Clustering Community

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// WEEKEND

On a warm February morning, Stephen Cremin-Endes received a call from Larry Burgess, who had gotten Stephen’s number from a friend. Cremin-Endes is the community-building specialist for Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a not-for-profit community housing developer in New Haven. Burgess was looking into the possibility of selling to NHS the house of his father, who had passed away last May. Stephen told him he would stop by the house, located at 278 Newhall St. in Newhallville, within the hour.

It was to be expected that the house, if not entirely dilapidated, would not be in great shape.

When the real estate bubble burst in 2007, the Newhallville neighborhood was hit hardest as the epicenter of the city’s foreclosure epidemic. Speculators began to use the neighborhood’s already devalued and dilapidated housing stock as a cash machine. But as the debt on the properties grew, houses were once again boarded up.

As with other vacated properties in the Newhallville area, people had broken into 278 Newhall to steal aluminum, furnaces, copper piping and toilet plumbing. In an effort to prevent further theft, Burgess had boarded up a door in the back with some nails and spare plywood. Walls were peeling; flooring exposed; ceilings decaying. Though one of his brothers hopes to keep the house, Larry says he doesn’t have the proper funds to maintain it. This is where Cremin-Endes and the NHS team come in.

The agency rehabilitates old houses like Burgess’ to sell to new lower and middle-class homeowners. But unlike the risky refinancing efforts of speculators or the superficial refurbishing touches of slumlords, NHS reinvests in the neighborhood’s already existing housing stock. About four years ago, NHS set its sights on targeting critical areas like Newhallville. Despite their experience renovating and selling over 250 houses since 1979, improving the neighborhood has been no easy task. “We have to make sure investors don’t use houses like Monopoly board rent-collecting,” said Peter Crumlish, director of development for NHS. In addition to having the city’s highest foreclosure rate, the neighborhood has had the city’s highest unemployment rate, lowest performing school district and record-breaking crime rate.

In 2007, threats from a nearby bar prompted a resident to quickly flee her house developed by the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity at 526 Winchester St. Due to further safety concerns, Habitat’s local chapter soon put the rest of its plans for the neighborhood on hold. NHS Director Jim Paley soon realized that developing Newhallville one house at a time wouldn’t change anything. A house-by-house remedy would be akin, at best, to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping bullet hole.

“The Habitat for Humanity house on Winchester was a perfectly wonderful house and family but if you’re left out there isolated on an island, what can really happen?” explained Bridgette Russell, the director of the Home Ownership Center at NHS. “At the time, it was almost imperative that anything done was done in the right way because you had to do it in a stabilizing way.”

To stabilize Newhallville, NHS pioneered a strategy called the “cluster approach” that buys and renovates groups of contiguous houses simultaneously. These clusters of development can improve the appearance and raise the property values of entire blocks and streets. Community leader and resident Tammy Chapman moved into one of the three houses in the first cluster in Newhallville, at Winchester and Highland, in December 2011. “The cluster program allows you to put your arms out,” she said, “and touch your neighbors on both sides.”

But for a long time, nobody reached out at all. Though the housing stock once was designed for socializing, with porches for waving and talking, people had retreated indoors as conditions outside worsened.

* * *

In 1870, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company established its permanent industrial campus — acres and acres of plant floor two miles northwest from Yale. Nurtured by the strong arms of the Winchester Factory and its suppliers, the surrounding neighborhood of Dixwell-Newhallville had prospered from a wellspring of stable employment and decent wages for its residents.

Eva Smith, who’s lived a block up from the Winchester Factory since 1956, remembers a time when people in Newhallville had jobs at the factory. Smith remembers hearing as a child the loud ringing of the lunchtime bell calling Winchester’s employees back to work from her living room. She remembers living in a flourishing working class town made up of Italians, African Americans, Caucasians and Hispanics with mixed incomes. She remembers a time when the factory — located at the intersection of Winchester and Munson — looked like a factory.

