Over the weekend, about 25 residents from communities around Grand, Whalley and Dixwell Avenues spent 14 hours together at the Hall of Records, learning the “Main Street Approach” to neighborhood economic revitalization.
The training was the latest development in Mayor Toni Harp’s efforts to bring new growth to neighborhoods beyond downtown. On the campaign trail, she pledged to address what many city residents perceived as governmental neglect.
Her administration has turned to the National Main Street Center, a nonprofit that focuses on revitalizing historic commercial districts, to provide a framework for New Haven’s neighborhoods. In the spring, the city hired consultants from the Connecticut Main Street Center, a member of the National Main Street Center, to conduct a study of the city; their report recommended additional training for city administrators and neighborhood stakeholders. Three of the national center’s consultants received $10,000 from the city to offer the weekend training on the nonprofit’s methods, known as the Main Street Four Point Approach: organization, marketing, design and economic restructuring.
“This is like Main Street 101, so that they can learn all the tools they need to use to take the ideas back to their neighborhoods,” said Kathy La Plante, senior program officer at the National Main Street Center.
Harp and the City’s Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81 both attended portions of the training.
During the Sunday afternoon session, La Plante flipped through “before” and “after” photographs showing dramatic transformations of communities in Baltimore, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and Greenville, South Carolina. She also discussed the importance of securing community buy-in, leveraging existing local resources and developing detailed plans to guide neighborhood efforts.
But amid the pictures and stories of success, the question persisted: Will this work in New Haven?
Many attendees, most of whom are members of Community Management Teams, said they were optimistic to a point. CMT is composed of residents who work to solve neigborhood-specific problems.
Lee Cruz, a member of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association in Fair Haven, said some of the information was fairly basic and familiar to the Grand Avenue contingent, as numerous groups have been working to improve the vitality and image of the area for years. But he said he found the weekend worthwhile nonetheless.
“There were good ideas that were shared, ideas that we hadn’t thought of,” Cruz said. “That’s often what training is good for, when you’ve got an organization that formed and has been doing things and wants to move in a new direction.”
Jerome Perkins, a member of the Dixwell Community Management Team, said he had attended similar trainings and information sessions in the past and considered the content of the session familiar. But he was pleased to see Harp taking concrete steps towards implementing campaign promises.
Harp has charged Stephen Fontana, deputy director for economic development, with spearheading the neighborhood revitalization efforts. In May, Fontana attended the National Main Street Center conference in Detroit, where he met one of the weekend’s presenters — Anwar Saleem, the executive director of a Main Street program in Washington, D.C.
Conversations at the conference, Fontana said, helped him see that the Main Street Approach, often utilized by small towns, can work in urban areas. He said that La Plante, who has directed Main Street programs in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire acknowledged that New Haven faces unique challenges.
“Our task as a city is somewhat larger than it is in smaller suburban or rural, more homogenous communities,” Fontana said.
Before the training weekend began, La Plante, who lives and works in New Hampshire, toured the three focus neighborhoods for about two hours. Earlier this week, she led training sessions in Rollins, Wyoming. In a typical year she leads 150 sessions all over the United States.
La Plante said she did not have time to get a handle on the specific challenges of each New Haven neighborhood before the training. She did notice Yale’s influence throughout the city and thinks Yale has a stake in ensuring the success of this project.
“Yale is not something any other community has,” she said. “Yale ought to care about the neighborhoods beyond its campus.”
But thus far, Yale has not been involved in the neighborhood revitalization project, Fontana said.
On Sunday afternoon, after La Plante finished her presentation covering the design strategies neighborhoods can employ to ensure shops and sidewalks are inviting, participants broke into neighborhood groups. Their task was to put into practice the information they had learned over the weekend by coming up with a single project, such as a street cleaning or neighborhood party, that they could complete within six months to a year.
The exercise revealed one of the challenges facing the implementation of the Main Street project: creating a new set of human infrastructure to spearhead efforts in each neighborhood. While all three neighborhoods have various preexisting civic and business groups, Fontana said he envisions the Main Street program as requiring new groups with representation from all the stakeholders in each neighborhood.
The neighborhood groups struggled to complete the assignment in just 45 minutes.
When the 15 Dixwell community members met to tackle the exercise, the conversation turned from a potential community holiday party to questions of leadership. After heated discussion, community management team leader Cordelia Thorpe accused Fontana and the Main Street program of undermining the authority of the Dixwell CMT.
Bernard Goutier, 27, said the bickering at the group meeting reminded him of discussion at the Dixwell CMT, whose meetings he stopped attending.
“Initially this was supposed to be an exercise in how we can get together,” Goutier told the group. “Well, we suck. This is why the youth, my age and younger, don’t get involved with the community.”
Interviewed after the meeting, Goutier said he still had hope that Dixwell would be able to use the Main Street approach to boost its businesses and increase community pride — but only if the neighborhood residents turn the arguments into productive conversations.
Fontana said La Plante told him that communities often struggle with the initial step of creating a team to oversee the Main Street program.
“We’re at a typical early stage in the process,” Fontana said. “It’s also the case that by virtue of being a city we’ve got multiple neighborhoods, in this case with distinct issues, distinct constituencies.”
The clock struck 5 p.m. and La Plante needed to get on the road. The Dixwell group disbanded. The details of their project idea — a holiday party held outside the Dixwell Plaza shopping center or the shuttered Q House — were still up in the air.
But they had set the date for a meeting next week.