Claire Mutchnik

Wednesday, Sept. 25, 6:30 p.m.: a crowd of 20 packed into a conference room on the first floor of the Rose Center. Dwindling afternoon light poured in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, casting soft shadows on the opposite wall.

On the agenda for the meeting: “A Discussion of Improvements to Scantlebury Park,” led by Alder Jeanette Morrison of Ward 22. Morrison began the seemingly-routine meeting, handing out a survey with a map of Scantlebury — just across the street, visible from the conference room windows — and a list of potential facilities.

Just after 7 p.m., Morrison stood defensively to the opposite of the crowd. Control of the room hung tenuously in the balance. Attendees sat with their hands raised, itching to talk; some shouted out at Morrison and over each other. The room erupted into a cacophony of questions — “Can you explain what we were told in June?” — demands — “You will not talk like this at my meeting” — and declarations — “No, you are not a dictator. You will not talk down to us like we have nothing to say.”

The conflict underpinning it all: a proposed plan for the installation of a new skatepark in Scantlebury, just across the street. A skate park. How did it all come to this?

Shreds and sketches

The conflict began almost a year to the date before the clash at the Rose Center. Three Yalies boarded a plane to Los Angeles — students Bobby Pourier ’20 and J. Joseph ’19 and Garth Ross, the inaugural executive director of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center — to attend “Finding A Line: Skateboarding, Music, and Media,” a multi-day, multimedia celebration of skateboarding and its cultures. Ross, who had produced Finding a Line programming in his previous position at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., invited Pourier, of the Yale Undergraduate Skateboarding Union, to speak on a panel at the conference. Ross wanted another Yale student to document the experience; Pourier introduced Ross to Joseph, a fellow skateboarder, documentary filmmaker and New Haven native.

Upon returning home, Joseph reached out to Ross, who had suggested hosting a skateboarding event at the Schwarzman Center — “I have an idea to build a skatepark.” Joseph had become aware of a community-arts grant — the “Could Be Fund” — through the Elm City Innovation Collaborative (ECIC) and wanted to use the money to fund the development of public infrastructure for skating in New Haven. Ross, on behalf of the Schwarzman Center, agreed to match the funding.

Joseph reached out to Steve Roberts, “the perfect person to get involved.” Roberts is a fellow New Haven native, a skateboarder who runs the program “Push To Start,” which empowers kids through skateboarding. Joseph knows Roberts from years of skating together at Edgewood Park, home to the only skate park in New Haven. The two got to work on the application. They settled on Dixwell — Roberts’ neighborhood — as a potential location, specifically Scantlebury Park. To them, the park was an “obvious” choice — a central location off the Farmington Canal trail, on the cusp of Yale’s campus across the street from Yale Health. They hoped that the skate park would provide a unique space to engage kids who, to Joseph and Roberts, often fall through the cracks in other communities.

Though Dixwell is technically outside of the Could Be Fund’s designated zones, the two still went with Scantlebury, a location “at the apex of several New Haven neighborhoods and Yale’s campus… offer[ing] a new opportunity for these communities to come together,” they wrote in the proposal. The grant was approved in March, and the two lifelong skateboarders — Roberts and Joseph — were armed with an idea, a blueprint, $50,000 (now $75,000) in grant money and full-time payroll support from the Schwarzman Center to develop the project.

“We were well on our way by then,” Joseph told me. The three of us — Joseph, Roberts and I — sat in metal folding chairs on the sidewalk outside Stetson library; the excited screeches of five-year-olds rolling across the concrete underscored our conversation. Their next step, Joseph explains, was to get community input and move forward with the project.

They turned to Alder Jeanette Morrison.

Rolling, with friction

On May 29, Morrison held a meeting in Trinity Temple Church. On the agenda: a presentation about and inquiry into public opinion about the skate park project. Joseph and Roberts showed a professional sketch-up of the park; Ross, Michael Harris — the chief of the Elm City Collaboration Fund — and a dozen or so residents were there. Joseph and Roberts took the floor to present, not expecting the three-month saga that would follow.

