A decade ago, Curtis Libert found a riverside dump with dead dogs and old mattresses. He transformed it into a treasure trove of fruit trees, plastic kiddie bikes, a time-traveling easy chair, and royal red carpet.
All those improbable amenities await visitors to the bank of the Quinnipiac River, at the southern end of Poplar Street in Fair Haven. For 10 years, Libert and friends have been quietly constructing a waterfront wonderland there.
It’s a combination community garden, working man’s social club, and folk-art sculpture park—a place for people to cast their lines into the water, or just relax on some scrap-wood furniture and watch the river go by.
While the city works to redevelop River Street by bringing in new investment and industry, Libert and his friends have already been hard at work on a DIY development.
A recent visit found Libert, 55, unloading pallets and pinecones from the bed of a pickup truck—new supplies to continue the construction of “Shantytown,” as Libert calls his creation. Libert was returning from his job as a roofer, dressed in faded Carhartt workwear and wearing a white hardhat and dark glasses.
It started nearly 10 years ago with the construction of a shanty, a place Libert decided to call home because it reminded him of his native Trinidad. At the time, the place was a wreck, Libert said, in his lilting West Indies accent.
“We were just fishing here. It was a mess. You would not believe to see it, man,” he said. “It was nasty. Now we clean it up.”
Libert led the way into Shantytown, past a chain-link fence lined with flowering plants and covered with pinwheels, flags, women’s shoes, and stuffed animals ...
... and through a swinging gate—with hinges made from old flip-flops—to a garden behind a painted fence.
He pointed out the young fruit trees growing all around—pears, peaches, plums, apples. Pink and Red rosebushes flower in painted planters made from old tires.
Tomato plants abound. Libert gestured to young cucumbers, squash, and zucchini. All the plants were donated by people who fish at the spot, Libert said.
Libert pulls the garden through dry spells by collecting rainwater in garbage barrels for irrigation.
Colorful plastic toys intermingle with the plants. An old doll sits under one fruit tree. “She’s just chilling there,” Libert explained.
He passed by a birdbath he made out of old wood and water bottles.
Near the entrance to Shantytown, Libert has layered pieces of carpeting. “Sorry I didn’t vacuum it,” he said.
A fleet of colorful plastic kiddie bikes was lined up neatly by the fence. “I pick them up on the side of the street,” Libert said. “Kids play with them.”
Nearby was a legless old cushioned chair, mounted on a wood scrap structure that turned it into a kind of DIY La-Z-Boy. “That’s my chair to go back in time,” Libert said proudly. He sat down an pulled an imaginary lever to enjoy a ride back in history.
From the time-travel chair, Libert moved to a bench built around a large tree he planted in the center of Shantytown. It’s people’s favorite spot, he said. “A front-row seat.”
Libert said the tree in the center was the first improvement to the area, planted because there was no shade on the shore for people fishing.
Libert then leapt up and grabbed a fishing pole from a rack inside a structure marked “Fresh Seafood.” He raced to the shore and cast his line far into the water.
Josh Hernandez, Roberto Polanco and Rafael Rivera cheered Libert on from their seats on a bench built into the Fresh Seafood shack.
“It’s beautiful,” Rivera said of Shantytown.
It’s a place to relax after you get out of work, said Hernandez. “It’s the best place to be.”
Pallets were stacked on the shore for a bonfire. A smaller fire was already going, to grill fish.
“One shot, one kill!” Libert shouted as he pulled fish out of the river.
Libert’s biggest-ever catch, he said, was a 44-inch bass, a conquest that’s commemorated in a couple of spots in Shantytown. Curtis has decorated Jersey barriers and concrete blocks with paintings of fish.
In one corner of Shantytown, high on a pole, is Libert’s inspiration. It’s a painting of the Virgin Mary, standing in an idyllic waterfront flower garden and watching over New Haven’s own garden of waterside delights.