Building A Stronger Community, One Resident at a Time

Building A Stronger Community, One Resident at a Time


Photo credit: Ian Christmann     Photo credit: Nathalie Bonafé
 
Ten years ago, a core of homeowners and long-term renters who were committed to the revival of their neighborhood in Connecticut’s Elm City formed an Association.

With funding support for a community organizer position The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association (CSNA) was born. 

Now ten years later, many of the neighbors’ original dreams of community-building have been turned into reality and others have joined the effort along the way, including those who work in the area, business owners and the police.

“Chatham Square has always been a racially, ethnically and economically diverse area in Fair Haven,” says Lee Cruz, Community Outreach Director at The Community Foundation and an active member of the Association. “Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the strengths of this diversity, The Community Foundation held a series of meetings with residents and went door-knocking. The objective was to create a sense of community to stabilize the neighborhood and prevent it from deteriorating into neglect and abandonment.”

Mary Ann Moran is a dynamo who’s been described by her neighbors as “a New Haven hero” for her years of commitment to the neighborhood’s young people. She was at that original meeting convened by The Community Foundation. 

“We decided to organize in three ways,” she says, “to work with the youth; to work toward connections with the parents; and to work on economic development. For me the diversity in the neighborhood was one of the things that made it difficult to reach the new residents [many of whom spoke only Spanish], but their kids spoke English, and they wanted to be integrated into the neighborhood but it was hard for them to do it. So we started Art in the Park – a group of neighbors who created an art project for two hours once a week in Chatham Square Park. All of a sudden we had 40 kids in the park and parents were coming with them. Even though they didn’t speak English, the parents knew we were there to help the kids.”

Then the kids’ activities programmer at Quinnipiac Terrace – a housing development for low-income families on Front Street along the river – asked Mary Ann if there might be volunteers who could help kids with their homework. 

“So a few people started a homework program three days a week after school that serves more than two dozen kids between 5 and 12 years of age,” recalls Moran. “It’s going into its seventh year, now.”
Moran has lived in the neighborhood for 34 years and notes that Quinnipiac Terrace was once very separated from the rest of the neighborhood. Its residents, who are mostly African American and Latino, were living in housing that didn’t reflect the rest of the neighborhood. 

In 2006, the Housing Authority rebuilt the development as two-family homes in a palette of pastel colors that reflects the history of the waterfront area. And, the real and perceived barriers between neighbors began to go away. 

When the housing development was renovated, “it was easier for us to go in there,” and “easier for parents to relate to us,” says Moran. “The kids now visit other kids in the neighborhood; they come to my house; some of the moms come with me and work in the Clinton School Garden.”


Neighbors get the beds at Clinton School Garden ready for another season. Photo credit: JR Logan

The Clinton School Garden is a wonder of neat raised beds, each with a child-made sign depicting what’s grown there: collards, kale, garlic, tomatoes and much more. Raspberries, strawberries and a pumpkin patch line the perimeter. Chatham Square resident Melissa Waldron initiated the project; students from the school work alongside kids and adults from Quinnipiac Terrace. 

One of the many goals of the garden is to get healthy food into the hands of low-income residents who couldn’t otherwise afford it, even if they don’t work in the garden. Organizers have received several grants to enhance and enlarge the garden and buy supplies. They work with New Haven school administrators, the New Haven Land Trust and Common Ground High School, which runs classes in the garden for the kids and teachers.

Nathalie Bonafé is a relative newcomer, having joined CSNA less than three years ago, but she’s making up in enthusiasm and commitment what she lacks in longevity. Bonafé has been successful at attracting visitors from all over the country and the world through an Airbnb service in the historic Fair Haven Quinnipiac River District. She is the volunteer manager for the New Haven Land Trust at one of the city’s oldest community gardens – Grand Acres – at the corner of Grand Avenue and Perkins Street. She also promotes the small and under-utilized Fair Haven farmers’ market at Quinnipiac River Park. 

“I passed out flyers in Spanish and English on Grand Avenue and [the next week] there were 50 people with their WIC coupons waiting for the market to open,’ she says. 

Bonafé has also been involved in traffic-calming efforts that complement the physical changes made in front of Fair Haven School on Grand Avenue. What started with support from The Community Foundation to conduct a traffic-calming feasibility study in the area, ended in a grant of several hundred thousand dollars from the federal Safe Routes to School program. Cars used to race past with nothing to stop them between traffic lights at Ferry Street and Front Street. Bonafé continues to work with city officials to slow down vehicles going over the Grand Avenue bridge at Front Street, where she lives. 