“I think we tried to be too well-prepared,” Joseph remarked. Kids skateboarded behind us, one running from a bee. “We go to that meeting with a big vision and our conceptualization for the project. We wanted to explain why we want to put it in Scantlebury, and we have design ideas. And I think, to some folks, it felt as if the project was a done deal and they were just being told about it now.” The skepticism was immediate. Residents in attendance voiced a number of concerns — the source of the funding, the lack of greenspace in Dixwell already and the timeline of the project. The relatively-polished plans, the Yale name attached and the momentum garnered by $75,000 in funding raised red flags for many residents. As the evening progressed, what began as a seemingly banal meeting dragged on in debate for over two hours. By the end of the meeting, the mood in the room had changed.

“I don’t feel like they were there to take our ideas,” noted Dixwell resident Jerry Turek. Turek noted a change in tone from presenters when folks began to voice their opposition: “It was ‘criticisms-welcome’ until we weren’t for it, and then when we weren’t for it, it was ‘this is going to happen.’”

According to Roxanne Condon, a longtime Dixwell Resident and member of “Friends of Scantlebury Park,” when opposition was voiced, Morrison became “standoffish like she had never seen from her.” Condon said that, as debate escalated, Morrison exclaimed, “I’m just having this meeting as a courtesy, I could have gone ahead and had the meeting myself and it was done.”

Morrison’s statement — per New Haven laws regarding accepting private gifts in public spaces — is technically true, and it’s one she stands by. “As the voice of the ward,” she said, “when these types of grants come our way, the only approval is basically of the alder; and so there was no requirement to have a community meeting.”

But, according to Morrison, she felt the meeting was necessary. “In the way I do things, I wanted to have a community meeting. That’s the part that people forget,” she said.

Regardless, Morrison’s statement resonated with many concerned residents. If the meeting was a courtesy, then so was the vote she intended to take.

“It seems like they had a chance to do this with some money, and they were going to do it hell or high water,” Turek recalled. Condon remembers being told that the funds had to be spent by June 30th, “but this turned out not to be true.” Due to the extended debate, short time-frame and unanswered questions, residents in the opposition pushed against taking a vote on the 29th, and a second meeting was scheduled for June 13th at the Rose Center.

According to Morrison, the June 13th meeting cleared up much of the controversy that plagued the first meeting: “At the second meeting, you had a lot more people attending who were interested. Maybe 25 people, and three or four who were against it.” After the meeting, feeling that the majority favored the park, Morrison approved the motion to bring the gift to the Board of Alders and the parks Commission. The “opposition” tells a different story. But why was there such opposition in the first place?

Yale giveth and Yale taketh away

To an extent, opposition to the project is rooted in the skate park itself. Scantlebury, to many, is the only real greenspace in Dixwell. Many are not excited over putting a “concrete slab” in the park. Rebecca Bombero, director of New Haven Parks and Recreation, responded with the claim that, by the numbers, the skate park’s footprint would take up only 2 percent of greenspace in Scantlebury. Critics responded to claim with the point that two percent of the park didn’t necessarily mean two percent of the park’s greenspace, citing fears that the park would disrupt the open field. Other “not in my backyard” concerns voiced by residents — including noise, increased usage of the park, flying skateboards and conflicting cultures with the parks’ “family friendly” environment — are those one might expect from any community about any park.

But Scantlebury is not just any park.

Not so long ago, Scantlebury was little more than a plot with some grass, trees and a baseball field, surrounded by a chain link fence. The neighborhood was home to the “Elm Haven Apartments,” a predominantly black, working class housing development often remembered as the Ashmun Street High Rises/Low rises. Linda Branch, 73, an attendee at the Sept. 25 meeting, lived in the buildings that used to surround Scantlebury. She recalled, “everyone was close together.” Though the high rises were demolished in 1991, the tight-knit community that was fostered in and around them remains.

