The Yale College Council approved a new funding initiative last week that aims to finance student projects focused on community building and inclusivity.
The New Ideas Fund was proposed last month by Pierson YCC Representative Julia Feldstein ’18 and YCC Student Life Policy Director Nick Zevallos ’19 and has already been added to the YCC’s budget for this academic year with $6,600 in funding. The fund’s central aim is to provide an avenue for students to present and possibly receive funding to develop their ideas.
“This year, I’m hoping for students to take advantage of this opportunity to fund their ideas … new ideas are constantly floating around Yale, and often the major deterrent is finding funding,” said Zevallos. “The New Ideas Fund directly addresses this issue and will allow the YCC to utilize its budget to support student ideas aimed at creating a stronger community.”
YCC President Peter Huang ’18 said the YCC will release a New Ideas Fund application to the student body in the next few weeks.
According to YCC Chief of Staff Sydney Wade ’18, YCC members noticed last month a surplus in the Community Fund part of the concurrent budget. The Community Fund supports all the freshman, sophomore and junior class councils, as well as the Yale Society Initiative, an organization of students and alumni that seeks to reform Yale’s senior societies.
Zevallos and Feldstein began discussing other possible allocations for the surplus and decided to put the money toward the furtherance of new student ideas that could benefit the wider Yale community. Zevallos formally proposed the New Ideas Fund to the YCC Council of Representatives, which then approved it through a vote.
In addition to Zevallos and Feldstein, the New Ideas Fund has been shaped by Steve Blum, strategic initiatives director of the Yale Alumni Association, former YCC president Brandon Levin ’14 and by other YCC members on the executive board.
Zevallos said the money for the New Ideas Fund is not coming directly from the budget surplus but is simply a repurposing of funds usually designated for the Community Fund. Looking forward, Zevallos said he expects the fund to be a permanent part of the YCC and its annual budget.
“We are particularly looking for new events and programming that focus on inclusivity and community,” Wade said. “We want to support events and programming that bring different campus communities together. The applications will be evaluated by a panel of YCC members who specifically applied to be on the panel, and the panel will choose the applications that stand above others for strengthening inclusion and diversity on Yale’s campus.”
The New Ideas Fund Review Committee will solicit undergraduate ideas and present these ideas to the YCC Representatives Council, which will then vote to fund a selection of the ideas. Throughout the rest of the semester, the New Ideas Fund Review Committee will support students as they see their ideas come to fruition.
Zevallos is currently the driving force behind developing and implementing the new fund, Wade said. However, Wade continued, once a “New Ideas Fund Panel” has been formed, someone else may become the main organizer.
Still, the fund presents some logistical challenges. YCC Vice-President Christopher Bowman ’18 said the main challenge will be ensuring an effective distribution of funds to all YCC-approved student ideas.
Zevallos noted that ideally, the fund would provide between $1,000 to $1,500 per approved proposal, and coverage could include ideas beyond holding events.
Bowman highlighted that the YCC has a limited amount of money for the fund, so not all ideas can be funded. Bowman added that these projects are ideally different from those of existing extracurriculars, which already receive funding from the University Organizations Committee.
“Our panel of representatives that oversees the fund will have to prudently determine where the money can be best placed,” said Bowman. “However, we’re also going to try to focus on initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion, which will give us a bit of a clearer direction to go in for distributing funds.”
According to Yale’s website, there are over 500 active student organizations on campus.
It’s mid-March and I’m in a t-shirt. The weather is a welcome respite from New Haven’s never-ending winter — it’s that putting-on-sunscreen-won’t-stave-off-the-burn kind of day. Gotta love spring break.
We’re at our volunteer site, a farm connected to the University of Buenos Aires that offers work opportunities to individuals with developmental disabilities.
Today, one of the farmhands is showing me how to plant lettuce seeds in beds of soil. Sometimes we pause to trade jokes or start water fights. Sometimes he teaches me new phrases in Spanish. “Que buena chica,” he says, “Buen trabajo.”
