Almost every day for six weeks, seven of us have been walking up and down the streets of Ward 16 in Fair Haven, trying to talk to the ward’s 1,400 registered Democrats. We stand in doorways of houses with bright colors but faded paint, and Magda Natal and Denise Maldonado introduce themselves.
They explain that they are running to be the co-chairs of the Democratic Ward Committee in Ward 16, that the people in power have held the positions for eight years and done absolutely nothing in a neighborhood that needs so much for something to happen. They explain that they are mothers with young children who want their children to grow up in a community without drugs, violence, prostitution, or blighted homes. They explain in English and in Spanish. They listen and try to understand.
Yesterday, we talked to Alberto. He is raising three children on Lloyd Street and studying theology to become a priest. He calls drug dealers “the enemy” and says they have trashed the neighborhood and its reputation. His car has been stolen three times from right in front of his house. Teenage boys try to deal from his front sidewalk. But he has lived in his house for the past ten years and refuses to leave.
“This is my property and space and I just go out there and tell them: ‘Not in my space — I love this neighborhood.’ I am never leaving until we get it right.” Alberto believes that “the enemy” will come around. “They’re just in a different place right now, but they will come to see the truth. In the meantime, I just talk to them and tell them, that isn’t right.”
Alberto wants to see change happen. He wants the ugly, blighted houses down.
“How will that happen?” he asks. “How can power flow back into this community?”
Last week, we talked to Deatra, who lives with her husband and five children. She has muscular dystrophy but still works every day. She has been looking for another four-room apartment for the past three months because her landlord raised the rent. But the Housing Authority refuses to pay such a high rent for an apartment in Fair Haven. The landlord wants them out, but there is nowhere to go. She doesn’t want to move because her two youngest children love their program at Sound School.
“It’s the only good thing we can give them,” she says. “I don’t want to leave New Haven.”
She says she is afraid to let her children play outside because of the drug dealers.
“Other people have LEAP or the YMCA,” she says. “We don’t have anything. I keep them inside all day.”
Deatra is sick of politics. “What are you really going to do?” she asks. “What can I honestly expect?”
A month ago we talked to Xiomara. She told us she wasn’t voting for anyone or anything because it didn’t matter. Nothing ever happened for her, or people like her, anyway.
“They don’t care about us,” she says. “They never do anything for us, except ask us to vote.”
She told us about uncovered lead pipes hanging out of the ceiling of her third-floor apartment. She told us how they had fallen onto her year-old baby and how he had suffered from lead poisoning.
Ward 16 almost feels like home now. I know all the Yale Forestry School gardens and all the corner stores. I know where a pack of Utz cheese puffs costs only 25 cents. I know where grape soda costs 79 cents. I know the blighted, boarded-up, seemingly haunted houses on James Street and the carefully planted flowers on Exchange. I know the trash dumped regularly onto Chapel from people outside the neighborhood, and I know the Clay mound of dirt filled with PCB’s in which children play. And definitely best of all — but maybe least of all — I finally know some of the people of Ward 16, who have forced me to think about the universe in a way unlike ever before.
Alberto asked how power can flow back into the community. But there is power in the community. There is power in mothers who are getting ready for work, making dinner and holding small children while they talk to us. There is power in people who plant flowers on land that they don’t even own, because they want the neighborhood to be beautiful. There is power in families who ferociously defend their homes from drugs, even if it means keeping their children home after school. There is power in people working two or three jobs to make ends meet.
But how does power flow out of Ward 16 and onto the rest of the world? How can this power converge and articulate itself in a way that challenges income inequalities, institutional racism, the lack of affordable housing and the lack of living-wage jobs that all crystallize in the blight and drug dealing that plague Ward 16?
If they win tomorrow, maybe Magda and Denise can start to make this happen with an active Ward Committee of 50 people who care about their community and want to make good things happen. By organizing in their community, they can create a structure through which people’s ideas and passions can turn into action on the world. I never thought I would turn in papers late, neglect friends, and miss meeting after meeting to work on a co-chair race.
But didn’t Mao Zedong say “Every long march begins with a single step”? And didn’t Bob from the movie “What About Bob?” say the same thing, with his Baby Steps book? So maybe this can work. Maybe it’s all about baby steps.
Shonu Gandhi is a junior in Saybrook College. She will have a regular column beginning after Spring Break.