Curtis Libert got permission from the city to plant tomatoes down a block of Poplar Street, spreading a bit of the magic from his found-object oasis by the Q River.
More than a decade after turning an abandoned riverside dump in southern Fair Haven into a sparkling self-titled “Shantytown,” Libert is continuing to build community behind its gates—bringing together families for impromptu weekend barbecues, babysitting neighborhood children and fishing with the locals who wander over once they finish work for the day.
As the city seeks to entice developers to nearby former factories and considers plans for a $70 million sports center on a lot at 100 River St., locals have created a thriving outdoor community space right next door, with a fraction of the money.
Shantytown grew without very much city knowledge or support. “It kind of just happened and we left it alone,” said Helen Rosenberg, city economic development officer, who has been working on reviving the Mill River District for the past 15 years.
The city is working on a 50-foot-wide walkway down the river—an idea that still needs funding and is “nothing imminent,” Rosenberg said. But she said it doesn’t have to interfere with Libert’s community space. “We’ll see what we can do to incorporate it,” she said. “Things can always be designed around things. That could be worked out, I’m sure.”
The land by the river is fertile, maybe in part because of the oyster shells people have left to decompose slowly over the years, slowly funneling calcium and nutrients into the soil. Beefsteak tomato plants quickly spring from crushed fruit. Libert picks them green and hands them out to visitors to fry later, or cuts them up and eats them raw.
“If you come when it was green, it was real nice, like paradise, you know,” Libert said, in his lilting Trinidadian accent. (Listen to the audio file below to hear him speak.) He planted pumpkins in one patch and a couple of them quickly swelled to basketball size. He mixes a bucket of saltwater with a trashcan of fresh water to irrigate the garden.
The most striking part of Shantytown? It’s furnished almost entirely by objects found by the side of the road. A plush teddy bear guards the wire fence opening. An empty birdcage, faded conch shell and several children’s toys hang from a tree. A soft scarecrow doll guards the pumpkin and tomato garden.
George Nunez, an experienced scrap collector, helped Libert decorate the place. Good collection items don’t have to be particularly useful, he said. But they have to be one-of-a-kind.
“Whenever I come across a good piece, I drop it off here,” he said. “A good piece has to be in good condition, good shape, not chipped…It could be anything. It just has to be unique.”
The lot was littered with heaps of trash and the corpses of dead animals when Libert first started thinking about developing it. His friend Melvin gave it the name “Shantytown,” after the sections of makeshift houses on city outskirts in developing countries—though no one lives at this one.
“It used to be nasty and we decided to clean it up,” Libert said.
They were going to gather this summer to discuss a new name, Nunez said. But no one came up with a good enough replacement.
“So we ought to call it ‘Cleantown’ now,” Libert joked. But he has built a few shanties scattered along that section of the river—small shacks of salvaged wood and sagging forts draped with dingy blankets. With very little, they have to get creative. Instead of repairing a hole worn through the dock, Libert plugged it with a slab of concrete and painted a bright blue circle around the danger zone flanked by the word “STOP.”
Most of the men who wander in and out are day laborers who work with their hands, on construction, roofing, tiling. Libert said people often share job opportunities with one another while hanging out by the river.
“Everyone here is tradesmen. I would take everybody here to build my house,” he said.
Donald Chow-Yen (pictured holding the fishing pole) was contracted to renovate someone’s garage—a job he found out about from Libert. He scrolled through photos of the garage before and after his work.
Anyone is welcome to Shantytown. “The more people know about this place, the more people come and visit,” Nunez said. Sometimes Yale students ride their bikes down to the river, take a few photos of the shacks and gardens, and then pedal away, he said.
Fishing is plentiful—they catch flounder, blue fish, striped bass. “Once in a while, we get a sea bass,” Nunez said.
People gather by the river at all hours of night. “One o’clock in the morning, two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock in the morning. All hours people hang out here. But so long as they don’t get in trouble, and they’re fishing, the police can’t do us nothing,” Libert said. You might find people swigging a few beers or smoking the odd joint. But everyone knows they have to behave, or risk being thrown out – Shantytown’s own version of community policing.
“Behave yourself. If you can’t show respect, then everybody tells you got to leave, because we don’t want the police to come and chase us out,” he said. “That’s why for 13 years, we ain’t got no trouble.”
Raymond (pictured), who declined to give his last name, said he started heading to the river after work just four months ago, when a close friend told him, “‘I know this spot where we can go chill, relax. A nice little hang out spot.’”
Throughout the summer, no matter the temperature at other sites by the river, there’s always a nice breeze at Shantytown, he said.
Libert encourages people to have respect for the space—to throw out their trash in the garbage cans, which the city regularly collects. “They used to drop it all about. Now they’re using the bin,” he said.
He has saved some lives—one woman overdosed on drugs and almost died in Shantytown. He called the police and had her taken away. And Libert used to watch children whose parents were running errands in Fair Haven. “I used to teach them to fish,” he said.
One woman walked by searching for her husband, whom she hadn’t seen in two weeks. “For a long while I haven’t seen him. He’s working but he ain’t come down here,” Libert said. “He came a week ago. He tell me he’s tired. He’s working. That’s nice.”
The woman nodded. “I want him to be working on me,” she joked, with a thrust of her hips.
“No, man, he’s gotta to get the money to pay the bills,” Libert said, reassuring her.
In the wintertime, Shantytown slows down. To prevent it from turning into a hub of illegal activity, Libert asks the city to shovel snow up against the gate, creating an enormous barrier of snow and ice.
“We try to close it off so people don’t go in,” he said. “They want to go and smoke. We ain’t looking for trouble. The police told us, If I ain’t here, they’re going to feel nobody’s here and they’re going to want to take the place over then.”
Instead, Libert builds a six-foot step so he’s the only one who controls who gets in. Sometimes, he brings his gear and ice fishes in the Quinnipiac River. Then Shantytown is mostly his, until the city starts to thaw.