Just beyond Broadway, Payne Whitney Gymnasium and the western end of Yale’s campus, is Dixwell Plaza — the centerpiece of the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven. Here, two local social entrepreneurs — dubbing themselves “The Dreamer” and “The Executor” — are striving to reshape Dixwell for the future.
When Dixwell Plaza initially opened, urban planners heralded the project as a positive and early example of bringing the comforts of suburban living to urban areas. The project — a strip mall — was even complete with a wraparound parking lot. But years of neglect have left the mall dilapidated and out of sight from most of New Haven, leaving the neighborhood without access to fresh food since the grocery store anchoring the complex closed 12 years ago. The mostly abandoned storefronts now face a buzzing construction site across the street, where city leaders have heralded the rise of a new Q House, a community center.
Dixwell Plaza, too, is now promised a new life. Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology President and CEO Erik Clemons and Connecticut Community Outreach Revitalization Program President and CEO Paul McCraven have purchased most of the property and now intend to revitalize the project as a center for sustainable community development, with a special understanding of Dixwell and its residents’ oft-neglected history.
“We want to aggressively address poverty,” Clemons said. “Thirty percent of Dixwell residents live under the poverty line. We want to create jobs — permanent jobs and construction jobs — and really revitalize this historic community. We’re not doing it for the money, but because we’re part of the social contract.”
ConnCAT and its daughter organization, ConnCORP, are New Haven-based NGOs that aim to address systemic poverty by investing in human capital and social entrepreneurship. ConnCAT engages Dixwell residents in vocational training and recreational programming, while ConnCORP focuses on urban and community development.
New Haven Interim Economic Development Administrator Mike Piscitelli said that the city is excited to work with ConnCORP on this “transformative vision” for the plaza. He added that the landmark site is a critical component of a larger effort to revitalize the avenue. Piscitelli said that the Livable City Initiative is spearheading the city’s efforts with regards to the area and that he anticipates “significant progress” with ConnCORP as the project unfolds. As with similar programs in the Elm City, commercial district revitalization is a collaborative effort from several stakeholders, Piscitelli said.
Clemons told the News that he believes that systematic lack of opportunity can often lead to frustration and disillusionment. His work with ConnCAT and the upcoming Dixwell Plaza reinvigoration is largely motivated by a desire to address that cycle. Clemons’ office — decorated with framed photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — reflects its occupant’s hope to remediate his community’s issues through his work at ConnCAT and ConnCORP. Referred by McCraven as “the dreamer,” Clemons indeed dreams big — his vision for himself and ConnCAT include facilitating a revitalization of communities burdened by cycles of poverty and urban blight.
ConnCORP’s investment in Dixwell Plaza aims to have a major impact in the community. Standing in front of the Stetson Library — the plaza’s current centerpiece — McCraven gestured toward the end of the block where the now-defunct grocery store stood. He said that this building is where they began their acquisition strategy for Dixwell Plaza. The closed grocery store, which still has ads plastered to its doors, stands at the opposite end of the plaza from the Christ Chapel Church, a property ConnCORP has not yet acquired.
McCraven walked toward the back of the plaza, where a vast parking lot not visible from the avenue is littered with beer bottles and other garbage. He said that this lot was among the problems residents brought up at community meetings regarding the plaza: crime and a poor sense of community cohesion. The ConnCORP CEO completed his loop around the strip mall, passing the library’s back entrance, where over 100 community members gathered last month to voice their vision for the site.
Among community members’ goals, McCraven said, are addressing crime, access to food, spaces for arts and culture, housing and crime — problems ConnCORP’s self-proclaimed “executor” plans to conquer.
With a career in the banking world under his belt, McCraven oversees the fiscal strategy of the corporation seeking to purchase all of Dixwell Plaza from its southern boundary at Webster Street to its northern reaches on Charles Street — Clemons dreams, and McCraven — the believer and backer — works to make Clemons’ dream a practical reality.
At ConnCAT’s headquarters in Science Park — a social entrepreneurship incubator that bred, among others, Orchid Cafe on the Green and Petals Market, Clemons took pride in the connection between ConnCAT and those it serves. The Science Park campus has resources for its educational programs such as phlebotomy, culinary arts, and medical billing and coding.
“The community comes here to eat,” Clemons said on a tour of the original Orchid Cafe and ConnCAT kitchen, partitioned by a glass wall. “And what’s very powerful to me is the glass wall. The community is watching the students cook their food, and the students are watching the community.” He then stepped into the kitchen itself and greeted the seventh cohort of ConnCAT’s culinary training program.
Upstairs, the ConnCAT boardroom is nearly barricaded by artists’ renderings of the Dixwell Plaza, the centerpiece of this dreamer’s vision. The organization, which has retained the services of Peter Cook, one of the architects behind the Smithsonian’s acclaimed National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum in Washington, D.C., has several watercolor visions for what could alter how New Haveners interact with their social and commercial spaces.
In his office, Clemons outlined the geography of his dream for Dixwell and New Haven, with hopes that Dixwell — long neglected — will become a commercial and residential center akin to the city’s prospering downtown. He scolded Yale students for not venturing past Tropical Smoothie Cafe, or perhaps Lake Place.
“The whole concept [of ConnCAT] is really to create hope for people that have fallen off their life’s track,” McCraven told the News, echoing his partner. “The idea is to bring them in the system and arts to get them back engaged, and then eventually to job training.”
ConnCAT’s adult programming has a 70 percent retention rate.
John Besche | email@example.com