Gardeners Prevail; Vacant-Lot Challenge Remains

Paul Bass PhotoOn one of New Haven’s most slumlord-devastated streets, Wendell Claxton and his buddies created an oasis that beautifies and feeds the neighborhood—an oasis that survived a death threat this week.

Along with a team of fellow volunteers, Claxton (pictured above) tends daily to a community garden between two houses on Starr Street in Newhallville. He took it over from Robert Wright, who oversaw it for many years before growing too old. The garden feeds families throughout the neighborhood.

The garden’s backers succeeded in winning a new five-year lease on the land from city officials who had envisioned making way for new houses there instead. The episode was just the beginning of a broader upcoming debate about what to do with dozens of vacant city-owned lots throughout Newhallville.

Neighbors call Claxton’s community garden “the farm.” With good reason.

“This is the mustard greens,” Claxton said, walking along the beds that fills two combined lots that once had houses on them. “Tomatoes. Okra. Red bell peppers. Green bell pepper…” His crew hands out the food for free all season long to the neighbors.

Two doors down, another garden thrives. John Monk, a retired Yale-New Haven custodian, has run that one with his buddy Peter Cox and other neighbors for many years, as well. Monk pointed to the cabbage, turnip, mustard green, collard green and pea plants rise behind him. “We’ve got everything,” he said. “Everybody in the neighborhood, we give it all.”

Until Monday night, Monk and Claxton and neighbors operating a third thriving Newhallville garden on Hazel Street thought their weeding and seeding days might be numbered. The city owns the vacant lots that became their gardens. The city has traditionally given the New Haven Land Trust five-year leases on the lots, which the Trust then turns over to the neighborhood gardeners. (They have 50 such neighborhood gardens across the city.) This year city officials, at the request of neighborhood representatives, wanted to renew all three gardens’ leases for only one year to make way for possible house-building projects.

Paul Bass File PhotoThe one-year garden leases came before the Board of Aldermen Monday night for final approval. The gardeners’ alderwoman, Delphine Clyburn, appealed to her colleagues to revert to five-year leases instead for the three gardens. Her colleagues voted unanimously to heed her plea.

And the three gardens won a reprieve.

“We’ll make sure these gardens are forever and invest in them,” vowed Clyburn (pictured). She noted the efforts in New Haven to promote healthful eating in school cafeterias and in farmers markets. The three gardens getting the new five-year leases “really feed this community. They buy the seeds themselves. This way is free. This really does serve the people.”

In the end, the save-the-three-gardens question proved simple to answer.

A more complicated challenge faces Newhallville and the city officials who deal with the neighborhood: What about all those other empty lots?

In Search Of A Strategy

The city alone owns over 30 vacant lots in Newhallville—eight on Starr Street alone. Most used to have houses on them. Some houses burned down. Others were trashed, abandoned by out-of-town owners, or otherwise abandoned. Some lots have stood vacant for decades.

The city does a good job day to day of keeping most of the lots clean, neighbors observe. But no consensus has developed about what to do with the lots long-term as Newhallville works hard to recover from the blight and associated crime of the past few decades and harness some of the new energy toward revival.

Erik Johnson, director of the city anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), grew up in Newhallville. He has been trying for the past two years to bring Newhallville’s elected officials, homeowners, and housing developers together to chart a longer-term strategy for the lots and for housing standards in general. (Click here to drop in on a session he organized with neighbors and a major landlord.)

Johnson said he initially sought to limit the gardens’ leases to one year at the request of neighborhood representatives who weren’t ready to agree on a broader consensus for how to handle all the neighborhood’s lots. That way, if consensus develops to build more housing on the lots, they’d be available.

Once public sentiment surfaced to preserve those gardens, he had no objection, Johnson said. The bigger challenge remains.

It’s a challenge and an opportunity. No stretch of the neighborhood illustrates that better than Starr Street.