Later that evening, I find myself in an Argentine restaurant using my broken Spanish to tell my waiter how I’ve wound up in Buenos Aires. “Soy de Nueva York,” I say. “Pero estoy de vacaciones.”
“Oh!” Suddenly he understands. “You have spring break, sí? Sprang break como James Franco!”
“Well,” I laugh, “Not exactly.”
* * *
In 2012, Yale-affiliate James Franco popularized the notion of spring break as a time for rum-soaked ragers in Florida/Cabo/insert beachy region of choice.
But for many Yale students, spring break is the ideal time for a very different sort of travel. Over the past two weeks, more than 50 Yalies participated in service trips abroad with destinations as wide-ranging as Taiwan and Guatemala.
Aobo Guo ’17 spent her spring break freshman year on one such trip to Ghana and Togo — a nation she’d never even heard of before she applied to go. The trip was organized by Reach Out, a Yale undergraduate organization that coordinates international service. It was supposed to focus on volunteer work at an orphanage in Togo, where students aimed to implement a health curriculum for the children. Soon after arriving at the volunteer site, however, Guo grew frustrated with the group’s efforts.
“I noticed that Reach Out’s ambitions were noble but weren’t necessarily being executed in the most effective way,” she told me. “It seemed like there was this approach of ‘Look at these slums! Play with these kids! Take in the exotic culture!’ But we weren’t getting a lot done in terms of our actual service project.”
Guo said their plans to implement the health curriculum hit a roadblock — many of the volunteers didn’t speak any French. The language barrier, she said, made it difficult to communicate with the children at the orphanage.
Even though the group encountered structural and logistical difficulties, Guo gained a strong appreciation for the challenges inherent in international service work.
Her mission since then has been to devise better solutions to these difficulties. The following year, Guo led a Reach Out trip to Nepal that better fulfilled her vision of meaningful and mindfully planned service. She later became Reach Out’s president, making it her goal to clarify the organization’s goals and deepen its impact. As president, Guo was responsible for approving applications from potential trip leaders. She rejected a greater number of trips than her predecessors, intent on maintaining a higher standard — quality over quantity was her MO.
“Previously Reach Out had this reputation for being just a cool spring break experience where you get to travel to an exotic location under the guise of helping out,” Guo said. The emphasis was on tourism rather than on volunteering. “I wanted to make it more centered on service in order to really drive impact.”
* * *
Katherine Garvey ’16, the current president of Reach Out, has continued Guo’s mission to make spring break service matter. But she is still well aware of the negative associations that come to mind when people think of community service trips. “It’s hard to design a six-day trip that doesn’t fall prey to the characteristics of voluntourism,” she acknowledged.
Some take that criticism a bit further.
For instance, Yale’s own Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science calls service trips “resume-padding” and “morally safe, because they’re distant and quarantined.”
“Students have told me the trips displace, delimit and debase good impulses by directing them to societies one can’t understand in a few weeks,” Sleeper told me. “To better help others and themselves, students should try ‘service learning’ with fellow citizens in their own societies.”
Garvey, however, feels there is something critical to be gained through service abroad, so long as trips are carefully planned and executed with purpose.
This March, Garvey led a spring break trip to the Dominican Republic, where Yalies volunteered for Yspaniola, a non-profit that promotes literacy in the impoverished Batey Libertad community. (Bateys are rural communities in the Dominican Republic, historically centered around the sugarcane industry.)
In planning her trip, Garvey made sure to include a service component that would leave the Batey Libertad community with something tangible and long-lasting. So the Yale volunteers made flashcards, developed reading games and provided other resources that would be helpful to their literacy center. Garvey also organized weekly meetings at Yale leading up to the group’s departure for the Dominican Republic, in which volunteers gathered to study Dominican culture and the challenges faced by this particular community.
The volunteer site for Garvey’s trip, Yspaniola, is the brainchild of Jonathan DiMaio ’09, who is something of a poster boy for service trips gone right.
In 2007, DiMaio participated in a Reach Out trip to the Dominican Republic. In 2008, he went on a second trip to the same location, which raised money to build a women’s center in the community and helped implement a better sanitation system. But DiMaio was frustrated by the limitations of his short visits to the community. He wanted to build roots in Batey Libertad, to truly immerse himself in the town’s unique fabric and culture.
