During a Black History month 10 years ago, Dixwell’s Stetson branch library was almost ... history. Ten years later, on Saturday, it was, as usual on a weekend, a hub for families to play chess, craft, and read together — as the booming branch plans to move into larger quarters across the street.
Diane Brown, award-winning branch manager of Stetson, was reflecting on how far the library, which has been the de facto community center of the Dixwell community since the former “Q” House closed, has come.
In Feburary 2008, then-Mayor John DeStefano floated the idea of closing the branch as a budget-cutting move. Neighbors banded together to circulate petitions and collect signatures to save the 100-year-old library branch in Dixwell Plaza.
In the intervening years, waves of young people came to see Stetson as a second home, hanging out after school, getting tutored, discovering books, finding solace when life outside turned rough. It became the neighborhood’s de facto community center. Its success has earned repeated local and national recognition.
“Today we are an award-winning, nationally recognized library,” Brown said Saturday as she looked out at the parents and their children, along with the men of S.P.O.R.T.S. (Street Poets Cipher Real Truth) Academy who host the Saturday chess club, playing board games and crafting.
It was officially “Family Literacy Day” at Stetson.
Cappericnae Midgette, along with her husband Jsuan and their daughter Sharayah, 8, were among the families enjoying the library Saturday. “I think it’s really essential to have something for the youth but also the parents,” Midgette said. “It’s an opportunity to meet other children. It’s also nice that it’s free. There are a lot of events around town but they’re not always free.”
Fellow Hamdenite Ato David also was at the library with his children, son Gyasi, 10, and daughter, Oni, 5, Saturday. He said he likes to bring his children to Stetson to hang out with children who look more like them. He said he and his wife grew up in New York City. A trip to Stetson on Saturday to play chess allows the children a little taste of city life.
The chess club is put on by the men of the S.P.O.R.T.S. Academy who have been teaching young people about the game and how it applies to life at Stetson since 2013. Sean Reeves said the goal of the academy is to create a community of independent thinkers and decision makers through the game of chess. The men also provide guidance and mentorship especially to children who don’t have dads.
“It’s our job to make sure they are safe,” he said.
Reeves said that when the men first started the program five years ago, they tried to do it in one of the local middle schools. They couldn’t get access to the school on the weekends.
“We came to Ms. Diane,” Reeves recalled. “She’s never turned us down. We’ve always had a space to provide this to these kids. We’ve been here since 2013 every Saturday. The only time we don’t come is when the library is closed.”
“If it wasn’t for Ms. Diane opening the doors to us, and DeStefano not shutting Stetson down, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” said Ed Trimble of the S.P.O.R.T.S. Academy. “We wouldn’t be able to bring critical thinking to the Dixwell community, we wouldn’t be able to bring decision-making skills to the Dixwell community. We wouldn’t be able to help these kids become leaders in their own right.
“We wouldn’t be able to truly be a part of Dixwell, a part of this whole village Ms. Diane helped us build,” he added.
And because that shut down didn’t happen, the Stetson Library has a bright future and a new home on the horizon. When the new Q House is built just across the street Stetson Library will get a new state-of-the-art home and serve as an anchor tenant along with Cornell Scott Hill Health Center.
The library is looking to raise $2 million to outfit the new library with furniture and new technology and is more than halfway to its goal. Any gift from $50 to $10,000 will be matched by the Seedlings Foundation. (Click here to give to the Stetson Library campaign.)