Jackie Bracey expected the Q House to look the same as it had eight years earlier in 2003 when the city of New Haven closed its doors — in good condition with just a touch of water damage.
But every door was broken. Glass from windows lay shattered on the floors. Vagrants had found their way in and inhabited portions of the property. According to Bracey, there was only a single padlock protecting the 31,000 sq. ft. building.
The city had purchased the foreclosed building in 2010, and Bracey, the president of the Concerned Citizens for the Greater New Haven Dixwell Community House, Inc., joined a group from the Dixwell Court for an independent examination of the building in 2011.
The Dixwell Community House, or Q House, was once the lifeblood of New Haven’s African-American community. Established in 1924 as a settlement house, it was the community’s town hall, a hub for discussion and protest, a place to congregate and resolve problems. But most importantly, it provided a recreational center and a place to hang out for the city’s working-class children.
But the loss of the Q House has left a crater in the city’s youth services, and with few job opportunities and little to do to pass the time, many young people have turned to the streets. As the building lay decaying since 2010, gang violence has spread in New Haven and many disadvantaged youths in the city have been killed. This past summer alone, three young lives were lost — Torrance Dawkins, 22, Devaante Jackson, 18, and Marquis Harris, 22 — continuing a trend of increased gun violence over the summer months.
Over the past decade, alumni of the Q House and members of current youth groups — some not even born when the Q House closed — have banded together to resurrect the center and save New Haven’s youth.
The struggle for the Q House highlights the determination of New Haven residents to solve the two major problems contributing to the rise of youth violence in the city: The lack of widespread youth services and the need for youth job opportunities. It also spotlights the indifference of city officials who, these residents claim, have been slow to fund the reopening of the House.
THE LEGACY OF THE Q HOUSE
From discussions with many New Haven children, it appears that almost all have a relative who attended the Q House at some point in its 79-year tenure on Dixwell Ave. They have heard the stories of the late Bruce “Soup” Campbell, a legendary Q House basketball player, and how the House’s rec basketball teams were some of the best in the city, beating out the high school teams. The Q House was also the site of many firsts in the African-American community: the first black Boy and Girl Scout troops in the city, the first gymnastics team.
Though it changed locations from 98 Dixwell Ave. to 197 Dixwell Ave. in 1971, its members moved with it. One such member was Frank E. Douglass Jr., Alderman of Ward 2.
He was brought up under what he calls the old Q House regime. His great-uncle Bill Douglass was the athletic director when he attended the original building in the ’60s. The doors would open at roughly 2 p.m., when the schools let out, and every day Douglas would run downstairs in the Q House to get his seat at the pool table. Lined up against a wall across from the table were 10 to 15 chairs where boys would wait their turn to play. If he needed to get up from his chair to use the bathroom, he would say “Tap, Tap. I want my seat back,” and the other boys would politely heed his request.
“As youngsters, we learned respect for ourselves and a lot of respect for others back then,” said Douglass.
When Douglass was growing up, small gangs settled scores with their fists or on the basketball court. Enemies one day could be friends again the next. Hardly anyone brought a knife to fight and a kid wielding a gun was unheard of, he remembers.
Things are different now.
Capria Marks, 17, was friends with Melvin “Gully” Hayes, 20. On March 22, 2013, Gully shot himself in the head. The bullet entered the back of Gully’s head and came out the front.
Gully didn’t intend to kill himself, according to Marks, but instead was fooling around with the firearm and suffered a tragic accident. But Marks is struck by the fact that Gully was not alone. One of his friends was with him. “Even if he was playing with the gun,” said Marks, “You don’t let your friend sit there and play with no gun.”
Gully’s death may not have been a direct effect of gang violence but accidents like his could have been prevented if weapons weren’t a prevalent possession amongst New Haven’s youth.
According to Marks, true friends can be few and far between for many young men in gangs.
“When you don’t got nothing else to offer them, they not gonna care about you no more. And sometimes, your friends don’t really care about you until you get a car or something. ‘Til you get a house where they can come and smoke up all your weed or something. It’s like these boys, they living in darkness,” Marks said.
