People’s Center cautions us against this dichotomy. The economy fluctuates, new minorities become disenfranchised and new conflicts arise overseas, but the mission of change never gets old.
James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.