Paul Bryant Hudson, a musician and program coordinator with Dwight Hall, was born the year the Ashmun Street high rises were torn down. His grandmother lived in a building on Frances Hunter Drive, and he’s lived in Dixwell his entire life. “After that, they began the first phase of ‘revitalization,” he said. A new set of apartments — Monterey Place — was constructed, housing mostly the same population as those who lived in Ashmun. In 2005, Hudson remembers, a set of single-family homes were constructed along Frances Hunter Drive. A number of those homes were sold to residents — “mostly black and Latinx folks” — through a first-time buyer program. At the same time, a number of homes were sold through a Yale program designed to help employees purchase property in surrounding neighborhoods — “mostly black and latinx folks, with a few exceptions.”

“People call it a land grab, but I try not to use that terminology,” Hudson says. “The things at play are way more tangible and way more evident than a loaded term like that.”

While Dixwell was “revitalizing,” Yale’s campus crept north. In 2003, Yale purchased the building that now houses New Haven Reads. In 2006, the Rose Center was built; the building was positioned as a community center and a new headquarters for the Yale Police Force. (Hudson notes the irony.) In the early years of the center, Hudson and others remember, the Rose Center was home to community programming, allowing residents to access resources like computers and internet. “The place was always full… but shortly after, the programming stopped and it never really came back,” Hudson noted.

Around the same time, the Farmington Heritage Trail — a section of which runs under Prospect Street — began to be manicured and maintained. In 2011, Yale Health was built on a previously-unused patch of grass. This, as Hudson remembers, “wasn’t a great thing for the community — community folks specifically aren’t allowed in the space and don’t have access to the resources that building provides.”

Other plots were different. In 2014, Yale purchased 100 Ashmun Street, down the street from the Rose Center. The plot was previously a family-owned construction company which had been in the neighborhood, as Hudson recalled, “for generations.” The building will open to the public as Petals Market this fall. The University also purchased 291-309 Mansfield Street — previously, single-family homes — which is now Graduate student housing. The University now owns over 20 properties along Mansfield, in addition to the 49 units in the complex.

In 2011, Yale committed $500,000 for the revitalization of Scantlebury Park, partly as payment for the closure of sections of two New Haven streets, Canal and Sachem. Through a community planning and renovation process, the park received a playground, benches, a “splash pad” and other amenities. This collaboration, as Turek remembers, “was one of the few times that Yale, the city and the residents all came together and came out happy.” Then, according to Turek, “things went sideways.”

Construction began on the new colleges in 2014. During construction, the University was allowed to use Scantlebury — for a price — as a parking lot for equipment and workers, a decision many residents don’t recall fondly. “We, as neighbors, got noise from 6 a.m. every day because of it,” Condon remembers. Condon is an outspoken member of the Dixwell community with a special affinity for Scantlebury. For the last 20 years, Condon has been part of Friends of Scantlebury Park, a volunteer organization that began as a committee of the Dixwell Enterprise Community Management Team. According to the organization, over the last 20 years, residents have committed hundreds of hours of service to the park, picking up litter, watering plants, mulching and planting trees. Condon claims to have personally planted over 20 trees in the park. The $100,000 dollars that Yale paid for use ended up sitting in a bank account accruing interest. Today, it amounts to over $200,000, according to city officials.

According to Condon, “What the money was for was never clear. First, it was for maintenance and not infrastructure, now Bombero [the Parks director] says it’s for infrastructure, not maintenance.” Nearly a decade later, the money still has not been used. In the meantime, Condon claims, the park has been largely ignored. “What’s really creeping me out is that they are not maintaining that park,” she said. “A door fell off the bathrooms, a gate fell off one of the structures, this year, the splash pad wasn’t open until the middle of June and it wasn’t working.”

Condon has been an outspoken opponent of the project in Scantlebury, claiming that it is “an assault on the greenspace of Dixwell children.” She explained to me that she is not opposed to “the idea” of a skatepark: “I think it’d be a great thing — just not in Scantlebury.” In 2005, Condon collected the opinions of over 250 residents at a number of community meetings; she shared the plans with then-Parks Director Dave Moser. A decade later, a survey was conducted in partnership with Yale School of Forestry students that generated similar results. She also claims that she has offered to help scout for different locations for the project, but her offers have been ignored.

“No one has given me a clear reason as to why it has to be there,” she said. “It creeps me out.”