After graduating from Yale, DiMaio received a fellowship to move to the Dominican Republic and expand Yspaniola’s work. Five years later, and he’s still carrying on the work he started there. He has directed the growth of Yspaniola’s literacy summer camp and a program offering university scholarships to community members. Each year, he liaises with Reach Out students to facilitate service learning trips, strengthening the organization’s connection with Yale.
To DiMaio, it is critical that students prepare for the trips by reading about the history of the Batey Libertad community and by thinking critically about their position as Yale students coming to an area of extreme poverty.
“It’s so interesting for people from one of the most privileged communities in the world to come to this community that is really on the margins,” DiMaio said. “There are all these fascinating connections and strange power dynamics created.” That was a leap DiMaio himself experienced when he traded the comforts of Calhoun College for a life in the Dominican Republic.
The most powerful moment of any service trip, DiMaio believes, is when participants come to realize the powerful forces that link them with those who come from radically different backgrounds.
He told me about a group of Yale volunteers he brought to the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Students stood on the bridge looking over the town of Ouanaminthe, watching Haitian men and women wash their clothing and bathe in the nearby river. It was an uncomfortable moment, DiMaio continued, a visceral experience that revealed the extreme levels of poverty in the region, the chasm between the volunteers and the people they were trying to help.
Then DiMaio reminded the Yale students that the people they watched bathing in the river have lives beyond that brief snapshot — they have jobs, families, friends, Facebooks.
“There are connections between volunteers and the communities they visit that extend beyond these brief interactions,” DiMaio said. “We are more connected than we might think to these spaces of extreme marginalization.”
Those connections can create all sorts of complex dynamics.
Evelyn Nunez ’15, who led Reach Out’s trip to the Dominican Republic in 2014, described the sometimes tense encounters that can occur when American values clash with those of Batey Libertad.
She recalled one evening during her trip when the volunteers gathered to reflect on their service experience with members of the Batey Libertad community. One of the Yale students said he felt particularly uncomfortable with the community’s rigid gender roles. Each morning at breakfast, the men would sit around the table to eat while the women stood around in the kitchen. It made him feel awkward, he told the group. The next morning when the Yale volunteers came down for breakfast, the women were all offered seats at the table.
To Nunez, that felt like a moment of triumph. But others might have looked at it differently.
Alicia Schmidt Camacho, director of undergraduate studies in Ethnicity, Race and Migration, said that service trips offer important opportunities for students to explore the contrast between American values and those of communities abroad. But these interactions must be approached with caution and nuance.
“Students have to think about what’s really going to be helpful to the people they’re working with,” Camacho said. “It’s easy for us to see how gender inequalities operate in foreign contexts without noticing the inequalities we’ve grown accustomed to in our everyday lives.” Conversations about gender, she continued, have the capacity to embarrass rather than help women abroad.
* * *
Though it’s the predominant organizer of such trips, Reach Out is not the only campus group that has taken on the international service agenda. The trip to Buenos Aires I participated in, for instance, was coordinated by the Slifka Center.
When Adam Sokol ’17 set about planning this trip with Ali Golden ’17 and Dani Czemerinski ’17, he was determined to avoid the pitfalls of traditional service trips painting a wall that later gets repainted by a new group of college volunteers, as he put it. Sokol, himself skeptical of typical volunteer trips, wanted to set realistic goals for the group’s service project.
“Throughout the process of planning the trip, we were extremely self-aware and -critical about the implications of what we were doing,” Golden explained. The organizers asked themselves: How can we justify the resources invested in the trip? They recognized that trip participants were aiming to learn and not just to serve. The trip’s purpose, the organizers explained, was to inspire more long-term commitment to social justice.
The trip organizers also grappled with their position as American volunteers. Czemerinski said that when she first told her extended Argentine family that she would be traveling to Buenos Aires with a group focused on social justice, her relatives were taken aback.
