In a quest to revamp a parched Fair Haven block, Migdalia Castro found some powerful seeds sprouting. They went by the names Maria, Gwen and Ramón.
Castro introduced those budding grassroots leaders—and her broader alternative to encouraging redevelopers to come into her neighborhood—on a recent tour of the part of Fair Haven she represents as a city alderwoman.
She gave the tour in response to a controversy that erupted last week. She came under fire for singlehandedly blocking the city from turning over a decrepit, crime-infested abandoned property in a neighborhood to a Hamden developer. As she walked through the streets in sandals this week, she recounted how she has worked to stabilize and green some of Fair Haven’s toughest streets through a different method —cultivating a band of homeowners and emerging neighborhood leaders rooted in the neighborhood.
The tour began on Saltonstall Avenue and James Street across from the John S. Martinez School. She started walking on Saltonstall towards Lloyd. It was one of the roughest parts of the ward when she took office in 2004, she said.
“This was desert,” she said—no trees, barely any sidewalk to walk on. “There was no hope.”
An elderly couple at 200 Saltonstall (pictured) had fallen into foreclosure, she said. It was “too late to help them.” The city acquired it in 2004. Castro said when it came time to sell the house, she contacted a new restaurateur who had just opened El Coqui on Grand Avenue.
“Can you buy here and live with us?” she asked. Restaurateur Lin Feng Juan bought the home in 2006, hired a contractor to fix it up, and became one of a series of homeowners who started to invest in the block.
“This is what I want to encourage,” Castro said.
Castro said after taking office, she began a block-by-block plan to revive the streets in her ward. She began on that block of Saltonstall. She lobbied the city to bring in new sidewalks and trees.
But first she had to find two neighbors to develop into block captains to carry out the mission.
She turned to Maria Quinones (pictured), who had just stared renting an apartment at 195 Saltonstall.
“When I came over here [about six years ago], it was totally ugly,” she said.
In order to get a tree outside a house through the Urban Resources Initiative, someone has to agree to put in the labor to plant it, then water it and care for it. Quinones signed up for a new cherry tree. She started cleaning yards.
She spruced up a corner garden lot. She quickly became a block captain, keeping an eye on the street and on everyone’s garbage. She said she personally picks up her neighbors’ trash and pulls out all the recyclable cans.
“I clean all around,” she said.
On Wednesday, Quinones planted a new hosta under her tree. She squatted for a photo, then joined Castro on a tour of the block.
Beyond the sidewalks and trees, Quinones and Castro went through each of the homes on the block and identified quality-of-life problems they could tackle. Castro said her goal is to have two leaders on each block who can carry on those efforts after she’s gone.
“I want to develop leaders who can take ownership of their own ward,” she said.
Further down Saltonstall, at the corner of Lloyd, Castro pointed to an abandoned lot that used to be a “dumping ground.” Castro helped the next-door neighbor buy it from the city. Now he’s turning it into a garage.
Around the corner, Castro came across a sign of more work to be done: Someone had dumped a broken TV onto the ground. The sidewalk could use repairing, she added.
To her left, the house at 148 Lloyd was owned by an absentee landlord. Mexican tenants had to go to the Fair Rent Commission to settle a rent dispute.
When the home was fixed up through a city initiative, Castro helped the next-door neighbor, a woman named Minerva, buy her dream-house and move in.
Across the street, 69-year-old Ramón Rodriguez (pictured at the top of the story) watched the changes unfold on his block over the past 25 years. He said when he moved onto Lloyd, there were lots of boarded-up houses. The Latin Kings gang ran the block. Castro tapped Rodriguez to help lead a tree-planting mission.
Rodriguez scored a tree (pictured) for himself and helped others with theirs.
“Now it’s beautiful,” he said of his block.
“This is what I want it to be like,” Castro reflected as she left Lloyd. Homeownership “stabilizes the whole block.”
Around the corner on Wolcott, Gwen Heath had just come home from her job at AT&T. After moving onto the street from the Hill some 10 years ago, she has become a stalwart block watch captain, gardener and homeowner. She helped lead the effort as the tree-planting fervor spread to her block.
Now Castro is trying to convince Heath to join a neighborhood panel that would screen new residents at a fast-rising development next door. Mutual Housing is building 19 new townhouses and one three-bedroom apartment there. Heath said she didn’t particularly want to sit on the panel, but she does want to make sure good neighbors move in to keep up the good momentum on the block.
“It’s quiet,” she said. “I like it like that.”
In general, she agreed with Castro’s argument that homeownership strengthens the block. “It gives you more of a responsibility,” she said. Homeowners fix up their homes instead of waiting six months for a landlord to do so.
As the revival effort spread to Exchange Street, Castro looked to Julio Peña. Peña’s properties stand out on an otherwise suffering strip of Exchange between Blatchley and Lloyd. He owns one home, which he lives in, and rents out the home next door. His house was fixed up by the Corporation for Urban Home Ownership. He bought the house across the street, where his daughter runs a daycare.
Castro just helped him buy an abandoned lot next to his house. He plans to outfit it for family barbecues. He’s pictured standing in front of a fogón, a primitive grill above a wood fire.
She passed another sliver lot, where she coordinated three homeowners to co-own and use for shared parking. She said instead of selling the sliver lot at 150 Poplar to developer Gil Marshak—the lot is the source of her their dispute—she’d like to see a shared parking lot for nearby houses owned by Mutual Housing.
“It’s very important that we do development,” Castro said, “but that we do it responsibly.”