Westville Renaissance

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Photo by Jacob Geiger.

When Thea Buxbaum told her cab driver that she was moving into New Haven’s Westville neighborhood, he was shocked. The neighborhood was one of New Haven’s most troubled, split between some of the city’s wealthiest homes and its poorest.

“Why would you want to move here?” he asked, incredulously.

“That’s why,” she said, pointing. “Do you see that leaded glass window?”

It was then that the cab driver saw what Thea Buxbaum sees — what she calls “gorgeous details in the poorest neighborhoods.” He went out of his way to drive her around his neighborhood, showing her his own favorite details, like columns on old porches. “He thought he hated New Haven,” Thea says. “But he noticed these details.”

In 1996, Thea and her husband, sculptor Gar Waterman, eventually bought a house in Westville — for $1. (Thea, with the help of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, had convinced the Board of Aldermen to sell it, but she never expected the price they offered.) It was a worn-down industrial warehouse owned by the city, occupied by feral cats and gang members, both of whom were using its top floor as a hangout.

Now, after years of renovations, Thea’s home is a big, open loft space, with walls that she and her husband use to display his sculptures. In the corner of the room there is a small kitchen; a door leads to her son’s room, which was once both the master bedroom and the couple’s office. Today, it is filled with Lego sets that her son, Geffin, is busy assembling.

But Thea’s preservation work has expanded beyond just the renovations of her home. She wants to revamp all of Westville.

Since Thea began her first renovation, Westville has become a haven for poor artists and a “growing artistic community,” according to Yale’s website. Thea attributes these changes to Westville’s characteristics: its proximity to Yale, its diversity, and, above all, that it is a neighborhood, but not a suburban one. “Artists hate suburbia,” she tells me. “They prefer big Greek revival houses. Artists like porches.”

And thanks to Thea, the neighborhood now offers many opportunities for artists to showcase their work. Thea went to the Friends of Edgewood Park — a pre-existing volunteer organization that works to preserve the large park adjacent to the Yale Bowl — to ask if they would support something called ArtWalk: a day in which Westville artists could display and sell their work in storefront windows and on the sidewalk. The first ArtWalk, in 1996, drew around 400 people. Last year, the 14th annual ArtWalk drew between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees.

After the first ArtWalk, Thea and her neighbors founded the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance, which continues to promote the arts in Westville. In 2008, the neighborhood was named a “Connecticut Main Street Community” by the Connecticut Main Street Center, a non-profit organization geared at revitalizing downtowns by promoting development on main streets. Since the first ArtWalk, Thea has helped local artisans open stores on Whalley Avenue. One she is particularly proud of is the local gallery, run by her friend Gabriel DaSilva, who finds and displays local art. Manjares, a tapas and coffee bar on Whalley, is also a Westville success story; it is owned by another of Thea’s friends.

Thea Buxbaum is not the first urban planner to stress the importance of preservation and beautification in developing communities. Although the City Beautiful movement — which influenced the planning of big cities like Chicago and Detroit in the early 20th century — is more often associated with the construction of monuments, its philosophy of urban renewal stresses that the appearance of buildings and neighborhoods has a lot to do with how well the surrounding communities function. Thea holds that there are two components of how good a neighborhood feels: the first element is porches, and the second is how much trash there is on the street. As for the latter: “When I am driving down the street and I see someone throw litter on the ground, I stop them and ask that they pick it up. I’m convinced I will be killed that way.”

In 2003, Thea was driving down Whalley Avenue when she saw a “For Sale” sign in front of an old bank building. She called (“out of pure curiosity”) to ask about the building, and she learned that Dunkin’ Donuts and CVS had already made bids.

“Despite the fact that there were already Dunkin’ Donuts and CVS locations two minutes away,” she says with scorn, “this one had drive-thru potential.” Thea then met with Paul McCraven, a Westville resident who worked for the National Savings Bank, to see if she could get funds to purchase the building. Working with her friend Roberta Gratz — whose mother was an urban planner herself — she was able to turn the building into artists’ housing.

“Roberta knows about neighborhood revitalizations and Paul can see opportunity,” Thea said. “Like all good things, there was a confluence of factors that allowed it to happen.” Thea was at the center of these “factors,” drawing them together with the gravity of her personality. “It is an affront to my sensibilities when I see a McDonald’s on Whalley Ave,” she says.

Today, the artists’ residential building that Thea worked to build is fully occupied. Artists who want to live there are required to submit resumes and portfolios. Still, artists who Thea says are “virtually homeless” constantly approach her looking for a place to live in Westville. Thea already hosts artists in the two top floors of her home, but she is always trying to find new places where artists can live and work. “I hold their hands,” she says. “And I try to find clients.” Most of the clients Thea finds for artists, she says, are her own friends, and most of them are artists themselves.

At their home, Thea eagerly shows me her husband’s studio — she is also his agent. His most recent work, she explains, is based on his study of Nudibranchs, a tiny kind of mollusk that lives in coral reefs and comes in 3500 species, each with its own brilliant colors. They are threatened by global warming and could potentially cure cancer. “And they are very toxic,” she says. “I forgot that part.”

Thea’s eight-year-old son, Geffin, wants to be an artist. Geffin has shoulder-length blond hair and carries with him customizable dice made out of Lego bricks. “I might be a sculptor,” he says. Thea prompts Geffin: “Tell him what it is you do when you draw.” Geffin doesn’t want to tell me — he doesn’t like that his mom is putting words in his mouth. “I’m trying to get you to say stuff because Will is interested in our family,” she tells him. “And your art is very interesting.” This reasoning satisfies Geffin, who proceeds to tell me about his art: he draws grasshoppers. Thea gives him a dollar for every time he draws one.

“I had 88 dollars once,” Geffin says. “Although mom doesn’t believe me.” Thea explains that the detail on each grasshopper he draws is better than that of the last, and that, because he focuses on a different part each time, his grasshopper keeps getting better. Although Geffin thinks that his first drawing is the best one (“because it is the most raw”), it is clear, looking at some of the pictures, that the final grasshopper is much improved.

Before I leave, Thea and I sit down in the front room of her home. She is getting a few things together to go on a trip to see friends in the Berkshires, and her husband is making banana ice cream. Westville, Thea admits, is in need of a lot more than just art to overcome its woes. “It’s about having a good economy as well,” she admits. “But art is engaging and beautiful. I can’t draw the whole grasshopper. I focus on my part.”

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