Rolling along

At the June 13 meeting, according to Morrison, attendants largely supported the skatepark, with “three or four people in opposition.” Other records differ. According to Condon, there was little publicity for the meeting — she had to “snoop around” to find out when it was. In addition, Morrison stated that she did not have the funds to mail flyers to residents. The meeting, according to multiple attendees, was heated. Joseph recalls that “folks were really concerned.” Morrison, however, maintains that the meeting signaled that the project was ready to move forward: “Two meetings over a gift to a park is unheard of. You would think that people would be happy.”

Six days later, the idea went before the Board of Parks Commissioners. According to meeting minutes, Joseph and Roberts testified in support of the park, followed by Rebecca Bombero, Director of Parks and Recreation. No members of Friends of Scantlebury Park testified, and opposition was not voiced, only referenced. Later in the meeting — according to the report — Morrison came to testify. She stated “that [we] are very happy with the ‘gift’ of the skatepark for Scantlebury.”

Morrison also claimed that opposition was minimal, “mostly by one particular person.”

“Hmm, I wonder who that could be,” Condon remarked to me over the phone, laughing. Morrison acknowledged the previous opposition, saying, “If things don’t get presented in a particular way, we get a bit concerned.” The Board of Commissioners then motioned for a vote. The meeting minutes report: “A motion was made for the Board to accept the concept of a skatepark for Scantlebury Park; allowing the Parks Director to bring the proposal to the Board of Alderman for approval in accepting the gift.” It was approved unanimously.

A done deal?

The June 19 meeting would go on to fan the flames of controversy surrounding the process of the skatepark.

Multiple residents maintain that they did not receive any direct notice of the Parks Commission meeting, nor was there notice of the meeting posted on the Parks Commission website. In fact, according to representatives from both New Haven Legal Assistance and Friends of Scantlebury Park, there were no meeting notes, agendas or minutes for any of the meetings in 2019. “The website hadn’t updated in over a year,” noted Ming-Yee Lin ’10, an attorney in the Community Economic Justice unit at NHLAA.

Even commissioners were apparently in the dark. Several sources maintain that, at the following meeting in July, multiple Commissioners mentioned that they were unaware of the opposition when they voted on park. One commissioner allegedly noted that he would not have voted on the project had he known of the opposition.

Lin and other attorneys at NHLAA became aware of the skatepark controversy at a monthly meeting with the Room For All Coalition, a task force on affordable housing in New Haven. The coalition was organizing around a controversial zoning ordinance for the Dixwell corridor. The ordinance, according to Morrison, is the product of years of community engagement. According to Lin, however, the process has been plagued by “misleading and sometimes blatantly false information.” Early in September — at the request of Dixwell residents — Lin sent an email to the City Plan Commission noting concerns both over the plan itself and a lack of “informed consent of Dixwell residents.”

Residents at the meeting voiced that they were concerned over the developments in Scantlebury and asked if they could combine meetings. To many residents, according to Lin, both developments felt like “higher powers — Yale and the City — deciding what the neighborhood is going to look like, what people want or need, without engaging people who are going to be impacted.”

On Aug. 22, following the lead of residents, NHLAA organized a meeting at the Community Resource Center to “disseminate information and strategize” on both the zoning ordinance and Scantlebury. A week later, they held another meeting. In attendance: Jeanette Morrison.

Community space

Multiple city officials attended the second meeting. As a result, according to Lin, it was “no longer a community space.” There was an attempt, Lin recalls, by an “unnamed” city officials to shut down the meeting. They held it anyway.

According to Lin, Morrison “in-effect tried to derail the meeting,” repeatedly interrupting as information regarding ordinances and meeting dates were announced, reportedly calling folks from legal aid “liars.” This was not new. According to Lin — and corroborated by other sources — Morrison and other officials, in the past, have shouted down residents at community meetings. One case involving organizing against a high rise development at 201 Munson Street ended in organizers giving up the project due to officials’ actions. According to Lin, many residents “stopped attending Community Management Team meetings because they had been shouted down so many times.”

