Darren Smith found his way back to the old Dwight Co-ops with a drill and a T-square in hand so he could help give his childhood housing complex a second chance — along with his own carpentry dreams.
Smith is three weeks into a job putting up the sheetrock in 48 gutted apartments in the first five buildings being restored at 99 Edgewood. After years of false starts and misery for longstanding tenants, the former housing cooperative is being reborn (in two phases) as a privately owned 80-unit affordable complex called Dwight Gardens.
Smith has enlisted a crew of New Haven tradespeople and aspiring tradespeople who, like Dwight Gardens itself, are primed for a fresh start.
Smith spent part of his childhood living in the complex when it was known as the Dwight Co-ops, one of a slew of tenant-run cooperatives born in the 1960s amid idealistic visions that for the most part dissolved decades later amid disrepair and default. He launched his own carpentry company four years out of Hillhouse, only to see that business fail. Then he fell on hard times himself. He’s been finding more work lately and, with the six-figure gig at Dwight Gardens, the biggest he’s ever had, he’s looking to relaunch himself as a small business owner.
“It’s not the money. It’s the opportunity,” Smith, who’s 56, said Thursday afternoon at the close of another day of putting new walls and ceilings in Dwight Gardens apartments. “I’m blessed to get work. There’s a lack of opportunity for a small guy like me, inner-city person. Everybody’s bidding for the same crumbs. Hopefully this’ll be a real big start for the guys here.”
Smith won the job by submitting the low bid and solid references to the job’s general contractor, Paragon Construction. Then he got an invaluable assist from the developer overseeing the entire project, Justin Goldberg of Navarino Capital management. Goldberg arranged to expedite payments for Smith at each step of the job so he wouldn’t have to wait, say, 90 days to get paid, which can happen on other jobs. That means he can pay for the sheetrock and pay his workers without interruptions. It also means he needed just a $30,000 line of credit.
That kind of help would enable more New Haveners get a piece of all the subcontracting work going on in red-hot New Haven, observed Rodney Williams, an outspoken advocate for minority businesses in town who has his own company and is working with Smith on the Dwight Gardens sheetrocking job.
“When that dry wall truck comes and they’re dumping that drywall off, they want that money,” Williams observed.
Smith didn’t know what “Co-ops” meant when his mother moved into Unit 11 in 1969 along with Darren and his four siblings the year the complex opened. He was 9 years old at the time; the family had come from Putnam Street in the Hill. All he knew was that the townhouse unit had four bedrooms and a big open inner courtyard where he and lots of other kids could play together. The Dwight Co-ops was a “beautiful place,” a safe, neighborly environment in which to grow up.
He could play basketball in the community room. Sometimes dances took place in there, too. “That was the sprinkler here in the summertime,” he said, pointing to a dried-up pole.
“Everybody knew each other,” he recalled. “There were a lot of kids here.” Friends like Walter McGraw, who became a Channel 8 cameraman, and Sandra Harris, who went on to co-run Sandra’s Soul Food restaurant.
His mom hit some hard times, and the family moved away some six years later. Inspired by the likes of Grover Washington Jr., Darren was at Hillhouse High School, playing the sax in the marching band, sneaking into the old Monterey to jam with musicians.
After high school, he entered a government training program and earned his carpenter’s license. He got into the union. His own businesses lasted only a year. After that he foundered a bit. When crack hit town, he developed substance abuse problems. He spent a good chunk of time in and out of jail for 18 years. Then, he said, he got straight. He’s been working since.
Dwight Co-ops fell on hard times, too. Tenants squabbled on the board. Conditions deteriorated. By 2010, a heartbreaking few months before paying off the mortgage and owning the complex outright, the tenant association defaulted. It no longer owned the place.
City officials scrambled to find a private developer to save it. The DeStefano administration found a builder who ended up blowing money and never rebuilding. Tenants lost hot water and heat in the winter. Finally, the city found Goldberg’s company, which is in full throes of rehabbing the complex. The 25 tenants still living in the other (as yet unrebuilt) half of the complex will have first dibs on the first 48 new units once they’re done. Goldberg said he expects to have the work completed by June.
Smith is helping him get there by working fast, and doing the job well, Goldberg said.
His crew does the job in a series of steps. First they measure the dry wall. Using a T-square, they cut it to size. Then they screw it into the frame. They apply a rough coat of joint compound tape to close seams. They then cover the tape and nail holes with a second coat of joint compound. They sand it all down smooth, then finish with a third coat of joint compound. The walls and ceiling are then ready for the next crew, the painting crew. Which a bunch of units already are.
On a given day Smith enlists up to eight or nine helpers. Like him, many grew up and still live in New Haven. Some, like Williams, and Dennis Smith and Iunre Smart of Newhallville, hire Smith when they get subcontracting gigs, too.
Others are learning the trade on the job under Smith’s and Williams’s guidance. Including Smith’s son, 24-year-old Jovan Dozier. Dozier started learning the trade in the Job Corps, where an instructor advised him to find work with someone willing to teach him more on the job. “I’d rather build a McDonald’s,” he said, “than work in one.”
Monique Carr, who’s 37, actually managed a McDonald’s once. She decided she, too, wanted to learn a trade. She’s been picking up laborer gigs off and on for about a decade. This is the first one “where someone was willing to teach me a skill.” She started as a laborer; two weeks in, Smith promoted her to taper.
Come June, the job will be over. But for some of Darren Smith’s old neighbors, and some of his newer colleagues, brighter days may have just begun.
Previous coverage of the Dwight Co-Ops/Dwight Gardens Saga (in chronological order):
• $3.75M State Loan Keeps Dwight Gardens Rescue On Track
• Delayed Dwight Gardens Rescue Set To Resume
• On Verge Of A Dream, Co-op Faces Foreclosure
• City Finds Potential Buyer For Dwight Co-Op Homes
• City’s Co-op Savior Has Troubled Track Record
• Dwight Coop Rescue Advances
• Dwight Co-op Deal Squeaks Through
• Housing Authority Quits Dwight Co-Op Deal
• Dwight Co-Op Makeover In Limbo
• Day Laborers Move The “Mountain”
• City Turns Up Heat On Dwight Co-Op Landlord
• City Seeks New Buyer For Dwight Co-Ops
• 6 Vie To Buy Failed Housing Co-op
• Dwight Gardens Rescue Effort Takes New Turn
• Not So Fast! Auction’s Off
• Dwight Gardens Rescue Plan Advances
• Fed Shutdown Stalls Dwight Gardens Rescue
• Erik Johnson Races The Clock
• Dwight Gardens Shivers
• Dwight Gardens Rescue Deal Reached
• Inch Of Water Changes Builder’s Plans