So Long Playground, Hello Home

Thomas MacMillan PhotosAs workers lowered the first walls of a new Yale-designed house into place at the corner of Newhall and Starr streets, neighbors mourned the loss of a neighborhood basketball court, and began working to create a new one.

“It hurt my heart,” said Carol Whitfield (pictured), who lives two doors down from the lot. She said her family had been keeping the property clean and neat for more than 20 years so that neighborhood kids could play basketball there. Now they have nowhere to go, she said.

The city recently sold the Newhallville lot, which is actually two properties,to Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) for $2,000. The Yale architecture school is now building a new two-family house (pictured below) there. The properties are assessed at about $22,000 together, according to an online database.

Yale School of Architecture RenderingIn response to the start of construction Monday, Whitfield convened an impromptu neighborhood meeting at 11 a.m. with a local alderwoman and an NHS staffer. Neighbors decided to work together to get the city to put in a basketball court in another vacant property nearby.

Erik Johnson, head of the Livable City Initiative, said the city will work with NHS and Yale to try to make sure a new court is installed.

At 9:45 a.m. Monday, the first day of construction at the lot, workers from Superior Walls of the Hudson Valley were busy prepping the site to install a pre-fab foundation.

“We’re very upset,” said Dennis Barnes, who lives next door on Starr Street. He said his family had been taking care of the lot for years, sweeping, picking up trash. “I always kept it clean.”

The lot was covered mostly with grass and weeds. But one section was paved over with cracked and crumbling asphalt. The Barnes family set up a wheeled backboard and hoop with no net there.

It was no Madison Square Garden. But it was a popular spot for local kids. Click here to read about a game played there in March.

Barnes said his sister, Whitfield, tried repeatedly to buy the lot. “They just snatched it up from us,” he said. “That’s not fair, the way they did that. ... Bam! They pulled it from right up under us.”

“It’s just not fair,” said Whitfield, who owns five houses in the area.

Yale School of Architecture ModelJohnson said the city offered the lot to Whitfield, but she declined to buy it for the city’s offering price. He said he didn’t remember what that price was, but it was more than the $1 pricetag that accompanies sliver lots. The lot is buildable, and the city was selling it as such.

The discounted $2,000 price that NHS got is the Board of Aldermen-approved cost for properties sold to non-profits working on neighborhood stabilization, Johnson said.

“The city’s excited about the fact there’s going to be a new homeowner in the neighborhood,” Johnson said.

A New Court?

Whitfield said the loss of the basketball court has already had an effect on the neighborhood. With their basketball court now a hole in the ground, kids have to play in the road with cars going by, she said. “The street was full of kids yesterday.”

“It’s hurtful,” she said. “That broke my heart right there.”

Whitfield said her grandkids and nieces and nephews could walk down to the Lincoln Bassett School to play basketball, but she likes them close by where she can keep an eye on them. There have been shootings at Lincoln Bassett, she said.

“We’ve got to get a place for the kids,” said Jerome Perkins (at right in photo), a contractor working on a house nearby. “They’re in the street!”

Perkins said there should have been a neighborhood meeting about the house being built. “When they come in our community they do anything they want to do,” he said. On the East Shore, for example, there would have been plenty of public discussion, he said. “In the white neighborhoods, they do that.”

Johnson said the sale to NHS was the subject of several public meetings held by the local community management team and the Board of Aldermen.

Several Yale architecture school students arrived at the work site. They sipped coffee as they watched the action with 82-year-old professor Paul Brouard.

Neighbor Aaron Carpenter (pictured) walked by on the way to the gym. The 22-year-old, who was shot four times a block away last year, approved of the construction. “I consider myself in favor of anything they can do in the area that’s positive.”

As for the lost basketball court, Carpenter pointed out a good spot for replacement: an empty property a few houses down across Starr Street. “They could put a basketball thing right there.”

Minutes later, Whitfield convened a meeting outside her house, across from the lot, to discuss just that possibility. She was joined by her niece Tameka Pearson (at right in photo), with her husband Leroy Pearson (left) and their two kids. Whitfield’s brother, Barnes, showed up. So did Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn (center) and local ward Democratic committee co-chair Latoya Agnew. Stephen Cremin-Endes, a community building specialist with NHS, strolled up.