Both Lin and Morrison remember what happened next. Mid-way through the meeting, NHLAA requested that all City officials leave to allow residents to feel safe voicing their concerns. Morrison refused to leave. She explained to me why:

“I just sat there. I’m the alder, but I live here, too. If I’m the only one with a vote, wouldn’t it make sense for me to be here? The people were from legal assistance; they’re not doing this just because they care so much — they’re doing this because it’s their job. With Ming-Yee, I find it very offensive for someone who lives in a very fancy apartment to come to Dixwell and voice an opinion. What does she have to do with this?”

Lin — and others — maintain that she and NHLAA are not voicing their opinions but rather amplifying those of the community. When NHLAA helped facilitate a resident-led press conference on Sept. 13, Lin claims that Morrison tried to pressure the director of NHLAA to cancel the meeting. Moreover, Morrison reportedly told residents not to “bother” going the September parks commission meeting, that Scantlebury was “a done deal and would never be on the agenda again.” Though the concept had been approved, the Parks Commission has yet to decide on a final plan for construction and location. This will be on the agenda of an upcoming Parks Commission meeting that has yet to be scheduled.

Parks and process

Last Saturday, I met with Joseph and Roberts outside Stetson library. They reported frustration with the process, explaining that they felt sad that something they saw as a positive opportunity had become shrouded in so much controversy. They noted that they understood why the Yale name, the seemingly too-perfect alignment of interests and the flawed process raised alarms, but they maintain their support for the project. Condon, Turek and the other residents I spoke to echoed similar sentiments, exclaiming that their real fight had been over civic inclusion. “If folks’ voices aren’t heard, if information isn’t disseminated, then it hardly qualifies as civic engagement at all,” Lin told me.

For those on both sides of the issue, it’s more than just a skate park. Joseph and Roberts see a potential bridge between Yale and New Haven, an opportunity to include black and brown communities in skateboarding. On the other side, however, many residents still feel that the project is not about skating but rather an expansion by Yale, by the city, by forces that aim to dictate their lives and communities.

The process, in turn, has come to represent the same fears of gentrification and disruption voiced by residents like Hudson: “When a foreign agent enters a community, things change. That’s just the facts.”

If there’s a lesson from all of this, Joseph believes it’s that folks now, more than ever, feel the need to make their voices heard, and are willing to do so.

I spoke to Morrison on the phone earlier this week. While she echoed similar sentiments, she maintains that the park is just a gift: “Yale and gentrification, those are nothing but talking points that the legal advocates are using, they’re using the skatepark as a pawn.”

She concluded, “If I could do it again, I would do it exactly the same… I did my job.”

ERIC KREBS | eric.krebs@yale.edu

 

Clarification, Oct. 12: The story has been updated to accurately reflect circumstances of the Sept. 13 press conference. 

Correction, Oct. 13: The story has been updated to accurately reflect Hudson’s attitude toward the construction of Yale Health in 2011.

  • ethanjrt

    This is the best piece of reporting I’ve seen from the YDN all year. Is there a way to nominate it for an award somewhere? I’m serious — it shows fantastic range of sources & depth of reporting (including historical/political/social context), plus an unusually good understanding of intra-ward politics / things happening in New Haven outside the Yale bubble generally.

    My two cents: I’ve lived in this ward for five years — ever since graduation, more or less — and the park itself is a bit bland but definitely used regularly by the community. (More often than not it’s the basketball court blacktop that’s being used… which seems more than a little ironic given the concerns that have been voiced about green space.) Of note: The fact that there was to be a community meeting specifically addressing Scantlebury was only publicized very recently (I assume this was the most recent meeting – I got a flier about it, though I can’t remember from whom) and wasn’t mentioned at all on the Dixwell Management Team Facebook.

    If I had to distill what’s happening here into a sentence, I’d say this: Three “Yalies with a vision” are learning about the perils of failing to include the community from the start in a project that’s ostensibly for that community, and some residents are about to learn about the perils of ceding agency to a small but vocal group who are more than willing to look a $75,000 gift horse in the mouth.

    It sounds like the one person who definitely did *not* learn anything from this process was Jeannette Morrison.