What remains of the factory today is series of two, four and five-story buildings filled with whatever refuse has not been sacked by squatters and skateboarders: shells, casings, old boxes. Bright greenery crawls over soot stained bricks and shuttered windows down into the twisted barbed wire fence that surrounds its perimeter.

Though Winchester’s closing is not the root cause of woe in Dixwell-Newhallville, its demise left an open sore from which the neighborhood has yet to fully recover. Many sections of the Newhallville neighborhood’s properties are not much better off. When the small fraction of the still operative factory closed down in 2006, its staff (including Burgess’ father) consisted of fewer than 200 workers.

Not long after the factory reduced its operations, Smith watched her street disappear. From her porch on Winchester where she sat on most days, Smith pointed to a string of small businesses — a drugstore, a Laundromat, a bar — and farther up the street — a donut shop, a shoe shop and a Greek restaurant. Where, with a little imagination, she could bring the street back to life, I saw only what was left: some nice houses, some burned houses, boarded-up buildings and empty grass lots. In what was now a totally vacant apartment building across from her house, I tried to picture the grocery store and grocer who once lived upstairs, and I failed. But NHS sees something else.

If NHS were to purchase Burgess’ house, it would rebuild the interior while preserving undamaged historical details like its old sturdy green door. In addition to restoring historical fabric, NHS also hopes to revive the sense of community Newhallville once had.

* * *

En route to visit Burgess’ house on Newhall Street, Cremin-Endes drove past West Division Street in his blue Subaru. The street, once blighted, is now unrecognizable. NHS’ concentrated efforts in the area have rehabilitated four of the street’s seven houses. All houses are LEED-certified energy efficient (saving their owners from more expensive bills in the long term). NHS’ cluster strategy extends to houses it does not own: NHS has painted three other houses on West Division and added streetlights throughout.

Right after he passed by NHS’ own work on West Division Street, Cremin-Endes pulled over at Newhall and Huntington next to a house in need of grave repair with green tiling, rusty fences over the door and broken fallen flooring. (Graffiti on the wall read: “To all you stink ass bitches …”). Cremin-Endes greeted the current landlord, who seemed to be making only minimal repairs, and offered to buy the house on behalf of NHS. The landlord seemed uninterested in the offer. But it is important for NHS’ efforts to raise property values in the neighborhood that rundown houses don’t stay rundown, no matter whose hands renovate them. So, Cremin-Endes made another offer: “If you do a nice job, I can get 20 volunteers — and I don’t do this often — but I can get 20 volunteers to help you clean out.”

“I asked the city to help me,” the landlord responded. “I’m not bringing anything down. They bring themselves down every day. You get one or two houses but you can’t do anything. Let’s be realistic, what are you going to get on this housing?” The answer, in terms of community building instead of profit, is a lot.

Cremin-Endes, who has gained national recognition for his work in Newhallville, explained that the agency someday hopes to connect all of these micro-neighborhoods to form a “critical mass” of stability. A bird’s-eye-view map of Newhallville in his office marks properties acquired and to be acquired. But one nice house does not a good neighborhood make. For this reason, NHS is currently developing and planning multiple clusters at once.

The ultimate goal, Cremin-Endes said, is “to bring back neighborhoods to what they were many years ago: desirable neighborhoods of choice for families.” Boxes of flowers in windowsills have improved appearances, and, in turn, morale. Shoveled snow is a small but sure sign of a house’s self-care. And better lighting on streets has led to marked reductions in crime.

Neighborhood leaders are making efforts to light up every street in Newhallville with LED lighting by the end of this year. NHS has recently partnered with about 10 churches and other social service agencies in the area as part of the Promised Land Initiative. The Promised Land Initiative has pledged to fix 10 blocks in Newhallville hit hardest by high crime and abandoned houses for the last two decades. “We thought because they were already renovating houses it would be a good partnership for collaboration,” said Pastor Donald Morris, the executive director of Newhallville’s Christian Community Commission — a nonprofit outreach organization, and one of the leaders of the Promised Land Initiative.