“It’s easy to misconstrue the intention of this type of trip as a group of American students traveling to another country, believing they can change the world,” Czemerinski said. “We did not change the world, nor were we intending to. The purpose of the trip was to learn about ourselves, try to understand another culture, and lend a helping hand.”
Jake Wolf-Sorokin ’16, who went on the trip, was initially torn about serving abroad given “all the problems in our own backyard, here in New Haven.” But Wolf-Sorokin ultimately decided that the wisdom gleaned from international travel would be invaluable.
“In the same way that Yale funds academic research abroad, service trips give us the chance to reflect on our own communities and think about how we can make our service back home more meaningful,” Wolf-Sorokin said.
Mornings in Argentina began with 7 a.m. alarms, and we were off to the farm, called Pecohue. Coordinated by the University of Buenos Aires, Pecohue hires developmentally disabled individuals in order to give them a source of income and a social routine.
Though I’m someone neither well-trained nor well-equipped for manual labor, there were luckily a wide range of tasks available to us. We would partner with the farm workers to whack weeds, water plants and shovel manure. And we were also there to socialize — to learn from and contribute to the farm’s vibrant familial community.
The content of service trips certainly varies, and it is often affected by factors like language and volunteer skillsets. Of the Reach Out leaders I spoke to, each had taken on wildly different projects, from working with survivors of sexual abuse in the Philippines to teaching theater in a public school in Taiwan.
Camacho emphasized that, likewise, not all service trips are alike in their impact. “I’ve seen students go to an orphanage for two weeks, and you wonder how much the volunteers and people being served really benefit from such a short visit,” she said. On the other hand, she mentioned the potential good that more contained projects can accomplish in that timespan.
* * *
We’re not in the easiest position as students on an internationally-oriented campus often disconnected from the surrounding community. Many Yalies may feel an obligation to address challenges in New Haven and a simultaneous responsibility to learn about global issues.
For Evelyn Nunez, this obligation necessarily extends beyond New Haven. Trips to the Dominican Republic have provided a necessary supplement to her international development textbooks. As Yale students, she explained, we are learning to be citizens of a global community, one that we cannot fully understand until we travel across it.
DiMaio conceded that there are aspects of a community that volunteers can’t fully come to grasp during a short visit. It was only once DiMaio moved to the Dominican Republic that he began to understand the nuanced difficulties encountered by members of the Batey Libertad community: military raids, deportations, court rulings that strip residents of their citizenship. It is consequently frustrating when organizations come from the outside to provide services without taking the time to study challenges on the ground.
But short-term trips matter, DiMaio explained, because they open the door for deeper involvement in an otherwise inaccessible community. DiMaio has seen several Yale volunteers return to Batey Libertad after service trips to spend full summers working at Yspaniola’s summer camp.
Had DiMaio not visited the Dominican Republic on a Yale service trip, he might not be living there today. “Service trips changed my life,” he said with a chuckle. “Now the work I do isn’t for some foreign community. It’s for people I consider my friends.”
But when determining where our deepest service obligations lie, many Yale students argue we should focus foremost on volunteer work here in New Haven.
“Fixing problems like poverty comes down to the slow work of relationship building and community organizing,” explained Ariana Shapiro ’16, who has led numerous social justice initiatives around New Haven. “I think this work can happen anywhere, but since building trust, solidarity, and relationships takes time, a two-week service trip abroad is unlikely to do a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.”
Some Yalies argue that service trips provide crucial exposure to issues of class. But you certainly don’t have to leave Yale’s campus to explore questions of privilege and socioeconomic disparities when it comes to spring break.
“Spring break is just one item on a long list of things that exclude low-income students from fully integrating socially at Yale,” Andrea Villena ’15 told me. She noted the frustration some students feel with the expectation that Yalies spend their spring break somewhere exotic. For the past four years, Villena has spent almost every spring and fall break at Yale. It’s not the easiest thing, she said, watching her friends post Snapchats and Instagrams on sunny beaches while she sits in Bass.
