Sitting outside the abandoned, grey brick building that once housed the Dixwell Community House, Angela Cloud, 50, surveyed the retail complex across the street.
The corner lot — Dixwell Plaza’s largest — stood empty save for window signs advertising the C-Town Supermarket that shut its doors in 2009, leaving the property vacant ever since. Cloud, who has lived in New Haven her entire life, noted several convenience stores, a smoke shop and a few restaurants, interspersed with vacancies. The Stetson Branch Library in the middle of the plaza was a bright spot. Still, she said, the state of Dixwell Plaza was evidence of governmental neglect.
“Money from the city couldn’t possibly have made it here,” Cloud said.
On the campaign trail last year, Mayor Toni Harp was thinking about people like Cloud when she promised to change City Hall’s relationship with neighborhoods beyond downtown. Harp pledged to develop areas such as Dixwell that have languished without thriving commercial zones. In December, Harp appointed former state representative Stephen Fontana deputy director of economic development and charged him with spearheading efforts to revitalize New Haven’s neighborhoods.
“The mayor said that to make New Haven what we’d like it to be, we need to revisit the neighborhoods,” Fontana said. “There’s only so far the city will be able to succeed, regionally, nationally or internationally if we don’t make sure that our neighborhoods are part of that success.”
Last March, Harp hired consultants from the Connecticut Main Street Center, a non-profit organization that focuses on urban revitalization. They were paid $10,000 by the private non-profit Economic Development Corporation of New Haven to survey four major corridors — Dixwell, Whalley, Grand and Congress Avenues — and make recommendations on how to spur development.
In their 24-page report issued in May, the consultants advised New Haven to enlist community members to learn the “Main Street Approach,” a strategy that aims to have residents devise their own plans for developing neighborhoods. The plan does not include specific projects or ideas for what each neighborhood should look like. Instead, it defines broad focus areas such as “relationship building” and “building trust.” It also recommends stakeholders from each neighborhood participate in training about the “Main Street Approach.” From there, trainees are supposed to develop “action plans” for their communities, and work with the city to obtain funding for their proposals. The program was developed by the National Main Street Center, which is a member of the National Main Street Center, which has overseen projects in hundreds of commercial districts in towns and cities across the United States.
In November, Fontana will bring two additional consultants to the Elm City to lead the Main Street training sessions. If all goes according to plan, this will be the beginning of a fundamental transformation of some of the city’s most deprived neighborhoods.
But from where Cloud sits, — groups that link residents to the police and city government — to spread the word and attend the meeting. But only six people showed up, five of whom live or work near Grand Avenue and one of whom is not affiliated with any of the focus neighborhoods.
The Whalley Avenue contingency was attending a conflicting meeting downstairs, Fontana said; he hadn’t heard from the management team from Dixwell. Congress Avenue, the city had decided, is not a good fit for the Main Street Approach because it lacks a “critical mass of commercial activity,” Fontana said.
Fontana said he has met regularly with the Community Management Teams since the report came out in May. But meetings were held sporadically during the summer, and Cloud questioned the reach of the Dixwell team.
“I stopped going to the meetings,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know about it.”
She said the meetings she did attend were poorly attended and ineffective.
As attendees munched on pizza in a meeting room on the second floor of City Hall, Fontana delivered a power-point presentation about the work ahead. He emphasized that it will not be easy, will require community buy-in and could take a long time. The Main Street Approach, he said, requires neighborhood stakeholders to adopt the mindset that bettering their communities is “not ‘City Hall’s responsibility.’”
At the end of the presentation, Phillip Boone, pastor at Cathedral of Higher Praise on Grand Avenue, asked a question that has long bedeviled urban planners.
“What is your idea to get those who feel they really don’t have a vested interest in the neighborhood to buy into cleaning up?” Boone asked.
“That’s a very good question,” Fontana responded. “My guess is there are people on Grand Avenue who know the people there, and what they do care about. You have to reach them with what they do care about.”
Fontana said the next steps would focus on identifying leaders who could convince people to volunteer time and energy with neighborhood organizations. In an interview before the meeting, he acknowledged that each neighborhood has unique needs.
Grand Avenue, in Fair Haven, has few vacancies. But with many similar convenience stores, the neighborhood could benefit from greater commercial diversity. Dixwell, just beyond Morse and Ezra Stiles College, has many churches and homes, but similarly has a large number of vacancies. Whalley, which many Yale students know as the home of Popeye’s and Stop and Shop, boasts many businesses but little residential development, Fontana said.
The November training, Fontana said, will help community members find solutions to their unique problems. He met the two consultants who will lead the training when he attended the National Main Street Conference in Detroit in June. They will receive $10,000 to explain the Main Street principles of organization, neighborhood marketing and promotion, aesthetic improvements and, finally, economic restructuring.
Ginny Kozlowski, CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven, said it was important to hire Main Street to guide the city’s efforts.
“They have a proven track record,” she said.
After nearly an hour of genial discussion, attendees threw away grease-stained paper plates and headed back home. In an interview at the end of the meeting, Boone said the information he heard wasn’t fully satisfying.
“ThThough she did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, Dixwell Community Team leader Cordelia Thorpe said she’s looking forward to attending the November training along with four other Dixwell residents. She grew up in Dixwell and remembers that during her childhood and young adulthood, the area was prosperous, with grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses. She hopes the project will eventually return much-needed retail options to the neighborhood.
Thorpe and Fontana said they see a role for Yale to play in the project, especially on Dixwell and Whalley.
So far, Fontana said, the University has not been involved, but he thinks it could provide resources and connections to an array of nonprofit organizations throughout the city.
Thorpe envisions a symbiotic relationship between Yale students and Dixwell, where students could apply what they have learned in economics, architecture and political science to help a neighborhood get back on its feet.
Thorpe, Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, who represents Dixwell, and Cloud all said they are pleased to see the city doing anything at all in the neighborhood after what they perceived as consistent neglect during former Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s tenure. Morrison said over the past decade, the city has focused on downtown development, often as the expense of neighborhoods like Dixwell.
Even if the effort fails, Thorpe said, it will be better than nothing.
“If this is not enough, hopefully something else will bring us a little further,” Thorpe said. “So I don’t want to put a grim reaper on it. I want to have optimism and hope and try to help us all aspire higher.”