The daughter of Rev. Scott Marks, a community activist, Marks was raised in the church and never found it hard to keep away from street life. She is one of the founding members of the New Elm City Dream, a group that aims to tackle youth violence by pressuring the city to create jobs for young people.
Yet, she does not exclude those involved in the wrong crowd from her friend circle. While adults immediately write misfits off as thugs or gang-bangers, Marks befriends them. She understands that kids just don’t get up and join gangs. There are social, familial and economic factors that draw them to the streets — some impossible to avoid.
Most gangs in New Haven claim entire neighborhoods. Even if a kid is not a part of a gang, he or she can still be affiliated with one just by living on a particular street. The R gang splits Reed Street with the R2. The Ville claims Newhallville. KSI runs Kensington St. Fairside runs Fair Haven. From the Hill, the Trey, the T Street boys, every gang is tied to a neighborhood.
Just as youths cannot choose what street they live on, it can be difficult to escape the violence between these street gangs.
In 2010, 2,559 New Haven seventh and eighth graders participated in a Student Health and Behavior Survey funded by the National Institutes of Health as part of a prevention program by the NHPS Social Development Department and the Yale Department of Pediatrics.
Thirty-four percent of these 12-15 year olds said they had seen someone get stabbed or shot, while 11 percent reported actually having carried a gun or a weapon.
For Douglass, the petty reasons for conflicts between young people have not appeared to change, but the modes of retaliation clearly have. That would be bad enough, but those who pull the trigger often send their bullets flying into random bystanders.
The near fatal shooting of 18-month-old Tramire Miller as he sat on his porch with his mother, Sherrie Miller, on Oct. 10, 2012, was the final straw for Douglass. He was one of the first at the hospital with the family. That same night, he got up in front of an audience of 100 at City Hall to urge the city’s General Assembly to secure state funding to reopen the Q House.
The suspects in the toddler’s shooting were Joseph Metteus, 18, and Tythrone Ford, 19.
CONCERNED CITIZENS FIGHT FOR THE Q HOUSE
Douglass’ sentiment is shared by members of the Concerned Citizens for the Greater New Haven Dixwell Community House, Inc. Mostly alumni of the Q House, the group has been fighting to reopen the center since the day it closed.
But the reason behind its closure is disputed.
According to a bankruptcy petition filed in Jan. 2006, the building was shut down because of outstanding debt.
Some community members blamed the debt on mismanagement of funds, pinning the fault on the last executive director, Willie Green.
However, according to Bracey, the Q House’s financial woes began over 30 years before it finally closed, when it changed locations and lost a major source of income from the United Way of Greater New Haven, a nonprofit organization that provides grants for agencies in the city.
Then in the early 2000s, another problem hit. A city-run adult education program located in the Q House and paying 40 percent of its rental fees was moved out of the building. The United Way, soon thereafter, dropped funding the center completely.
When the news of the Q House’s foreclosure spread in 2003, countless groups claimed they were going to save the center. Bracey, who considered the response all rhetoric, brought together a group of powerful black women that included a former state representative, the president of a community organization and the owner of a bookstore. One night at Bracey’s home, they decided they needed to involve the entire community instead of leaving the center’s fate in the hands of disparate and disorganized factions.
A couple weeks later, Bracey and the women got a call from a member of Christ Chapel, which organized a meeting of groups interested in saving the Q House. Several meetings later, Concerned Citizens for the Greater New Haven Dixwell Community House was born, co-chaired by Bracey and former New Haven mayor, the city’s first and only black mayor, John C. Daniels.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. created a task force to discuss the Q House, and at its first meeting in 2010, Bracey recalled DeStefano inquiring what the group thought about the Goffe Street Armory, a large building adjacent to the New Haven Correctional Center.