You can walk Starr Street and notice blight at almost every other block. It seems almost every other property is abandoned—homes boarded up, burned, trashed; or lots abandoned.

You can also walk Starr Street and notice the signs of neighbors who work hard to keep property in good shape. Flower beds. The community gardens. Homeowners improving their houses.

Hoop Dreams

A few houses over from Claxton’s community garden, Carolyn Whitfield was sitting on her enclosed front porch the other afternoon while her husband painted the outside. Her niece lives across the street in a similarly tended-for home. Her brother and his wife live next door, and keep up the property.

Whitfield, who has lived in her home 26 years, looked across the street at yet another city-owned vacant lot. A double lot, actually. She and other neighbors have been asking Johnson for permission to turn it into a park for their children to play in. A year ago they protested when the city sold a lot on the corner to a builder of a new home; Whitfield and neighbors had for years maintained the lot as a playground. (Read about that here.) Since then they set up a hoop on the street in front of the lot across from Whitfield’s home.

Johnson turned down Whitfield’s request about this second potential playground.

“They should give it to me since they took that other one away from me,” Whitfield said. She said she doesn’t feel comfortable sending her children to play at the Lincoln-Bassett School playground. Too many shootings there, she said. She wants to be able to watch them as they play across the street.

Johnson said that he understands that a parent might feel uncomfortable sending kids blocks away to Lincoln-Bassett—but that the solution is to make the area safer. Meanwhile, a lot of these vacant lots would be better used for housing, to stabilize the neighborhood with working homeowners, he argued.

“All these spaces used to be housing. We can’t forget they used to be housing. And people always say we need affordable housing in the neighborhood. We need more workforce housing in Newhallville,” Johnson said. That doesn’t mean every lot needs a new house in it, he said; greenspaces benefit the neighborhood too. It means the neighborhood needs a plan that includes housing, he argued.

Alderwoman Clyburn sided with Whitfield’s mini-park idea.

“There are enough lots for housing and enough lots for parks,” she said. “We can do both. We need parks for the kids. They’re playing ball in the street” on Starr.

While long-range planning for the lots proceeds, Newhallville in general has been the brightest green spot in New Haven’s efforts to turn small urban spaces into gardens or mini-parks or otherwise natural habitats. Click here and here to read about two other examples.

Previous stories about Newhallville’s turnaround efforts:

After Crash, Neighbors Seek Fix For Blind Corner
Newhallville Confronts A Mega-Landlord
Newhallville Bounces Back; House Will Get Built
Levin To Newhallville: “We’ll Be Back”
Newhallville Up For “Historic” Boost
Cops Make Arrest In 83-Year-Old Prof’s Mugging
Harp Probes The Newhallville Conundrum
“Let There Be Light” (Emitting Diodes)!
“Serenity” Takes Root On Shepard Street
Bird Garden Fights Blight
Yale Flees Newhallville After Prof’s Mugging

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posted by: HewNaven on July 3, 2013  8:54am

A more complicated challenge faces Newhallville and the city officials who deal with the neighborhood: What about all those other empty lots?

The city should encourage more projects like New Haven Farms. Look at what they’ve been doing in Fair Haven:

posted by: Curious on July 3, 2013  9:34am

This is absolutely beautiful to see.  This is real community, and real community-building.

What I wonder is with dozens of empty lots, why does Johnson target the three community gardens for possible development?

posted by: DrJay on July 3, 2013  10:29am

I’m afraid to ask- has anyone tested the soil and vegetables for lead? Some of those lots were dumping grounds for lead paint and other waste,

posted by: robn on July 3, 2013  10:44am

For individual lots with no collective interest, I think the city should sell to an able bidder. For well established community gardens in otherwise tenuous neighborhoods, the city should be thankful for the enthusiasm and leave it alone. Alderperson Clyburn got this one right.

posted by: anonymous on July 3, 2013  11:19am

The city needs more affordable housing for workers, not more gardens or tiny park spaces. With the effective parks budget (employees) decimated under the watch of DeStefano, there are now hundreds of existing, crumbling park areas that should be improved before we even consider creating more.  But I agree with Robn that any particularly well-established gardens should remain.

posted by: Curious on July 3, 2013  12:09pm

Anonymous, I am shocked that you would be against pocket parks.  That’s exactly the sort of thing to encourage people to move to and stay in the city as opposed to the suburbs….which you always favor.