Tyler Blackmon ’16 said that the class difficulties of spring break present a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many low-income students at Yale cannot afford to accompany their peers on lavish vacations to tropical locales. On the other hand, those who are able to save up and take trips abroad are sometimes pilloried for spending their money in self-indulgent ways. It’s a lose-lose situation, in his eyes.
* * *
During our last evening in Buenos Aires, the group of Yale volunteers gathered over dinner to reflect on our work. We each took a moment to share what we would take home beyond souvenirs and sunburns. As each of us took our turn, I was struck by how many people looked to the trip’s long-term impact — our changed approaches and attitudes to service and international development.
Of Slifka’s trip, Czemerinski said: “I am certain that everyone will use this … to get more involved within the New Haven community, or as a learning experience to improve their current community endeavors.”
In other words, most of the important work born out of these trips happens once volunteers have returned to the Elm City. Do they post their Facebook pictures and move on? Or do they deepen their involvement in social justice, both at home and far away? Do they pull a DiMaio, move across the world and make this stuff their full-time job? There’s a catch to all the perks of these spring break trips — they provide a test of character that doesn’t end when the plane lands.
Camacho emphasized nuance in our attitudes about service. She explained that while we can’t fancy ourselves saviors, neither can we write off these trips as unproductive. Often, she added, they can change our identities and perspectives and discourse in meaningful ways. To make it corny, they’re as much about reaching out as reaching in. They’re powerful, so long as we recognize that we’re often the ones served by our mission of service.
Something’s been missing from my writing, as of late. Yes, my thesis for that paper needed a little tightening, and sure, that quote worked better in the second paragraph than in the conclusion. My writing rambles, my arguments deflate, and I’ve truly been trying my hardest to eliminate the passive voice — still, this isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how little I’ve been using the word “I.”
Teachers tell us to avoid the first person, to weed out the “I” out from our scholastic vocabularies like an unwelcome guest. We start writing for teachers, for schools, for good enough grades. There are exceptions, of course — perhaps our teachers assigned creative or personal writing projects at some point. But still, these are assignments to complete and return, eventually reduced to red marks in the margins and single letters at the top.
This isn’t an argument against schoolwork. After all, we need the writing skills we learn as students — they teach us to argue more eloquently, to analyze more effectively, and to express ourselves more comprehensibly. This is an argument against writing exclusively for other people, against forgetting the “I” in writing. (There are two, technically, but that’s another story.) When we write, we articulate our selves, putting our identities into words, explaining our ideas from an inherently personal perspective. When we write, we look in a mirror: We should see ourselves reflected on the page.
I feel like I haven’t written in months, even though I’ve turned in several papers, published a few articles and sent hundreds of emails. In trying to impress my peers or my professors, I’m afraid that my “I” gets lost the moment my fingers hit the keyboard. Not that the papers, articles and emails are devoid of meaning, but I have trouble experiencing the pleasure I once derived from writing.
It bothers me that we don’t write for ourselves anymore. I admire those who write in their spare time, those who reflect for the sake of reflection. It serves as a way to meditate and I value that intimacy — at a place like Yale, where privacy is one of the few privileges we lack, the line between solitude and loneliness can blur.
I think my argument has veered a little off course. I’m not just arguing for writing, I’m arguing against performance at the expense of the self. Maybe it’s because I’ve lost my own “I” during the last semester and a half here. My “I,” perhaps, has been overwhelmed by the number of incredible people I’ve met, swallowed up by the amount of things I feel compelled to do. In my very brief time at Yale, I’ve realized that I’m constantly surrounded by thousands of people, most of whom I’ll never meet. That sense of community can be a good thing. But how much time do we spend on our own? Sequestered in a cubicle in Bass, studying away for the next test or banging out Monday’s paper? Checking a P.O. Box, or waiting in line at Durfee’s? We’re almost never truly by ourselves here, just as we almost never write for ourselves anymore.
I love the stimulation, the energy, the excitement of being on campus. But Yale doesn’t always encourage us to step back, away from the bustle, and to remember our “I”s. I don’t think we should fear solitude; it’s a way to unburden ourselves from our social and academic anxieties. So, if you find yourself with fewer things to do one afternoon, no paper to write, no party to prepare for, no hookup to worry about, then sit down, grab a pencil and start to write. You might just see yourself reflected on the page.