Bonafé is also co-chair, along with Diane Panasci, of Fair Haven Forward, a new effort that aims to draw non-Fair Haveners to patronize local businesses or to set up new ones. The appeal, she says, is the proximity to the Quinnipiac River and downtown New Haven. One thing the area lacks is a coffee shop, and Fair Haven Forward, in collaboration with Steve Fontana, Deputy Director of Economic development at the City of New Haven, is looking into that.

Joan Bosson-Heenan is an eight-year resident who lives next to Chatham Square Park, the centerpiece of the neighborhood. At one time it was the site of drug dealing, prostitution and other undesirable behavior, which has continued intermittently since. 
“My theory,” she says, “is that if we all use the parks more, people who engage in less desirable behavior will be less likely to do it there.” 

Joan oversees a big clean up every spring. “The kids participate. It’s nice to have them invested and realize it’s part of their responsibility. The park has improved so much since we moved here to make it a public space,” she says. “When it’s hot some families set up sun tents. Lots of people walk their dogs. There have been a lot more families. You see sidewalk chalk, and there are always children riding bikes. My 6- and 8-year-olds ride in the park all the time. Our festival is the Saturday after Labor Day in the park; we also have an Easter egg hunt and a Halloween parade.”

The lifeblood of the neighborhood – and the reason many residents live there – is the Quinnipiac River, which borders Front Street before emptying into Long Island Sound. For centuries Fair Haven was a fishing and oystering community, and that legacy lives on in the Quinnipiac River Marina, which not only provides slips for docking boats, but also hosts community events such as a "Learn to Row" program and the Riverfest (www.quinnipiacriverfest.com) on the first Sunday in May and is the site of a popular neighborhood eatery, Anastasio’s Boat House.

The festival “kind of jump starts the whole season of being on the water and getting outside,” says marina owner Lisa Fitch. “It brings the whole neighborhood together, and a lot of people from outside the neighborhood” to see what Chatham Square has to offer.

“They’re very passionate people,” she says of the event organizers, “and it’s wonderful to be a part of it.”

Coming soon, neighbors and visitors will see signs for two walking loops, a mile and two miles each. The signs are part of a collaborative effort of residents working with the Yale School of Public Health, which provided funding for installation, and the city of New Haven’s Department of Traffic and Transportation. The signs were designed by resident architect Kathleen Flynn and will effectively connect the large parks in the Fair Haven section of New Haven.

Christel Manning is a long-time resident and chair of the Economic and Community Development Group. One of their goals is to engage local business owners. Riverfest is one opportunity. 

“We also have Dining Out Night, where every other month we pick a different restaurant in Fair Haven and invite others to go there too, on a weeknight when it’s not so busy.” Each night attracts between 10 and 40 neighbors. 

Between the Dining Out nights are Soup Nights, where a host and a co-host make soup and others bring the rest of the dinner. Those nights also attract up to several dozen people, who spill out into the yard. 

“It’s just very friendly,” Manning says.

Another big project around which the CSNA and residents worked together is the replacement of a broken fence around the Middletown/Front Street bridge which permitted illegal garbage dumping. The work was undertaken in partnership with Urban Resources Initiative and the Connecticut State Department of Transportation. The Association held work parties every Thursday at 5:30, and the area has been transformed. The trash is gone. The area is covered with mulch. Flowers have been planted and big color photos of neighborhood residents grace the cement columns on the underpass (see before and after photos above): many sets of “eyes” to discourage future nefarious behavior.

Manning adds that CSNA has also reached out to the City to try to address problems of housing blight.

And CSNA has already begun to spread beyond its original borders, with people attending meetings who live in other parts of Fair Haven. 

“Just because it’s called Chatham Square Neighborhood Association, it’s not limited to that,” says Manning. “What’s really unique is there are lots of different people involved – people with comfortable incomes and people who are poor.”

Cruz says diversity makes all the difference. “What makes this Association great is that people are connecting to their neighborhood regardless of their economic or social status. If you want to build community with us, we want to hear it.”  

One of the area’s anchor institutions helps build such a sense of community and keeps it going by providing a safe space for Chatham Square residents and other community leaders to meet.

“We partner with St. Rose of Lima School and encourage visits from younger residents with our elder population to build cross generational relationships and understanding,” says David Hunter, executive director of Mary Wade, a nonprofit that provides senior care.  

The Community Foundation encourages residents of New Haven to get involved and strengthen their community through its Neighborhood Leadership Program, of which several residents of Chatham Square are alum. The CSNA model has since been used in other neighborhoods that are more challenged by drugs and violence – like Chatham Square was 20 years ago.


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