The voices of gospel filtered down Dickerman Street Sunday morning. They came from the small wood-panelled sanctuary of one-story Mt. Zion Pentecostal Church, where 13 scattered bodies cooled themselves with paper fans, clapped their hands, and sang along with two women and a man playing a five-string electric bass.
Lord, make us one! they sang.
Lord make us one!
Lord make us one every day!
Next door to the church 71 year-old Ruth Henderson sat on her front porch with her grandson and talked about the way she and her neighbors make Dickerman Street one… yes, every day.
A tragic shooting had shaken the community that weekend; the stray bullets from a young gunman outside a Friday night party killed 13 year-old Jajuana Cole and injured two other girls. The next day a parade of politicians and preachers filled the street with pleas to TV cameras for the community to pull together.
Ruth Henderson wasn’t impressed with the politicians. With the exception of her alderwoman, Joyce Chen, she’s not used to seeing them on Dickerman Street. As head of the block watch on the one-block-long street between Sperry and Orchard and parallel to Whalley Avenue, Henderson said she has seen the community pull together. That’s why she and her husband still live in the house they moved into in 1968.
Henderson goes by several names on Dickerman Street, depending on the age of the namer. The youngest call her “Grandma Ruth.” Their parents call her “Aunt Ruth,” or “Ma.”
“I’m the only grandmother,” she said, “who has 600 grandchildren.”
“Hi Aunt Ruth!” a young woman called from behind the steering wheel as she drove by Henderson’s porch Sunday morning.
“Don’t mess with me,” Henderson shot back, teasing. “It’s a Sunday!”
Before retiring, Henderson worked for 24 years as a unit supervisor at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Besides running the block watch, she serves on the neighborhood management team. She sits on the board of the new development corporation at St. Luke’s Church a block away, which is building new senior housing around the corner. She tutors neighborhood kids at Wexler-Grant. She gives classes on parenting and on how to apply for jobs.
“I don’t care if your outfit costs $1,000,” she tells young adults. “If you look like a choochie mama, you don’t get the job.”
The neighborhood kids hang out at Grandma Ruth’s place; indeed, a woman dropped off a teen-ager at the house during a chat on Henderson’s porch Sunday morning. She knows them and talks with them. New Haven needs to do more of that with kids, she said. Jajuana Cole hung out at Grandma Ruth’s house. Jajuana’s mother just had a baby, Henderson said, so Henderson made it a point to keep an extra eye on Jajuana.
“She was like my granddaughter,” Grandma Ruth recalled. “When her mother couldn’t get to the school, she was call me. She was a normal kid. She was typical of that age; no kid is good all the time. She had a big old beautiful smile. It was like the sun when she smiled.”
Henderson was thinking of another 13 year-old the night of the shooting — her real granddaughter. She raised the girl herself until she turned 12. Now she lives in another neighborhod with her mother, but she still comes by a lot.
It was a little before 11 when Henderson returned home Friday night. She heard the shots. She went outside.
“Then I heard somebody saying, ‘A kid got shot! A kid got shot!’”
She heard someone mention a party. She worried that her granddaughter was there, and had taken the bullet (She wasn’t there.)
Just the other day at a Dixwell Management Team meeting, Henderson was bragging to Sgt. Anthony Duff how quiet the street had been for going on two years now. “I talked to the politicians [who showed up Saturday]. I told them I didn’t want this to become a political arena.”
Most of Dickerman Street consists of two- and three-family homes, most of them well-kept, wooden early 20th-century-style homes with front porches, the kind that give so much of New Haven a homey neighborhood feel. One exception on the block is Dickerman Court, the charmless utilitarian box-like U-shaped apartment complex across from Henderson’s home where the shooting occurred. It cries out “1960s/‘70s architecture.” An outfit called Apple Management runs it. Henderson and her neighbors kept after Apple to clean out all the junk that piled up on the property, and Apple complied.
Sunday she continued to feel the street has turned a corner. She did see the shooting as a wake-up call — for the city in general.
“We need to do something to help our kids. We have to listen to our kids. Sometimes that’s difficult for adults.,” she said. “A young kid can’t even go to his prom because he can’t walk through a neighborhood because he doesn’t belong to that gang. That’s crazy! If we could get these kids to sit down and talk, they wouldn’t even remember what the beef is about. They’re getting younger and younger.”
Her prescriptions? One is a common complaint in New Haven neighborhoods, whether the subject is gun-toting kids or streetcorner drug dealers: “They’re going after the wrong people. Go after the big dealers.” That goes for drugs as well as guns, Henderson said. “If don’t condone selling drugs. But there are no kids this age who can get a passport to go to another country to buy drugs.”
An unorthodox prescription: Train all kids how to use guns properly. So they don’t keep shooting the wrong people, as they did Friday night. “I’m not saying everyone should go packing,” she emphasized.
Ruth Henderson likes to speak her mind. In no way does she come off as just a complainer. She had a lot positive to say about Dickerman Street. Why else would she still live here after 38 years? she said. She likes the convenience: She can walk downtown, walk to Shaw’s to buy groceries (and, soon, C-Town in Dixwell Plaza). She can walk to her volunteering gig at Wexler-Grant. “I’m close to three bus stops,” she said.
Most of all, she likes the community feeling. “There are still a lot of the old families here,” she said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie.” Those families are grieving in the wake of Friday’s shooting. Together.
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