“We didn’t want our kids next door to a jail,” Bracey said. “We did a survey of the community, and almost 99 percent said they wanted that building in Dixwell, on the site it was [on]. ”
After DeStefano and the city’s Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to use public funds to purchase the property in 2010, Concerned Citizens received $5,000 and 6 months to develop a strategic plan addressing the rehabilitation of the building, the programs the new Q House would offer and a long-term sustainability strategy.
In their 15-page prospectus, the group demanded the city pay $3.5 million in improvement costs for the House. With such a large sum, the mayor turned down their plan because he said, in a signed letter to Bracey, the sustainability component was inadequate.
YOUTH GROUPS TAKE ACTION
The violence that rattled New Haven in 2011 reinspired the city’s residents and youth together to fight for the Q House.
Travis Washington Jr., 17, was assassinated on June 25, 2011. At approximately 10 p.m., he was approached by a man near the intersection of Carmel and Percival streets in the Beaver Hills neighborhood. The man asked for his name. He replied, “Travis.” He never had a chance to inquire “Why?”
Washington was the 18th out of 34 homicides in the city that year and one of seven casualties under the age of 21, according to the New Haven Homicide Report. Thirty-four was the highest number of homicides in a decade.
Out of fear for the futures of young people in the city, two new youth groups were born.
Sheeva Williams-Nelson, Washington’s aunt, had dreams of starting her own youth organization. The death of her nephew forced her vision to come to fruition.
In July 2012, she started Breakthru! Inc.
“It was how I went through my grieving process,” said Williams-Nelson.
Her son, Joshua Williams, 18, who helped start the program, had taken his cousin’s death particularly hard. The trauma of losing a loved one, suffered by many children in New Haven, was an issue Williams-Nelson noticed was not being addressed in schools. She knew she had to make healing the central focus of her program.
Through her group, she has met countless students involved in gangs and who have been to jail. Unable to escape the violence, even in school, many of these kids exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Before 2011, if they heard gunshots they really didn’t pay attention,” Williams-Nelson said. “But now, when they hear it, they’re scared for their parents. When [they] see a car drive slowly down the street, now they start to run.”
Children with PTSD are more aggressive, acting on impulse, and more prone to cause trouble in school. According to Williams-Nelson, instead of arranging an assessment of those who exhibit repetitive behavioral problems, teachers place students on in-house suspension, punishing them for lashing out.
Members of Breakthru! expressed that they wanted a community center like the Q House with mentors to talk to about their troubles. The only obstacle is pressuring the city to get on board.
“It’s not a money [problem],” Williams said. “[The city] can definitely afford it. It’s not on the top of their priority list.”
According to Jeanette L. Morrison, Alderman of Ward 22, no child was ignored at the Q House.
“Kids that are doing the unfortunate incidents, they don’t have anywhere to go where it could be a safe place to talk about their problems,” Morrision said. She has been working with youth groups like the New Elm City Dream to push the city government to reopen the Q House.
A self-proclaimed Q House kid, Morrison started going there when she was 7 years old.
She recalls Carlton White, a man who many kids went to talk to when they were considering committing violent acts. He would counsel these young people at any hour of the day, many deciding afterwards not to do what they had contemplated.
“When you have a place like the Q house, where people know it’s a safe haven they can turn to, you will decrease the violence,” said Morrison.
In 2011, Breakthru! conducted a phone campaign, mobilizing thousands of youth in New Haven to call City Hall and demand the Q House be reopened. And with the support of city officials like Morrison and DeStefano, on Jan. 10, 2012 the group facilitated a Q House Community Forum that filled the auditorium at Wexler Grant High School. Youth and community members demanded what they wanted to see in a new Q House. Williams-Nelson, also an alumnus of the House, handed a report to the mayor.
While Breakthru! Inc is focused on counseling kids, the New Elm City Dream, also formed in 2011, was determined to pressure the city to create youth jobs as a solution to youth violence.
The city’s Youth@Work program provides employment opportunities year round for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. However, due to budget cuts in 2011, the program can fund job opportunities for only 600 kids for the next fiscal year, almost half the number they were able to serve in 2010. There are still thousands of youth between the ages 14-21 that need jobs. Money is an anchor for many who stay in gangs, according to Marks.
