Velma George is a neighborhood specialist for the Livable City Initiative (LCI)—a city agency that works to improve neighborhoods through housing and public works projects—and the woman credited for spearheading the greenhouse project. “It’s totally, totally exciting,” George said, watching the construction work from the sidewalk. “And definitely a symbol for what’s possible in Newhallville.”
George and other community organizers began the greenhouse project last October, after they returned home from a national conference held in Orlando by NeighborWorks America, an organization that works to increase affordable housing across the country. Conference participants received a small grant of $2,000 and a charge to meaningfully improve their community.
George said the team wanted to do a project in Newhallville to complement the work of Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing blighted New Haven communities. In Newhallville, NHS has undertaken home renovations, homeowner education workshops for first-time homebuyers, and foreclosure mitigation programs. George sees the greenhouse as something Newhallville homeowners can be proud of.
According to Jim Paley, NHS executive director, Newhallville has been hit hard by crime, declining home prices, and landlords who fail to properly screen tenants and maintain properties. “You put all this together and you get a neighborhood that has caused many residents to feel uncomfortable and many to say they’re worried about the future,” Paley said. In May, a Yale professor was beaten and mugged at a Newhallville lot where architecture students were building a house for a final project. After Yale determined it could not guarantee students’ safety in the neighborhood, the university pulled out and NHS finished building the home.
One tangible symbol of the trouble in Newhallville is the large number of empty lots scattered throughout the neighborhood. These lots were a consequence of the city’s decision to demolish decrepit properties in the 1990s. But residents have managed to remake these indicators of decline into havens of renewal by turning some of them into community gardens. George said her team settled on the idea of a greenhouse because “Newhallville is more or less the gardening capital of New Haven.” Of the several gardens in Newhallville, they chose the Ivy Street plot for its ample space, dedicated team of gardeners, and proximity to the Lincoln-Bassett school.
Levon Quattlebaum, an 80-year-old New Hallville resident, has been tending a plot on Bassett Street for the past 20 years, producing carrots, peppers, collard greens, peas, and squash. Quattlebaum said he’ll keep gardening as long as his health holds out—and as long as the city keeps renewing the five-year New Haven Land Trust lease on the property. “As long as the city rents it to New Haven Land Trust, I’m in business,” Quattlebaum said. “But they could sell it.”
Catherine Bradshaw, interim executive director of the New Haven Land Trust (NHLT), explained that community gardens are generally created when groups approach the NHLT for assistance in setting up a garden. The NHLT finds space for gardens in churchyards, backyards, or empty lots that it leases from the city. Every five years, the city may have the chance to sell a garden plot to developers, forcing community gardeners out.
Bradshaw said the tension between community gardeners and developers reflects different ideas about how to best renew neighborhoods. Developers say infusing communities with new housing to attract stable tenants can permanently undo years of destruction, while proponents of community green spaces argue that turning vacant lots into gardens and mini-parks can revive a neighborhood from within. “There’s always a little bit of a risk of losing the property,” Bradshaw said. Bradshaw estimated that 18 gardens had been lost when developers bought lots from the city.
But generally, Paley said, the city has been supportive of community gardens. Erik Johnson, executive director of the LCI, said the city’s investment in the greenhouse represents its commitment. “I think that hopefully the model that we established in Newhallville will bear fruit and that there will be other communities who are asking us to make similar investments through the public-private partnership that was established in Newhallville,” Johnson said. Through the LCI, New Haven provided $11,000 to purchase the greenhouse kit. Other donations for the project came from the Walsh Construction Company and United Way. George said Solar Youth, an environmental education-based program for New Haven kids, and the Lincoln-Bassett School were involved in the planning process and are eager to introduce students to the greenhouse.
However, currently most Newhallville gardeners are senior citizens. Bubba Elder, one of about eight regular gardeners at the Ivy Street Community Garden, has lived in Newhallville his entire life. He’s now excited about the chance to share his gardening experiences with the next generation. “I feel the greenhouse is good for the community, especially the young kids coming up,” Elder said. “They can learn to grow things for their families, exactly how we do for ourselves.”