On Oct. 26, six people were shot at the Key Club Cabaret, a Hamilton Street strip club less than one mile east of Old Campus. The shooting left five wounded and one — 26-year-old Erika Robinson — dead. She was New Haven’s 16th homicide victim of the year. For former Mayor John DeStefano Jr., Robinson’s death was the last straw.
“To not see the connection with the clubs [and violence in New Haven] is to misunderstand what is happening,” DeStefano said at a press conference soon after. “With these clubs … there’s an environment that contributes to the risk of the people who are in it or near it.”
But as DeStefano and current Mayor Toni Harp continue their fight for a safer nightlife culture, pain still lingers in the hearts of those connected to the victims of local crime. Some of those affected, like Jahmal Monk, are closer to us than we might realize.
Monk, a lifelong New Haven resident, currently works a variety of jobs in Commons, Monday to Friday until 4 p.m. “My friend called me and said ‘Yo, E got popped — Erika got shot.’” he said. Erika Robinson was his cousin.
“And, even though it was a bad moment, I was just grateful,” he added. “If I was there, it could’ve been me.”
Monk and his other cousin, ChyQuaan Adams from the Davenport dining hall staff, are living proof that the impact of New Haven violence permeates even the Yale bubble. The two of them represent a distinct separation from the larger Yale community, which Monk says “[doesn’t] know the actual truth” about crime outside of Yale’s gates.
For the University staffers who float between both worlds, news of a shooting is more than a headline, more than an obligatory notice from Chief Ronnell Higgins that New Haven extends beyond the intersection of College and Crown.
Both Monk and Adams have come to accept violence as part of their lives in this city. At the same time, they acknowledge the inherent sadness in having to constantly scan the names in crime reports, just to make sure the victim isn’t someone they know.
When students swipe in to find hot food and clean dishes, they are often unaware that many on staff are able, through a developed toughness and positive outlook, to press on despite hardship that cuts deeply and frequently.
“It’s really felt [in the staff community] when something happens,” Monk said. “It’s not just me and ChyQuaan. It affects everybody.”
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Adams’ phone buzzed, but everything else was quiet in the wood-paneled Davenport Fellows’ Lounge as he thought back to that October night.
“Before anybody told me, I had a bad feeling,” he said, shaking his head. “I ended up staying in the house that night for some reason. When you’re spiritually connected, you get a sense. I was gonna go out that night, and I said ‘Nah, I’ma stay home.’ I just got an eerie feeling.”
He added that, though he wasn’t planning on going to the Key Club, he probably would’ve ended up at the scene of his cousin’s death: Much as all roads lead to Toad’s, he and his friends find themselves in nightclubs on most weekends, he said.
Monk experienced a similar feeling of eeriness. He was already en route to the Hamilton Street venue, only to turn around when things just didn’t feel right.
“I called my best friend and I was like ‘I’m not coming,’” he remembered.
Though both men admitted to being profoundly affected by the loss of their cousin, they spoke with composure. Time has helped heal some of the wounds, they said, but the regularity of it all, ironically, seems to make the next one sting a little less.
In fact, just hours before Monk sat down to talk about Robinson’s death, he heard the news that his friend, Kyle Edwards, the city’s fourth and most recent homicide victim of 2014, had been shot and killed the night before.
“I came into work [on Tuesday], and I just found out that one of my little homeboys got killed last night,” he said with an air of calmness. “It hits hard because I was just with him last week.”
But he soldiered on, just as he had done many times before.
Monk added that he has attended “at least 35 funerals” in the six years since he graduated from high school, burying close friends, classmates and relatives in that stretch. After a while, he said, you learn to roll with the punches and stay grateful that things have managed to work out for you.
His cousin agreed, saying he makes a conscious effort to stay upbeat, rather than dwell on hard times.
“It’s sad to say, but I feel numb to a lot of it — not that I don’t have sympathy, but it just happens so much,” Adams said.
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After starting out in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Adams’ family moved up north to join Monk and his other relatives in New Haven — in fact, many members of Monk’s family work for Yale’s dining hall, facilities and hospital staffs. Now, after more than a decade in the Elm City, Adams has been able to reflect on how he managed to stay out of trouble during his time here.
“It depends on how you were raised. I was raised in Thomas Chapel Church on White Street,” he said. “I was raised to be spiritual … if you have faith, a lot of the outer stuff won’t affect you as much”.
He described fondly how a Christian home environment helped him overcome the sometimes-overbearing street culture that pervades New Haven. Having grown up under a similar roof, Monk agreed that his faith has been an important guiding force.
They said that belief, in addition to the savvy that comes with years of life in “the ’hood,” helped them develop the intuition that likely saved their lives last October.
Adams also spoke to the importance of centers like the old Q House on Dixwell Avenue in keeping his path straight. The mission of such places is to give kids an alternative to the after-school idleness that could develop into gang activity over time. Having spent time in the Q House growing up, Adams adamantly believes in its positive impact, lamenting its closing in 2003.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities in this day and age, as far as programs for the younger youth to get into,” he said. “When they get out of school, they got nothin’ to do but chill in these streets.”
He added that it’s important for people to surround themselves with positive influences in an environment rife with bad ones. Though kids are typically the most susceptible, he also challenged those who want to improve themselves to actively work for the change they want in their lives, rather than waiting for “hand-me-downs.”
Talks of reopening the Q House have advanced in the past few months. This comes as a relief to those sharing Adams’ view, but he still feels that there is much to be done. As a result, Adams is constantly looking for opportunities to positively influence the city that shaped who he is today — opportunities that he hopes will only continue to grow in scale.
For now, those windows come through his role as a kind of medium for Yale students looking for a real, down-to-earth peek into the city around them. Their curiosity, he said, keeps him hopeful for the future of New Haven.
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“Over time, I get to know the students, the employees. By me having the opportunity to network and meet people of all walks of life — that helps out right there. Y’all come to do work, but when someone asks about my day, that’s when the other topics come out. We definitely appreciate that.”
Adams mainly works in the dish disposal area of the Davenport dining hall, where people spend just enough time to clean off their plates and rack their cups.
Those that take the time to engage the staff in small talk, however, show both a gratitude and an interest that Adams and Monk appreciate. They view such encounters as their chance to enlighten the enlightened on a subject they know intimately: life in New Haven.
“When [students] really want to learn about New Haven, and they come here to ask us, it feels great,” Monk said. “You’re getting the God-honest truth, because we’re keeping it real.”
And as much as they feel they have to provide students in terms of perspective, the partnership is mutually beneficial. Monk — now a father living in Hamden — said he has been able to move on from his difficult past largely due to the support he receives from the University.
“Even if I hit the lotto tomorrow, I’d still work for Yale,” he said. “A lot of us thank God for this job, because if it wasn’t for Yale, I’d probably still be hard on the streets. I got into Yale, and I never left.”
Adams, who still lives near campus, also said that he’s happy with his station in life. But he has long-term goals that end in his being able to give back to the city.
“I’m working on going to school for radiology,” said Adams, who also has a presence in the local music community, having performed as a DJ on Old Campus under the name “Chyquaan Doe.”
“Yeah, that’s my stage name. My old boxing coach gave it to me,” he said with a smile.
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Soon enough, the next shooting will unfold, claiming yet another life. The next morning, students will walk into the dining hall, and the food will still be hot and the dishes will still be clean. But before they read about it in the newspaper left behind on their table, the guys behind them wearing the blue shirts will have already heard, reflected and moved on.
But the pain will always be real.
“It affects a whole lot of people when something tragic like a killing happens,” Monk said. “New Haven is really not a bad place. It’s just that, when the streets talk, they talk.”