Co-founders Lisa Bergman and David White met at the New Haven People’s Center, while members of the Young Community League of New Haven. The devastating number of young people lost to violence in 2011 prompted the two to switch their attention from adult workers to unemployed youth.
The YCL had their first Youth Jobs Roundtable on Sept. 24, 2011, marking the birth of the NECD. At the request of the group’s youth, they held their first Youth Jobs March on Nov. 2, 2011. Over 200 people attended. They held up the names and photographs of the 34 people who had lost their lives that year on placards as they marched. They collected 650 petition signatures for Obama’s American Jobs Act.
In Feb. 2012, the group wrote their own youth survey to find out what young people in the city thought about the youth violence and jobs issue. They found that 50 percent of 10th graders, the largest group surveyed, had been exposed to gun violence and shootings.
The group’s second Youth Jobs March on June 17, 2012 inspired the state to open their ears.
It was this march that Morrison believed convinced Connecticut’s state government to provide $40,000 to the Board of Aldermen to fund a feasibility study of the Q House in Sept. 2012.
“The state and other elected officials saw the New Elm City Dream and other youth groups marching,” said Bergman. “[We were saying] we don’t want to be involved in the violence … we need something to do, something positive. Otherwise, how could you except us to have better lives?”
Although the Q House will not directly solve the problem of youth joblessness, it would provide kids with positive social interactions and the support they need to make good decisions for their lives.
In Feb. 2013, the group organized a Valentines-themed march, urging the community to love each other in order to decrease violence in the city. They marched on Kensington Street to the home of Tremire Miller, now 2 years old.
There, members gave speeches urging peace and unity in the face of senseless violence.
THE ALDERMEN PRIORITIZE YOUTH
Sarah Eidelson ’12, Ward 1 Alderman, chairman of the aldermanic youth committee, was at this February’s march and promised that the Board of Alderman would look into the reopening of the Q House as part of its youth agenda.
“A big part of why I wanted to get involved in the youth agenda in the first place was from getting to know some of [the youth groups] and being at their rallies and their marches and being so inspired by the fact that there were young people my age or older and also who were 6 or 7 or 10 who were really taking control of their neighborhoods and leading in the fight to build their own youth agenda,” said Eidelson.
After the new board came into term last January, they created a legislative vision statement, which they passed unanimously, the first time that had ever happened for a board. Their top priority in that statement was to develop a comprehensive youth agenda to address youth violence and the lack of opportunities for youth in the city.
There are three components to the agenda, one of them being youth spaces. Under that umbrella, the board will reassess the Q House, the Goffe Street Armory and carry out a citywide youth space project. In the latter project, the city will map out spaces that already exist and evaluate what can be done to enhance them.
In Sept. 2012, the BOA received $200,000 from the city’s Engineering Dept.— $160,000 for the citywide project and $40,000 to conduct a feasibility study to determine the cost of renovating the Q House.
After the receipt of these funds, the board created an informal committee that put out two requests for quotation (RFQ); one for a contractor to assess the Q House and discern how much the dilapidated building would cost to renovate or breakdown and rebuild, and another for a facilitator to hold community meetings for citizens to voice what they want to see at the new House, who they want to manage the building and how they plan to keep it sustainable.
The contractor, Regina Winters ARC ’94 of Zared Architecture, and the facilitator, Dr. Robert Tucker, a retired consultant, were chosen in April and the feasibility study began in July. However, as of the end of this summer, the BOA has yet to secure the funding for renovations. That process will go under way once Winters determines the final cost.
The future of the Q House appears bright. If it were not for the efforts of groups like the Concerned Citizens and the unwavering activism of New Haven’s youth groups, the resurrection of the Q House may have remained on the bottom of the city’s priorities. It’s a promising step in getting youth off the streets and providing a safe place for them to be kids, a place for them to find community. But for Bracey, the promise of the center’s return has a more significant meaning.
“A win for the Q House is a win for the African-American community.”