“It’s a ghost town,” Jeffrey Jones, a Hill neighborhood resident, lamented. “It’s a total ghost town.”
He was right. On the morning of the Yale-Harvard Game, while droves of Crimson students poured out of Union Station into Ubers and Lyfts, across the street an entire housing complex lay quiet. Its single convenience store was shuttered, P.O. boxes rusted, parking lot emptied. 283 families once lived there. Now, there are 16.
This startling divide is not new. Opened in 1971, Church Street South, a privately owned, government-subsidized low-income housing complex, has been a center of controversy, derelict and crime. Dreams of its reconstruction have floated for years.
“It was brought to our attention that rebuilding Church Street South, or maybe tearing it down, or maybe coming up with a new concept was a very important thing,” described Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81, chief of economic development for the city, “and that was in 1987. … We’ve been looking at this stuff for a long, long time.”
And now, with all but a few residents still living in the complex, the city and the site’s current owner, the Northland Investment Corp., have entered a deal to build a $450 million new 1,000-unit, mixed-use, mixed-income space. “Finally achieving this is a huge achievement for the mayor and for [Livable City Initiative] and quite frankly for Northland. It’s an exciting time for New Haven. We’re probably going to have a half billion dollars worth of construction next year, and that’s just pretty exciting.”
The redevelopment of Church Street South has been mired in debate, from questions of how to replace all the affordable units to whether Northland should still maintain ownership of the property. Jones, a Hill resident, has lived next to the complex all his life and many of his friends grew up there. He wishes the city would just rehabilitate the current buildings: “I shed a few tears when I heard they were tearing it down. What are they going to do? Make a parking lot for the train station? Y’all can’t fix them up and move families in?”
But even with those reservations, everyone can agree that the housing project failed.
Originally, then-Mayor Richard C. Lee had radically different plans for the space across from Union Station. According to a 2012 report by Emily Dominski ’12, the site originally hosted a popular market directly across from the train station. This market was swept up in 1960s urban renewal spearheaded by Lee. With a new highway to the north, the space was set for luxury housing to be designed by the famous modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The luxury housing element was suddenly abandoned. The area was designated for low- to moderate-income housing with an elementary school, according to an earlier report compiled in 1980.
However, in 1967 the plan changed again: Mies left the project and the city repurposed the site for exclusively low-income housing in the form of a co-op. The new architect, Charles Moore, ended up creating 32 different plans for the site before a final design was accepted by the Redevelopment Agency of New Haven.
Moore had good intentions, but his design had flaws. The complex was inspired by an Italian villa in a “low-rise, village-style” according to the 2012 Dominski report. A series of rectangular, tan, two-story blocks were scattered across the site. Small plazas, green spaces and parking lots were formed in the spaces between. It was unique among typical public housing sites: towers and blocks arranged along a rigid grid. Yet a Yale Urban Design Workshop report from 1997 criticized the design for its “lack of a sense of entry to the buildings, overly dense planting of trees, and limited visual access created by wall clusters.” These surroundings isolated the site and made it more prone to drug trafficking and crime. The 1980 report, which was compiled by current New York University professor Kim Taylor-Thompson LAW ’80, described Church Street South as resembling “army barracks rather than housing.” The same is true today. Blank walls and concrete plazas make the complex a maze of rectangular prisms. This is one of several reasons the project was infamously branded “The Jungle.” You can easily lose yourself, without sight of a normal street.
Perhaps the most consequential aspect of Church Street South’s history was in its construction and later maintenance. “Thirty years ago, when the project was only 20 years old, people were saying this needs to be rebuilt and taken care of,” Nemerson explained. And in reality, the structural and financial problems of the site go much further back. The 1980 Taylor-Thompson report uncovered that not enough sewer lines were included and several instances of cross-wiring occurred during construction. Not to mention the fact that construction took twice as long as projected. Cheaper wall materials were used due to budget constraints. The contractor for the project’s construction, the Development Corporation of America, “cut corners and tended to sacrifice quality and sometimes even safety in order to save money.” Nemerson affirmed that the housing site was a victim to intense value engineering.
Later maintenance was also problematic. The first development company to oversee the complex was Jaycee Housing Corp., labelled “well-intentioned idiots” by the 1980 Taylor-Thompson report. Poor financial planning meant that the site was always having trouble funding services. The 1997 Yale Urban Design Workshop report reads: “Previous suspect management saw many basic maintenance issues ignored. Community rooms and nurseries lapsed into disuse and the increased drug trade on the site led to crime and the literal walling-in of the development.”
However, Nemerson is skeptical that the site was ever mismanaged: “I don’t know if they ever dreamed that [Church Street South] would still be there in 50 years. I wouldn’t ascribe anything to mismanagement or negligence. Sometimes, things just happen.”
