After seven years in the thick of hard-fought efforts to calm his neighborhood’s streets and build up its culture and businesses, Chris Heitmann is handing over the reins of the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance and heading west.
Friday is his official last day as a paid employee, though he will be around for about three weeks to assist his interim successor, Lizzy Donius, who was hired earlier this year as the events and volunteer coordinator after a five-year stint as the community programs manager for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. (Heitmann is not-so-secretly rooting for Donius to be his permanent successor, but that decision is up to the alliance’s board of directors.)
Heitman’s not leaving because he’s given up on Westville. In fact, one might say he’s leaving on top, with several of those efforts — such as traffic calming on Whalley Avenue and Valley Street — on the cusp of bearing fruit.
He’s moving on because his wife, Cyra Levenson, was recently appointed the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new director of education and academic affairs. Since 2006, Levenson served as the curator of Education and Academic Outreach at the Yale Center for British Art. So the family, which includes two daughters, is moving to Ohio.
Heitmann said the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the top five of its kind in the country in terms of not only its collection but also its endowment. The family felt it couldn’t turn down that opportunity, even though it means leaving the neighborhood where Levenson grew up and where Heitmann has helped build so much community for seven years, from a thriving cultural life to a campaigns for safer streets.
“We’re very much rooted here,” Heitmann said. “Our family is here. I live a very place based existence. Everything I do is here.”
From the decorative planters and newly planted trees that have sprouted over the past seven years and the proliferation of public art in Westville to the overhaul of the Blake Street parking lot and the outpouring of support for families burned out by the Delaney’s fire, Heitmann and WVRA have been involved somehow. The neighborhood has seen a renaissance. Heitmann has played an important part in it.
The Delaney’s response was Heitmann’s “finest moment,” New Haven State Rep. Pat Dillon said. It showed his “total dedication” to the job. “Everyone was in shock but he threw himself into aiding displaced tenants and worked with the city and others to help the victims who had lost so much.” Dillon said Heitmann will also leave behind a “strong vision of the importance of the [West] River and trails as assets to the district.”
Heitmann said it had always been his and his wife’s intent to move from New York City to New Haven; it was just a matter of which one of them would find a job first. When Levenson landed a gig with Yale, he commuted back to the big city for two years, “because I was happy doing what I was doing,” he said. “But two years of commuting wears thin.”
Though he was commuting to the job in New York, Heitmann got involved with Westville. He participated in the neighborhood’s ongoing battle with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) over slowing down traffic on the three state-controlled roads that run through the village: Fountain Street, Whalley Avenue and Fitch Street. He volunteered his time to work with consultants hired by the city to develop a plan for traffic-calming on Whalley Avenue. He joined his neighbors to testify at state hearings. He helped co-host meetings and focus groups to get neighborhood input on those plans.
People started to take notice, particularly the board of directors of the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance (WVRA), which had decided that it needed an executive director at least on a part-time basis in 2009. The board pitched Heitmann on the job, and he took it.
“This was an opportunity to try and put in place” what he was urging other people to do, he said. “So, the level of reward is much, much greater. We get to reap the benefit in our own neighborhood and see the impact that it has on people. It’s absolutely gratifying.”
It also makes it hard to leave.
“You have to accept that the work is never done,” Heitmann said. “There’s always more to do.”
People keep asking him what’s going to happen to Westiville.
“Well, all of the things that are happening will continue to happen,” he said. “It’s just not going to be me orchestrating them anymore.”
Ties That Bind
As WVRA director, Heitmann has advocated on behalf of neighbors and businesses, flexed grant-writing muscles to pay for art commissions and consultants, and coordinated volunteers to physically maintain Westville Village. He published an e-newsletter that kept everyone informed of Village doings.
“We’re only as successful as our partnerships,” he said. “If we didn’t have this partnership with Mitchell Library—the New Haven Free Public Library—our concert series would not be what it is. Our partnership with City Seed and the farmer’s market ... even the individual business owners like John Cavaliere. He brings such tremendous richness to the neighborhood through Lyric Hall. We pull resources in to work with him to help him keep doing what he’s doing.”
Fashion designer Neville Wisdom said that Heitmann was instrumental in luring him back to Westville, were he initially started his business. Heitmann helped him navigate obtaining facade improvement money for his new design workshop and storefront in the Masonic Temple building.
“He’s always been very helpful,” Wisdom said. “He’s good people and he’s going to be missed.”
Successful partnerships look like an annual Art Walk that now draws between 8,000 and 10,000 people. It also looks like the first phase of traffic-calming for Whalley Avenue finally getting a green light from the state DOT and bond money from the state to install new crosswalks along with planted and lighted medians at gateways to the village.Those gateways will be prominently established at West Park Avenue and Harrison Street. Heitmann said none of that could have been accomplished without the leadership and tenacity of State Rep. Dillon or village businesses and neighbors who had the temerity to believe they could push DOT to see things their way.
It still gets under his skin that DOT has not budged on its position when it comes to protected bike lanes on Whalley Avenue. Many in Westville want them. DOT doesn’t.
“Their concept of safety and our concept of safety is different,” he said. “But this is one of those things that I’m going to have to let go.”
He looks forward to coming back to visit and seeing the first phase of the improvements underway, and trusts City Engineer Giovanni Zinn and transit chief Doug Hausladen to keep fighting the good fight to direct the plan for phase two, for the Village center and the convergence of Fountain Street and Whalley Avenue.
Heitmann also said he looks forward to what will come of the development of a comprehensive planning process now underway. He’d like to see rezoning of the village that could eventually help the redevelopment of the former Delaney’s site and other infill development. He also spoke of the plans of “partners” like the West River Watershed Coalition for a West River Greenway, of which WVRA is a member, that connects not just parks and the West River in New Haven but across five towns. He said he hopes Southern Connecticut State University will be able to expand its footprint in a way that would connect it to Beaver Hills and Westville.
Giving Cleveland A Chance
Heitmann’s wife starts her job Aug. 1. But the 44-year-old Heitmann is not job hunting, or even looking for something to get involved with as a volunteer—at least not yet.
“I’m looking forward to taking a little break, a sabbatical or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “I think Cyra’s new job is going to be very intense, at least at the outset. Our girls are starting new schools, and they’re going to be making new friends and living in a new house in a new community. So, just being able to function as the anchor for our family is important. I don’t think it will be forever.”
Heitmann said he might return to school. He’s also already done his homework on the farmer’s market system in Cleveland and the various bicycle co-ops and advocacy groups that are in the city, but he’ s holding back on getting involved.
“It would be very east to jump into all of that,” he said. “I want to just take time to step back, get the lay of the land and just learn and listen and then see where the appropriate place is where I can have a positive impact. Right now, I’m focused on here. I can’t focus on there until I’m there.”
New Haveners have a habit of coming back to New Haven. Will the family be back some day?
“Sure, there are possibilities,” he said. “We’re not selling our house, for a variety of reasons. We’re going to be leasing for the time being, and we have a lot of family here and a lot of friends. Do I see myself living in Cleveland for the next 15 to 20 years? Right now, no. But you never know. Cleveland has a lot of really cool things happening.”
Just like an urban “village” he has called home.