“We’re upset right now,” Carol said.

Cremin-Endes suggested focusing attention on making a new pocket park on Starr Street, in what is actually four adjoining sliver lots (pictured). “This could be a really great space here.”

Tameka and Leroy, who live next to the four lots in question, said they tried several times to buy one or all of them from the city. The city “gave us the runaround,” Leroy said.

“That’s an incorrect statement,” Johnson said later. The problem is that the Pearsons have been trying to buy about 20 feet of the sliver lot closest to their house, he said. It’s impossible for the city to break up the area that way, because of street frontage requirements for each lot. The city could sell them a 12- or 14-foot strip of land, Johnson said.

Leroy has been maintaining the space for seven years, even pulling out trash that’s dumped there illegally and paying for it to be hauled away, he said

With the basketball court now gone, “how could we accommodate kids in the neighborhood?” Tameka asked. “What do you give back to us?”

“What can Neighborhood Housing Services do for us?” Whitfield asked.

“I don’t know if we can do much,” Cremin-Endes (at center) replied. The empty lots belong to the city, he said. The best thing to do is get together and talk to the Livable City Initiative, talk to the community management team, he said.

As raindrops began to fall, the group promised to get together later this week to come up with a strategy to push the city to create a new Starr Street pocket park.

Private Or Public?

Cremin-Endes said he spent time a couple years ago going door to door trying to convince neighbors that converting the corner lot into such a park would be a good idea, since kids already used it for basketball.

“People didn’t want that,” he said. “Now that it’s not there, people want it.”

He said the lot wasn’t ideal. It had its share of broken glass and old sofas, he said. “That’s not my idea of a perfect park.”

Carol said she hadn’t been in favor of a city-controlled park on the corner. She said she was trying to buy it to keep it as a private park, so that she could lock the gates at night and prevent it from becoming a spot where people sell drugs.

Cremin-Endes said the empty lots on Starr Street might be a perfect spot for a new basketball court. They’re ringed with houses full of neighbors who could keep an eye on it, he said.

Johnson said the city might be able to work with NHS and Yale to install a court in the sliver lots. “We’d figure it out.”

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posted by: helloworld on May 15, 2012  1:08pm

How are they getting away with no real temporary steel fence. They have a 10’ drop a foot from the sidewalk with 3’ plastic fence?!?!? LAWSUIT waiting to happen

posted by: cityboy on May 15, 2012  5:49pm

Metal construction fence went up once the heavy equipment was out of the way.

posted by: Stephen Harris on May 15, 2012  6:11pm

Ugh. Another funny looking house. There must be something in the water at that school.

posted by: anonymous on May 15, 2012  10:57pm

This investment is a very good thing and should be welcomed. 

That said, it is obviously a problem if neighbors weren’t informed of the sale.

The city needs to make extra effort conducting that type of outreach when it works within lower income neighborhoods, where people may be working 3 jobs and not able to talk to their Aldermen as often as, say, a well-paid city official or Yale employee can.

Pocket parks can be nice (though housing investments are more important than pocket parks everywhere), but another key issue to look at here is the street itself. 

Instead of abandoning the street to drivers and drug dealers, why not install some traffic calming that limits vehicle speeds to 10 miles per hour. In Brooklyn, many hundreds of side streets are calm enough that people can play basketball and baseball on them. New Haven is a small city - the same could happen here if the city cared enough to install the infrastructure and slow streets that people actually want.  Look at how popular Court Street is.

The city should think outside the box - in many communities, basketball courts are built right in the middle of streets.

posted by: Canadian Reader on May 19, 2012  12:47pm

I agree with anonymous above. Here in Canada the street is a haven for Ball Hockey games whereby kids pull out goalie nets and set them up right in the center of ‘slower neighborhood streets’.
The cry “CAR” can be heard whenever a vehicle approaches and the nets are dutifully pulled off to one side allowing it to pass ... slowly - there is most often a nod of approval from all involved and the game continues.
Over time certain streets become appreciated as play zones and motorists may even circumvent them and develop new habits.

This may help in terms of the ‘property and ownership’ issues as the street as we all know is truly PUBLIC.

Lastly - I applaud the insertion of architecturally considered renewal housing - looks cool to me.