On a recent sunny morning, journalist and editor Philip Langdon sat at a table at what was formerly Lulu’s European Coffehouse and is now East Rock Coffee. For Langdon, it was the epicenter for work that transformed East Rock starting over 20 years ago — and made it a living example of how urban neighborhoods can thrive.
The terms for that work still buzz in the air. Gentrification. Urban development. New urbanism. They have their proponents and their detractors, in a fight that can sometimes get pretty bitter. But what do the words really mean?
Langdon’s new book, Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All — about which Langdon is giving a talk at the New Haven Museum Wednesday, June 7 — gets past the jargon by telling the stories of six neighborhoods scattered across the United States that can be considered successes in community development. We visit Center City in Philadelphia, Pa.; Brattleboro, Vt.; Little Village, a neighborhood in Chicago, Ill.; downtown Portland, Ore.; the Cotton District, a neighborhood in the college town of Starkville, Miss.; and New Haven’s own East Rock, where Langdon has lived since 1983.
Distinct patterns emerge in the course of reading Within Walking Distance. As the title implies, it starts with geography. All of the neighborhoods have what might be called good bones — a dense stock of interesting, usually pre-World War II housing and other buildings. The street layout is scaled for walking, not for cars. When Langdon’s account picks up their stories, the communities have fallen into various stages of decline, but Langdon makes clear that it’s not over.
The second common thread among them is a vision of development, though to Langdon’s credit, here is where things start getting complicated. In Philadelphia and Portland, the initial push came from local real estate developers working with the city government. In Brattleboro the energy came from an organization of downtown merchants, tapping into a long history of civic engagement. In Little Village, Chicago, the engine for redevelopment was a network of community organizations, large and small. In Starkville, the first source of change was a single man with a singular architectural dream for what the town could look like.
Langdon shows how the above efforts from disparate parts of each city’s societies had a way of snowballing, leading to the familiar story of urban development in the past few decades. People move back downtown. The retail sector flourishes. More green spaces are created or cultivated. Street life becomes more vibrant. And real estate prices go up.
East Rock fits snugly into this pattern. When Langdon moved into the neighborhood in 1983, he saw that there was a “long history of shops on Orange Street. Some of them were good. Some of them were really lethargic,” he said.
In Langdon’s telling, the spark for the neighborhood’s revitalization was lit by Louise deCarrone, who opened Lulu European Coffeehouse in a tiny spot just off Orange Street in April 1991. She “really made this into a gathering place,” Langdon said. As her clientele grew and Lulu’s place became a social hub, she sought to create outdoor seating.
“She was the first to say, ‘why don’t we go outside?’” Langdon said. Though according to his research, she got resistance.
“We don’t want to promote opportunities for drive-by shootings,” a staff member in the New Haven City Plan Department told her. “You don’t belong in East Rock,” said another employee in the city business development office. “You are taking the shine away from Chapel Street.”
But deCarrone persisted. She persuaded her alder, Cameron Staples, to convince the City Plan Department to let deCarrone build a patio. She saved up money and developed her patio. And people used it. Soon a couple other businesses along Orange Street followed suit. In the late 1990s, Kathleen Wimer of the Ward 10th Ward Democratic Committee, architect Melanie Taylor, landlord Joseph Puleo, and others formed the Upper Orange Street Neighbors, which worked with the city to develop a program that, from 2003 to 2007, gave matching grants of between $20,000 and $30,000 to Lulu, the Orange Food Mart and Orange Liquor Store, and Romeo and Giuseppe’s (now Romeo and Cesare’s) to develop patio areas outside their stores. Bike lanes were put in. The pharmacy on the corner of Orange and Cottage was saved by a new owner who stayed true to its community focus, and even maintained the post office inside it.
“I think there’s been this transformation in the atmosphere of Orange Street,” Langdon said. Alongside that transformation, East Rock became more prosperous, and property values went up.
Within Walking Distance shows that urban development can begin from any corner — from neighbors to community groups to developers to the city government — and potentially see success. And it’s refreshing to read about long-term urban development from the street level, to see the work on the scale of people doing things, rather than leaning into abstract terms like gentrification and community development, discussions of which can make neighborhood transformations feel more like forces of nature than human efforts.
But even as Within Walking Distance brings us to the present day, the book in some sense also only tells half the story. Property values have risen, and so have rents. “I’ve been shocked by how high some of the rents are in the three-story houses,” Langdon said. East Rock remains a relatively affordable place for people who have lived there for a long time. But it is less accessible to newcomers than it used to be. Can anything be done about that and still maintain the gains the neighborhood has made?
“We really need to think about how more people can move in, in a way that doesn’t threaten the atmosphere,” Langdon said. To start that conversation, he had a concrete idea: make more housing. “There’s this area on Nicoll Street which is kind of a newly-paved parking lot,” he said. “There’s probably something better to do with that.” One possibility would be “additional housing at a scale that fits the neighborhood — two to three stories, row houses.” Another possibility might be smaller houses arranged in a more dense pattern, a “bungalow court.”
A New Voice On The Subject
What else can be done? That subject is picked up in Caroline Smith’s Our City: A Little Book about New Haven. Written initially as a series of 12 blog posts that Smith, co-director of marketing at SeeClickFix and a community organizer, made into 12 chapters in the printed volume, Our City is a lighthearted yet incisive look at the questions Langdon’s neighborhood studies pose.
Smith wrote her blog posts in response to Douglas Rae’s mammoth work about New Haven, City: Urbanism and its End, which looms in the background of both Langdon’s and Smith’s books. Almost every chapter begins with a question — “where do you meet strangers in your city?” “why is local ownership important?” “what does it mean to become American?” — and appropriately for the changes happening in the Elm City, these questions as often as not lead to more questions.
The chapter entitled “who are the investors in your city?” begins with a provocation. “The book I dream of reading: A book that brings together the worlds of business and community,” Smith writes. “And it wouldn’t weaponize either world’s terminology — but instead use them to reveal shared shape, tools, and vision.”
Is it getting a little heady? That’s part of the point; where Langdon digs beneath the old jargon through concrete stories of people who had visions of their neighborhoods, Smith is interested in helping create new ideas for where neighborhoods like East Rock can go from here.
“Both business and community could not only learn a lot from each other — but must. And a place to start could be sharing language better — with a book (or many) that uses language common to both worlds, accessible to both groups,” Smith writes. “For example, take the word investor.”
Smith then quickly pushes out the definition of investor to include not just those with financial capital to apply to the city, but “someone who builds a stake in the city…. We all own a piece of our city; therefore we are investors. And, perhaps by understanding ourselves as investors, we can see more clearly our value, our responsibility, and our stake.”
For Smith, creating new visions for New Haven as it moves into the future ultimately involves finding ways to bring together and form relationships among people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, so that new ideas come from everyone. “Creating those spaces can feel hard — we’re working against decades of tension and history that go beyond our time in New Haven,” Smith writes. “But, at the end, these kinds of relationships are the greatest assets we have towards a shared vision for a stronger New Haven.”
And such a space just might be created Wednesday at the New Haven Museum, when Langdon is scheduled to give a talk on Within Walking Distance. Admission is free and a book signing follows. If you go, who knows you might meet — and what ideas may arise from it?
Philip Langdon’s Within Walking Distance is out now from Island Press. Caroline Smith’s Our City is available here. Langdon’s talk on Within Walking Distance is at the New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave., June 7, at 5:30 p.m. Click here for more information.