On a warm February morning, Stephen Cremin-Endes received a call from Larry Burgess, who had gotten Stephen’s number from a friend. Cremin-Endes is the community-building specialist for Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a not-for-profit community housing developer in New Haven. Burgess was looking into the possibility of selling to NHS the house of his father, who had passed away last May. Stephen told him he would stop by the house, located at 278 Newhall St. in Newhallville, within the hour.
It was to be expected that the house, if not entirely dilapidated, would not be in great shape.
When the real estate bubble burst in 2007, the Newhallville neighborhood was hit hardest as the epicenter of the city’s foreclosure epidemic. Speculators began to use the neighborhood’s already devalued and dilapidated housing stock as a cash machine. But as the debt on the properties grew, houses were once again boarded up.
As with other vacated properties in the Newhallville area, people had broken into 278 Newhall to steal aluminum, furnaces, copper piping and toilet plumbing. In an effort to prevent further theft, Burgess had boarded up a door in the back with some nails and spare plywood. Walls were peeling; flooring exposed; ceilings decaying. Though one of his brothers hopes to keep the house, Larry says he doesn’t have the proper funds to maintain it. This is where Cremin-Endes and the NHS team come in.
The agency rehabilitates old houses like Burgess’ to sell to new lower and middle-class homeowners. But unlike the risky refinancing efforts of speculators or the superficial refurbishing touches of slumlords, NHS reinvests in the neighborhood’s already existing housing stock. About four years ago, NHS set its sights on targeting critical areas like Newhallville. Despite their experience renovating and selling over 250 houses since 1979, improving the neighborhood has been no easy task. “We have to make sure investors don’t use houses like Monopoly board rent-collecting,” said Peter Crumlish, director of development for NHS. In addition to having the city’s highest foreclosure rate, the neighborhood has had the city’s highest unemployment rate, lowest performing school district and record-breaking crime rate.
In 2007, threats from a nearby bar prompted a resident to quickly flee her house developed by the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity at 526 Winchester St. Due to further safety concerns, Habitat’s local chapter soon put the rest of its plans for the neighborhood on hold. NHS Director Jim Paley soon realized that developing Newhallville one house at a time wouldn’t change anything. A house-by-house remedy would be akin, at best, to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping bullet hole.
“The Habitat for Humanity house on Winchester was a perfectly wonderful house and family but if you’re left out there isolated on an island, what can really happen?” explained Bridgette Russell, the director of the Home Ownership Center at NHS. “At the time, it was almost imperative that anything done was done in the right way because you had to do it in a stabilizing way.”
To stabilize Newhallville, NHS pioneered a strategy called the “cluster approach” that buys and renovates groups of contiguous houses simultaneously. These clusters of development can improve the appearance and raise the property values of entire blocks and streets. Community leader and resident Tammy Chapman moved into one of the three houses in the first cluster in Newhallville, at Winchester and Highland, in December 2011. “The cluster program allows you to put your arms out,” she said, “and touch your neighbors on both sides.”
But for a long time, nobody reached out at all. Though the housing stock once was designed for socializing, with porches for waving and talking, people had retreated indoors as conditions outside worsened.
* * *
In 1870, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company established its permanent industrial campus — acres and acres of plant floor two miles northwest from Yale. Nurtured by the strong arms of the Winchester Factory and its suppliers, the surrounding neighborhood of Dixwell-Newhallville had prospered from a wellspring of stable employment and decent wages for its residents.
Eva Smith, who’s lived a block up from the Winchester Factory since 1956, remembers a time when people in Newhallville had jobs at the factory. Smith remembers hearing as a child the loud ringing of the lunchtime bell calling Winchester’s employees back to work from her living room. She remembers living in a flourishing working class town made up of Italians, African Americans, Caucasians and Hispanics with mixed incomes. She remembers a time when the factory — located at the intersection of Winchester and Munson — looked like a factory.