The Initiative’s team has also helped train residents to become more proactive in the neighborhood’s community policing efforts and safety meetings. “The police department and local churches have all joined forces to make this a collaborative role model neighborhood for change,” Morris added.

Yet while the streetlights improve both safety and aesthetics, if nothing else is done to solidify these changes then crime can start to creep up all over again. Community organizing and homeowner leadership have helped to reinforce these changes. The Solar Youth after school program keep kids busy after school; Chapman has also been organizing community walks to promote health and resident visibility. Studies have shown, Chapman says, that communities that exercise together have lower crime rates. Newhallville now boasts the highest concentration of community gardens in New Haven.

When Chapman’s neighbors were going to move out of the neighborhood, she convinced them to stay by pointing to these catalytic changes.

“There is a direct causal impact on how people who might have been reluctant to view a house for purchase change their mind after seeing change on the block or street,” NHS Development Director Bridgette Russell said. “There’s a positive impact for those already living in a community on both an ownership level and investment level. When you see other changes taking place, it spurs you on.”

Last year Russell invited NHS homeowner-to-be Vinita Mullings to attend a community leadership conference in Orlando, Florida. Mullings felt inspired by the confidence of other community leaders across the country. “It was great just to meet different people,” she said. Since that trip, she has been working on an initiative to build an educational greenhouse in the community garden across from Lincoln-Bassett School. This spring she’ll be moving from Hamden into a house on Winchester and Cave. Accented with purple paint, her new spacious two-family house — she’ll be leasing to a tenant on the first floor — will have a mortgage lower than what her rent had been. “I’m thinking about a boxed garden in my yard,” she said, adding that she was hoping to start a garden club.

“I think this is a replicable model in terms of what can be done,” Russell added, “because when I talk to other residents in Newhallville they’re excited about the positive things that are on the horizon; there’s a lot of positive energy there.”

* * *

At last October’s annual meeting of the Neighborhood Housing Services, employees, trustees and new homeowners gathered to celebrate and share the year’s accomplishments over hot wood-fire pizza. NHS’ architects were the bartenders, everybody was kindly praising somebody else’s work, and the NHS office campus, built as a series of small houses, flowed with voices and good news.

NHS tries to prepare first-time buyers to be responsible owners with classes and foreclosure mitigation assistance. “This is about the long-term,” Cremin-Endes told me. “Not just ribbon-cutting.” NHS is willing to work with new owners for as long as it takes for them to get off their feet — sometimes for years.

Joseph Adjei, a father of five and a new home buyer, talked about how taken care of he felt by this ‘all-things-considered’ approach. “I can talk to them. It is not like buying and selling,” he said. “They care about the people who live in the houses. It makes me comfortable.”

As the annual meeting’s party gathered into a white plastic tent, rain came down in longer and longer streaks outside. Chapman and her husband James spoke to the crowd on behalf of their cluster about their experiences. “We are really looking forward to reclaiming our neighborhood,” she continued. “It has suffered so many years of neglect.” Of Adjei, Chapman said that he “feels like a king in his home, so thank you, NHS, for making him a castle.”

Since moving to Newhallville, Chapman has gotten involved with many of the initiatives to beautify and form a community. “They make it so you feel that you’re part of something,” she said. “They call you and get you involved with meetings and initiatives and you’re always encouraged to do your own initiatives.” Her blog, “Newhallville. Community. Matters.”, reads as an archive of the community’s collective building efforts.

When Chapman talked to me about her community involvement, she also talked about its communal history. “I think it’s kind of unusual for a neighborhood to have multigenerational families, families that have been here when things were really rough and really bad,” she said. “All you could do was go into your house, through the back door, shut the shades, and never talk to anybody.” She says that street cleanups get people out of their houses and talking to each other. Now that the weather is warming, she’s hoping to organize street cleanups once a month from March through October.

“When I try to explain this to people, I say that I can connect with my neighbors more readily than other neighborhoods in New Haven because it has always been a community,” Chapman said. “The cluster did not create a community. People have kind of forgotten it throughout the years. The bones are there. We have our challenges but we’re invested.”

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