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on July 3, 2013  1:20pm

Though I can sympathize with the users of the park and the needs of the community, the board got this one wrong.  The gardens weren’t going to be taken away over night.  Rather, the duration of the leases would be shortened to one year, and would be renewable.  That would enable a future developer to come in and invest money into a community, begin paying property taxes, and hopefully begin making the neighborhood a safer place.

By putting a five year use restriction on the land, any potential developer would either have to wait five years or get the restriction removed.  Neither of those options is likely to occur.  I think the gardens are a good idea but they are not a right of people not paying taxes on the land.  If you want them as of right, buy the land, pay taxes and I’ll shut up.  After all, if I want to use land indefinitely, I have to pay for it as do many others.

The notion that the residents have special claim or right is shown by Ms. Whitfield: “They should give it to me since they took that other one away from me.”  Excuse me, I don’t remember there being a deed in her name.  The City has a responsibility to all of its residents and in this time of economic crisis, its responsibility may not be ensuring a community garden over affordable housing, redevelopment, and increasing the tax basis.

posted by: dorothy25 on July 3, 2013  2:01pm

Way to go Delphine!  Your tireless work with the people in your community is truly inspiring.

posted by: streever on July 3, 2013  3:25pm

@Atticus Shrugged
The hypothetical developers who have not existed on this street for 20 years?

I think it is nice that a well-established garden—which gives a street a unique sense of place—was allowed to remain and not put under threat of being closed. Many crops do require several seasons of planting, so if this space became unstable, it would not be as attractive as a food plot.

There are many nearly vacant and destitute lots within a block of this garden. If a developer is serious about building something useful in the neighborhood, I imagine they have many options.

posted by: HewNaven on July 3, 2013  5:51pm


Projects like the Community Gardens in Newhallville or the New Haven Farms project, that I mentioned above, do not require the city parks department for stewardship. They are maintained by non-profit organizations, and the labor is done voluntarily by neighbors and other volunteer groups. On top of the fact that you’re wrong, and this is not a matter for the parks department, what about the fact that poor people with serious diet-related health issues can potentially become reconnected with REAL food in neighborhoods where they are surrounded by processed, food-like products (i.e. food deserts). If you can tell me a better way to accomplish that, go ahead. Do you think affordable housing alone will do that? No.

You’ve created a false dichotomy to serve your point in this case. No one is asking us to choose between affordable housing and healthy residents. We want both.

posted by: HenryCT on July 3, 2013  6:09pm

Nice. What a remarkable story about neighborhood cooperation and leadership. We need more gardens and more urban farms.

posted by: robn on July 3, 2013  6:31pm

HN makes great points about health. Lets all look forward to the day when there might actually be serious land pressure on this garden. Until then, there are many empty lots scattered throughout the neighborhood that could be rebuilt.

posted by: HhE on July 3, 2013  7:22pm

While I worry about lead in food, I think this is great.

Community gardens are just that, a community resource that brings the community together. 

anonymous, you appear to me to be falling into the trap of putting one idea (more affordable housing) ahead of all else.  I put it to you, and Atticus Shrugged that there are numerous blight properties and vacant lots in Newhallville that any developer could have for a song, and yet few show up.  Those that do are often taken to task for their work (NHS anyone?).

posted by: Wikus van de Merwe on July 3, 2013  9:06pm

I’m with Atticus.  A couple hundred dollars of fresh fruit and vegetables shouldn’t stifle development.  There are plenty of places to grow food that don’t require a whole plot.