What remains of the factory today is series of two, four and five-story buildings filled with whatever refuse has not been sacked by squatters and skateboarders: shells, casings, old boxes. Bright greenery crawls over soot stained bricks and shuttered windows down into the twisted barbed wire fence that surrounds its perimeter.
Though Winchester’s closing is not the root cause of woe in Dixwell-Newhallville, its demise left an open sore from which the neighborhood has yet to fully recover. Many sections of the Newhallville neighborhood’s properties are not much better off. When the small fraction of the still operative factory closed down in 2006, its staff (including Burgess’ father) consisted of fewer than 200 workers.
Not long after the factory reduced its operations, Smith watched her street disappear. From her porch on Winchester where she sat on most days, Smith pointed to a string of small businesses — a drugstore, a Laundromat, a bar — and farther up the street — a donut shop, a shoe shop and a Greek restaurant. Where, with a little imagination, she could bring the street back to life, I saw only what was left: some nice houses, some burned houses, boarded-up buildings and empty grass lots. In what was now a totally vacant apartment building across from her house, I tried to picture the grocery store and grocer who once lived upstairs, and I failed. But NHS sees something else.
If NHS were to purchase Burgess’ house, it would rebuild the interior while preserving undamaged historical details like its old sturdy green door. In addition to restoring historical fabric, NHS also hopes to revive the sense of community Newhallville once had.
* * *
En route to visit Burgess’ house on Newhall Street, Cremin-Endes drove past West Division Street in his blue Subaru. The street, once blighted, is now unrecognizable. NHS’ concentrated efforts in the area have rehabilitated four of the street’s seven houses. All houses are LEED-certified energy efficient (saving their owners from more expensive bills in the long term). NHS’ cluster strategy extends to houses it does not own: NHS has painted three other houses on West Division and added streetlights throughout.
Right after he passed by NHS’ own work on West Division Street, Cremin-Endes pulled over at Newhall and Huntington next to a house in need of grave repair with green tiling, rusty fences over the door and broken fallen flooring. (Graffiti on the wall read: “To all you stink ass bitches …”). Cremin-Endes greeted the current landlord, who seemed to be making only minimal repairs, and offered to buy the house on behalf of NHS. The landlord seemed uninterested in the offer. But it is important for NHS’ efforts to raise property values in the neighborhood that rundown houses don’t stay rundown, no matter whose hands renovate them. So, Cremin-Endes made another offer: “If you do a nice job, I can get 20 volunteers — and I don’t do this often — but I can get 20 volunteers to help you clean out.”
“I asked the city to help me,” the landlord responded. “I’m not bringing anything down. They bring themselves down every day. You get one or two houses but you can’t do anything. Let’s be realistic, what are you going to get on this housing?” The answer, in terms of community building instead of profit, is a lot.
Cremin-Endes, who has gained national recognition for his work in Newhallville, explained that the agency someday hopes to connect all of these micro-neighborhoods to form a “critical mass” of stability. A bird’s-eye-view map of Newhallville in his office marks properties acquired and to be acquired. But one nice house does not a good neighborhood make. For this reason, NHS is currently developing and planning multiple clusters at once.
The ultimate goal, Cremin-Endes said, is “to bring back neighborhoods to what they were many years ago: desirable neighborhoods of choice for families.” Boxes of flowers in windowsills have improved appearances, and, in turn, morale. Shoveled snow is a small but sure sign of a house’s self-care. And better lighting on streets has led to marked reductions in crime.
Neighborhood leaders are making efforts to light up every street in Newhallville with LED lighting by the end of this year. NHS has recently partnered with about 10 churches and other social service agencies in the area as part of the Promised Land Initiative. The Promised Land Initiative has pledged to fix 10 blocks in Newhallville hit hardest by high crime and abandoned houses for the last two decades. “We thought because they were already renovating houses it would be a good partnership for collaboration,” said Pastor Donald Morris, the executive director of Newhallville’s Christian Community Commission — a nonprofit outreach organization, and one of the leaders of the Promised Land Initiative.