Former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano disagrees. He reaffirmed that the largest issues during his tenure as mayor were “consistently poor management through a series of owners and operators that created living conditions that were not acceptable to [the city].”
DeStefano’s administration tried to get the Department for Housing and Urban Development to fail the project in its regular real estate assessments, yet it kept getting “passing scores” up until last year, for reasons unknown. Essentially, the Real Estate Assessment Center conducts inspections of housing sites such as Church Street South and gives them exam-like scores out of 100. If the site passes inspection, then Housing and Urban Development’s funding is secured for operators like Northland. In 2011, for instance, Church Street South received a 68, barely passing (but high enough to secure $3,693,408 in funding). The Livable City Initiative was surprised. Yet, the assessment center only inspected 25 out of 301 units and failed to report defects in the site such as absent carbon monoxide detectors and “mis-installed furnaces” that forced 26 people to evacuate due to possible poisoning. The most recent 2016 Housing and Urban Development report that led to the failing grade described “exposed wires,” “inoperable windows,” severe “mold/mildew,” “leaking pipes,” “inoperable vents,” “missing doors” and “blocked fire exits.”
Many residents have blamed the conditions on the current owner, Northland. The situation worsened to a point where residents tried to sue the company, albeit unsuccessfully.
“I think that some people have suggested that we shouldn’t reward these derelict private owners who have allowed these properties to deteriorate,” said Yale professor of urbanism Elihu Rubin. “We shouldn’t reward them by now allowing them to develop this site as a profitable venture. They should be punished and dismissed. It is unsettling to think that the owners that hastened the deterioration of this housing estate would now be the beneficiaries of their own poor actions and behaviors over time.”
However, Northland isn’t entirely to blame for the dilapidated buildings. As stated before, decades of neglect snowballed into the lap of the company, and their original plans were to rebuild the site immediately upon purchase.
When Northland arrived in 2008, Nemerson explained, everyone expected them to tear down the existing project and start with a blank slate. That all changed when the city rejected Northland’s proposal. Upon rejection, Northland did not know what path to take with the site. It took them until 2015 to pick up steam with a new proposal.
The important thing, according to Nemerson, was that Housing and Urban Development finally came on board. Nemerson believes the relationship between the city and Northland has been “very positive.”
Beyond poor maintenance and ill design, crime plagued the housing site for decades. “Down here it was bad, really bad,” Jones remembered. “Lost a few friends who got murdered behind that mess. Really sad, yes.” A 2015 report by Urbanismo explained that the drug-trafficking gang known as “The Jungle Boys,” formed in 1984, committed six murders and a number of drive-by shootings. Most of its members were from Church Street South, where the gang was prominent. Between 1991 and 1992 alone, they were responsible for “three homicides, 14 shootings, and over 50 drug arrests,” former Mayor John Daniels told a Norwalk newspaper in 1992. It was in that year that a contingency of authorities was able to dismantle the gang, but the violence did not end. Between 2010 and 2012, three murders took place in Church Street South.
Even in light of the violence, a former resident, George Capri, now homeless, said that the site was not as bad as people thought. “We all look out for each other in here. We brothers: blacks, Puerto Ricans, whites, we work together. And we look out for each other, all the time. But everyone talk about this place over here, it’s not too bad. It’s not like people said.”
Jones agreed: “We used to come by here to play football, parties, all that. This was our stomping grounds. … Everyone clicked together, all the families knew each other. It wasn’t just black, it was white, Spanish, multicultural, everyone mixed, got along and everything. We had our good days and bad days. It brings back memories.”
Had Church Street South not been shut down, Jones would have moved to an apartment within the complex later this year. Although an official date has not yet been set, all of Church Street South will be torn down soon. A few of the structures, the laundromat and day care center specifically, have already been demolished. The smell of mold was unavoidable as the buildings came down. As for the timeframe for completion of the new development: “no idea,” Nemerson said. The same is true for when former residents can move back to the site.
DeStefano is worried: “I wonder if a dense housing project is right for that site. It was always an isolated site. … Are we about to make the same mistake all over again? Maybe not. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much.”
According to Nemerson, certain elements of the redevelopment plan have remained consistent: “replacing the 300 affordable housing units, adding 600 to 700 market-rate units and having a whole base of parking, having retail, and perhaps even some office space.”
What replaces Church Street South will be remarkably different and hopefully better. In the meantime, there is a limited window to learn from the soon-to-be-demolished site. Rubin said: “I think that architectural, urban historians will continue to explore this chapter of design and housing policy and that the stories should be documented, the site should be documented as best as possible.”
But these stories are not just of camaraderie and peace.
“Any documentation now would be a document of neglect.”