On 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.
The 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.
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