The Initiative’s team has also helped train residents to become more proactive in the neighborhood’s community policing efforts and safety meetings. “The police department and local churches have all joined forces to make this a collaborative role model neighborhood for change,” Morris added.
Yet while the streetlights improve both safety and aesthetics, if nothing else is done to solidify these changes then crime can start to creep up all over again. Community organizing and homeowner leadership have helped to reinforce these changes. The Solar Youth after school program keep kids busy after school; Chapman has also been organizing community walks to promote health and resident visibility. Studies have shown, Chapman says, that communities that exercise together have lower crime rates. Newhallville now boasts the highest concentration of community gardens in New Haven.
When Chapman’s neighbors were going to move out of the neighborhood, she convinced them to stay by pointing to these catalytic changes.
“There is a direct causal impact on how people who might have been reluctant to view a house for purchase change their mind after seeing change on the block or street,” NHS Development Director Bridgette Russell said. “There’s a positive impact for those already living in a community on both an ownership level and investment level. When you see other changes taking place, it spurs you on.”
Last year Russell invited NHS homeowner-to-be Vinita Mullings to attend a community leadership conference in Orlando, Florida. Mullings felt inspired by the confidence of other community leaders across the country. “It was great just to meet different people,” she said. Since that trip, she has been working on an initiative to build an educational greenhouse in the community garden across from Lincoln-Bassett School. This spring she’ll be moving from Hamden into a house on Winchester and Cave. Accented with purple paint, her new spacious two-family house — she’ll be leasing to a tenant on the first floor — will have a mortgage lower than what her rent had been. “I’m thinking about a boxed garden in my yard,” she said, adding that she was hoping to start a garden club.
“I think this is a replicable model in terms of what can be done,” Russell added, “because when I talk to other residents in Newhallville they’re excited about the positive things that are on the horizon; there’s a lot of positive energy there.”
* * *
At last October’s annual meeting of the Neighborhood Housing Services, employees, trustees and new homeowners gathered to celebrate and share the year’s accomplishments over hot wood-fire pizza. NHS’ architects were the bartenders, everybody was kindly praising somebody else’s work, and the NHS office campus, built as a series of small houses, flowed with voices and good news.
NHS tries to prepare first-time buyers to be responsible owners with classes and foreclosure mitigation assistance. “This is about the long-term,” Cremin-Endes told me. “Not just ribbon-cutting.” NHS is willing to work with new owners for as long as it takes for them to get off their feet — sometimes for years.
Joseph Adjei, a father of five and a new home buyer, talked about how taken care of he felt by this ‘all-things-considered’ approach. “I can talk to them. It is not like buying and selling,” he said. “They care about the people who live in the houses. It makes me comfortable.”
As the annual meeting’s party gathered into a white plastic tent, rain came down in longer and longer streaks outside. Chapman and her husband James spoke to the crowd on behalf of their cluster about their experiences. “We are really looking forward to reclaiming our neighborhood,” she continued. “It has suffered so many years of neglect.” Of Adjei, Chapman said that he “feels like a king in his home, so thank you, NHS, for making him a castle.”
Since moving to Newhallville, Chapman has gotten involved with many of the initiatives to beautify and form a community. “They make it so you feel that you’re part of something,” she said. “They call you and get you involved with meetings and initiatives and you’re always encouraged to do your own initiatives.” Her blog, “Newhallville. Community. Matters.”, reads as an archive of the community’s collective building efforts.
When Chapman talked to me about her community involvement, she also talked about its communal history. “I think it’s kind of unusual for a neighborhood to have multigenerational families, families that have been here when things were really rough and really bad,” she said. “All you could do was go into your house, through the back door, shut the shades, and never talk to anybody.” She says that street cleanups get people out of their houses and talking to each other. Now that the weather is warming, she’s hoping to organize street cleanups once a month from March through October.
“When I try to explain this to people, I say that I can connect with my neighbors more readily than other neighborhoods in New Haven because it has always been a community,” Chapman said. “The cluster did not create a community. People have kind of forgotten it throughout the years. The bones are there. We have our challenges but we’re invested.”