Dixwell Fact-Finders Urged To Include Youth In The Picture
by Ike Swetlitz | Mar 13, 2014 8:26 am
Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Dixwell
A group of middle-aged men and women from outside the neighborhood walked into Sean Reeves’ RHR Printing & Graphics on Dixwell Avenue. They said they were studying how to improve the neighborhood. Reeves said he appreciated their presence—but would have liked to see more local, younger faces.
Reeves, 40, emphasized the need for the community to make sure young people are equipped with entrepreneurial skills. His parents’ generation dropped the ball, he said.
He made the point to consultants and local officials touring a small part of Dixwell Wednesday as part of a week-long fact-finding look at how to bolster New Haven’s neighborhood commercial corridors.
“Dixwell Avenue doesn’t exist anymore because they let it die,” said Reeves, who lost a son to gun violence in 2011. “They” are the older generation. Reeves said he wishes he could benefit from the business savvy of his parents and grandparents. He implored city officials and hired consultants to expand financial and technical information services to help people start businesses.
One of the consultants suggested a micro-loan program. Reeves was all ears.
The Dixwell tour was the fourth and final one for the consultants, Kent Burnes and John Simone. They previously hit Whalley Avenue, Congress Avenue, and Grand Avenue. They plan to present their findings at Friday at 3:30 p.m. at 200 Orange St and submit a written report to the city within a months.
The visit to Reeves’ shop followed a community meeting at the United House of Prayer, where neighbors, including Reeves, expressed concerns about the neighborhood and visions for its future. About 70 people attended the meeting. All but two were over the age of 25.
Andre Smith, 49, an associate elder at the United House of Prayer, described the meeting as a “beautiful event.” But he said he hopes that the meeting is only the beginning of a process to revitalize the neighborhood.
“I pray that results will follow this,” Smith said.
In looking to the future, Dixwell neighbors fondly recalled the past. A few generations ago, Dixwell was not only a mecca of jazz music but also a community where you could go to restaurants and doctors.
Elisabeth Robison, 68, grew up a few block away from the church. She recalled the names of the physician, dentist, and eye doctor who used to have practices in Dixwell.
At the meeting, neighbors voiced a variety of concerns, some more related to economic improvement than others. Some urged officials to make sure that development will benefit New Haven contractors as opposed to out-of-city businesses. Others were concerned with the moral fabric of their community, imploring their neighbors to prioritize community interests above individual interests.
After many residents spoke, Burnes called for a “rapid-fire” round. He asked people to name one thing that would improve the community. Responses flowed in: financial education, street cleaning, activities for youth, restaurants, banks, and parks. Other residents voiced more abstract concerns: “Black consciousness.” “Compassion.”
Ashanti Johnson (pictured) spoke of affordable summer housing for students. Johnson, 20, is a sophomore studying accounting at Southern Connecticut State University. She told her friends about Wednesday’s meeting —but since it started at 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, they couldn’t come. They were still in class.
Following the community meeting at the United House of Prayer, city officials and consultants visited three locations: the Stetson Branch Library, Reeves’ shop, and a family welfare not-for-profit. The tour did not extend up Dixwell into Newhallville.
Stetson branch librarian Diane Brown, 56, gave a tour of the library. She showed the library’s community rooms, computer clusters and extensive collection of African-American books—the largest in the city, she said.
Simone called the library is a “people magnet” that could play a role in boosting economic development. Simone said that some libraries are adding coffee shops, which is another place for residents to gather. Brown said the library needs more computers.
The next stop on their tour was Reeves’ printing shop. After talking to the consultants and city officials for a while, Reeves noticed a familiar man wearing a black leather jacket with three rows of zippers, jeans, and purple shoes, peeking through the slats.
“That young man looking in the window, he sings,” Reeves said. The man came into his shop a few minutes later, accompanied by a friend who is a student at Gateway Community College.
Reeves bemoaned the lack of public spaces for the man to practice his art and record music. He emphasized the need to focus on that younger generation.
“Unless we cater to them,” Reeves said, “we have no future here.”
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Dixwell will never be a vibrant area again until Whalley Avenue, which is the most important street in New Haven, is fixed first.
Currently, potential customers on the other side of Whalley avoid Dixwell Avenue because they can’t cross Whalley, or, if they live on the other side of Dixwell, because there is no reason to walk to Whalley.
The same holds true for other problematic streets in the area, such as Webster, which was designed as a high-speed two lane highway, Goffe Street, where large asphalt parking lots for new affordable housing developments continue to proliferate and ruin the walkability of the area for generations to come, and Winchester, where Yale tears down buildings to expand parking lots.
No street stands alone. Fix the streets I mentioned above, and Dixwell will come roaring back as a place where entrepreneurs can succeed again.