Ayo Engel-Halfkenny, who’s 9 years old, took off running across the open yard. His friend, Dante Guess, 13, followed close behind.
The boys’ foot race took them past all the “Arts on the Avenue” program had to offer at 535 Winchester Ave. on Friday: a mobile market brimming with fresh produce, a live band jamming with neighbors to soul music, kids playing with balloons, families coming together.
The event kicked off a summer of open-air arts experiences at the location, sponsored by the Winchester Revitalization Art Project (WRAP). Arts on the Avenue will occur every Wednesday and Friday until Aug. 23.
The event began three years ago to bring arts and culture to Newhallville and help spur economic redevelopment, WRAP director Gerald Moore said. A sculptor from Bridgeport, Moore (pictured) said he believes the event can “connect the dots” of creativity, commerce, and development in a way that makes sense to New Haven’s people. “Normally, these things are disconnected,” he said, “but there’s a chemistry that happens when we bring them together. Good things happen.”
This chemistry was apparent on Friday afternoon, as New Haveners came together to dance, sing, buy food and find jobs in a vibrant event dampened only by the threat of rain. “Mother Nature has bigger plans, huh?” one man asked Moore. But the event kept going and people kept showing up.
Organized through the City of New Haven’s Office of Economic Development and the Livable Cities Initiative, Arts on the Avenue is one of numerous efforts to revitalize Newhallville. WRAP has taught theater to young people, performed a play about the challenges of the neighborhoods like Newhallville, and regularly hosts open-mic coffeehouses in the winter. Other groups’ efforts to plant trees, tend community gardens, and redevelop abandoned properties are also bringing new life to Newhallville.
With Arts on the Avenue, Vivian Nabeta said, the city hopes to bring the neighborhood together. Nabeta is the director of the New Haven Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism. “We want to use the arts as a tool to build community,” she said. “It’s a chance to meet and see each other.”
For Engel-Halfkenny and Guess, this was certainly true. The two boys’ mothers are friends, they said, and coming to the event allowed their families to spend time together.
The event appears to be drawing return visitors as well as new ones, Nabeta said. She pointed out a woman in purple, whose son sat munching blueberries from CitySeed’s mobile market. Guess’s family attended the event last year, too. “We’ve been waiting for it to come back,” his mother, Tammy Chapman said. “We were hoping it would.” Chapman lives on Winchester and said she appreciates the chance buy fresh produce and expose her kids to music.
Her husband, James Chapman, agreed. “We need more events. More festivals. More things like this to keep everybody in a happy mood,” he said, as his son, Kymani, age 5, tugged on his shirt.
Besides bringing people together, Moore said, WRAP serves as a “scaffold” for local artists and organizations. By allowing these groups to get their messages out, WRAP hopes to build Newhallville by providing economic and cultural opportunities.
Decked out in a superwoman costume (pictured) and holding a bouquet of orange balloons, Dominique Jefferson, 22, had come to get the word out about the Construction Workforce Initiative. The program provides free construction training and helps New Haveners find employment, she said. The organization is currently recruiting.
Adorned with the letters CWI, her orange balloons served as a vehicle for the program’s message. By giving children balloons and buttons they could bring home, the program aimed to reach parents who may not have attended the weekday event. “Maybe [the parents] will think, ‘Oh, I can get a job. This might be a message from God,’” Jefferson said. As far as the superwoman costume, she added, the goal was to reach the neighborhood’s women and encourage them to take on construction jobs. “Show some muscle like us,” Jefferson said. “Pick up a wrench. Pick up a hammer. Be superheroes.”
Arts on the Avenue also featured a cartoonist who uses art to communicate positive messages for kids. For his newest book on bullying, Jerry Craft worked with his two sons, Aren, 13, and Jaylen, 15. The boys helped write and illustrate the book, Craft said, and serve as his “in-home focus group.” The three signed books at the event.
Another of Craft’s books uses his comic strip, Mama’s Boyz, to talk about the long-term consequences of youthful choices. In one strip, a now 81-year-old man bears a tribal, Mike Tyson-esque tattoo on his face that he got as a teenager. In another, a 72-year-old man still sags his pants. By using cartoons, Craft said, he is able to talk to kids about important messages without “beating them over the head.”
Events like Arts on the Avenue allow him to reach children who might not enjoy reading, he added. “I’d much rather come here than Barnes and Noble,” he said. “There, kids are looking for books. Here, I can reach people who might not look at books as entertainment.” When kids see that he and his sons are like them in many ways – they like video games, they play basketball – they might start reading too. The approach worked for his own sons, Craft said, who were once “reluctant readers” but now read for fun.
CitySeed’s mobile market also reached out to Newhallville’s residents on Friday and plans to return each week. The mobile market started last year to improve access to fresh food in New Haven, said mobile market manager, Cara Donovan. The farm stand brings produce from Connecticut – including New Haven’s Common Ground High School – to senior housing sites and ten other locations each week. To encourage New Haveners to eat healthy, the not-for-profit doubles the value of food stamps, Donovan said. Blueberries sold best at Arts of the Avenue – “fruit is always the most popular” – but residents also picked up collard greens, carrots, lettuce, and potatoes.
Food demos add an educational component, Donovan said, showing visitors how easy preparing healthy foods can be. Attendees picked up cups of zucchini salad prepared by Katherine Podgewaite, a senior at the University of Connecticut studying nutritional science. “Surprisingly, the kids really liked it,” she said. City Seed hopes to transition from using volunteers to local residents for these demos, Donovan said.
Music from the band Organic Soul filled the event on Friday, bringing the arts beyond 535 Winchester’s chain link fence to the neighborhood beyond. Across the street, New Haveners gathered on their front steps to listen. Those at the event danced and joined in the singing with mics provided by WRAP.
Though the group’s three musicians – Kenny Blackwell, Wayne Brown, and Nate Brown – play other events, Blackwell said he likes playing for Arts on the Avenue because it brings live music to hard-to-reach areas. “It’s great,” he said. “New Haven has a rich history of art and culture, but unfortunately it doesn’t get to the inner city.”
“New Haven was known for music,” Brown chimed in. By playing with WRAP, Brown said, the group hopes to bring this musical liveliness back to the city. Encouraging young people to experience and create music is especially important, Brown said. During their performance, the group often reached out to neighbors to join in. Some kids were shy at first, but then grabbed the mic and let loose. “Once they do that first song, they do 20 more,” Brown said. “They get past that fear,” attendee Donald Winfrey added, “and they start bragging – ‘I did it!’ It’s a beautiful thing.”
Winfrey (pictured on right) worked up the courage to sing too. Though he initially came to listen, Winfrey said, Brown handed him a mic and encouraged him to sing. The band played Winfrey’s request, the Temptations’ “My Girl,” as he sang along with another New Havener. “It’s heartfelt. The kids love it,” Winfrey said of the event. “The joy and the love is there.”
Previous stories about Newhallville’s turnaround efforts:
• Brick By Brick, Winchester Vision Takes Shape
• Gardeners Prevail; Vacant-Lot Challenge Remains
• After Crash, Neighbors Seek Fix For Blind Corner
• Newhallville Confronts A Mega-Landlord
• Newhallville Bounces Back; House Will Get Built
• Levin To Newhallville: “We’ll Be Back”
• Newhallville Up For “Historic” Boost
• Cops Make Arrest In 83-Year-Old Prof’s Mugging
• Harp Probes The Newhallville Conundrum
• “Let There Be Light” (Emitting Diodes)!
• “Serenity” Takes Root On Shepard Street
• Bird Garden Fights Blight
• Yale Flees Newhallville After Prof’s Mugging