When Connie Vereen first arrived on Cherry Ann Street 21 years ago, the neighborhood was dominated by Southern Connecticut State University students. As the university slowly shifted its campus, more and more young families filled the street’s apartment buildings. But the city line that runs in the middle of Cherry Ann Street fragmented the community — children on the Hamden side rarely crossed over to play with the kids in New Haven and vice versa.
Saturday, a dedication of a new park took place on Cherry Ann, showing how that has all changed.
“Ms. Connie,” as she is affectionately known, realized all the children lacked a safe space to play. And in just three years, a community once divided along city lines coalesced to create an expansive park for the entire neighborhood at the formerly overgrown terminus of the dead-end street. (Read more about the park here and here.)
“We call it ‘New Hamden’ now,” Ms. Connie said. “We live together, love together, play together, build together.”
Earlier Saturday morning, children eagerly asked Ms. Connie’s daughter Barbara Vereen when they would finally be allowed to play in the park. Vereen replied that they would have to wait until 10 am. Nonetheless the zealous children lined up outside Ms. Connie’s house by 9:30, ready to go.
At Saturday’s dedication ceremony, Cherry Ann Street residents celebrated the inauguration of the new park, complete with a meadow, two playgrounds, and a vegetable garden. Mayor Toni Harp came joined in the celebration of the inauguration of this new safe space, along with representatives from Common Ground, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, Land Trust, Urban Resources Initiative, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Su Lok from the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, which promises to donate money to help create 1,000 gardens and green spaces across the globe, presented Mayor Harp with a $40,000 check for the project (Read about the grant here). Commending the community engagement that shaped the park, the mayor said, “That’s really what a democracy is all about.”
“It really does take a village,” Harp said.
City Parks Director Rebecca Bombero, reminded the audience, “We’re still in the city still, guys!”
Only three years ago, when Joel Tolman from Common Ground High School arrived at the plot, the desolate land was inaccessible, rife with trees, weeds, and garbage. Kathiana Torres, a graduate of Common Ground who has worked on the project since its beginning, felt “a lot of pressure on” her and her peers to transform the massive plot of land.
But during the project, Saturday park cleanups also included cookouts in Ms. Connie’s backyard. Torres said that she now feels like a member of the community.
“[The park is] supposed to be a safe space for the kids, but it became my safe space,” Torres said. “This is my second home.”
Work will continue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Reserve plans to plant wildflowers in the meadow — after it removes a few snapping turtles that reside in the area. According to the agency’s Ivette Lopez, the meadow should be flowering by the end of July. Colleen Murphy-Dunning from the Urban Resources Initiative explained that more trees and shrubs need to be removed to clear the area and ensure that everyone feels safe in the park.
And though Cherry Ann Street is united, Murphy-Dunning explained that community partners must still reach out to other residents in the area. In fact, there were only two attendees from nearby Pond Street, one of whom was Ms. Connie’s daughter. URI plans to add additional entrances to the park on the adjacent streets.
The park also has the potential to provide a dynamic classroom space for the nearby Jackie Robinson School. In addition to the Cherry Ann Street entrance, the park has a gateway exclusive to teachers and students. Common Ground already introduced teachers to the space to discuss the potential learning opportunities and challenges to outdoor teaching, according to Susannah Holsenbeck, Common Ground Schoolyard program manager. She added that early elementary school teachers already plan to teach students how to map the park.
The role of the space is ultimately up to the imagination of the neighborhood’s kids. On this hot Saturday afternoon, children from both sides of the street joined for a pickup game of football. A symbol of Cherry Ann Street’s unification, the new park signifies the end of the street’s divide.