Stacy Spell is the president of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation. Named the New Haven Independent’s Man of the Year in 2011, Spell has dedicated himself to his community since he retired as a New Haven police detective in 2006. Some of his hands-on service includes hosting weekend chess games in troubled areas, picking up litter, and in-home urban gardening. Spell sits down with the Herald this week to discuss the future for him, for his neighborhood, and his oblique strategies
YH: Do you think you can give me a brief history of West River?
SS: West River was a neighborhood that was not really aligned with the Hill or Dwight. It wasn’t until the 80s that we got the distinction of being called our own name: West River. And we are called that because the West River flows through our community. In New Haven at that time, in order to be an employee, you had to live in the city. So I originally came to Miller Street to look at homes. In the house I looked at there was this Italian family; they were the second family to live in it. And I looked at the house, and I wasn’t impressed. But the owner came home, who was a little Italian man—a construction worker. He was built like me, but half my size, his head sat literally on top of his shoulders—he had no neck. He had hands that made mine look small, and he had a grip that was like a vice. But he was charming as I’ll get out. We broke bread, and he brought out some wine that he had made from the grapes that were from the yard. He says, “Let me show you the house.” And I saw his grapevine, and his garden, and the house took on a new life. I’ve been there ever since.
West River, in those days, was a very diverse neighborhood, very much mixed. It still is mixed, to this day. There were Polish and Irish immigrants. Now, we have Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, young, old, but the thing that makes the neighborhood different from others is the level of community.
It’s an old-school community where people still look out for one another. When you wake up on a snowy morning, people have cleaned their neighbor’s walks. People still talk to their neighbors over the fence. If you were to pull up to my house when no one was home, my neighbors would let me know what the car was, what the person looked like, and possibly the license plate. It’s that type of neighborhood. Our neighborhood is one of the only ones with a Masjid, a synagogue, and 14 Christian churches. A great neighborhood. And it hasn’t changed much.
YH: Was there any defining moment that prompted you to retire from police work and become the President of the Neighborhood Services Corporation?
SS: It was a natural progression. Because, when I first retired, I was doing what is the equivalent of an outreach ministry. It was made up of Christians and Muslims who were trying to address the young brothers, especially to stop the violence. And we used to hold monthly breakfasts on Saturday mornings, where we would engage men of the community to foster, and lead; to be the intervening bodies. And there was someone in attendance from my neighborhood, and he said, Well jeez, this guy’s doing great work over here with Outreach Ministry, he’s all over the city, but why not focus on where you live? And he invited me to a meeting, and the irony was that at the meeting he invited me to was a friend of mine who is now in his 80s who lives on George Street, who had been very active in the West River Neighborhood Services Corp., who used to always try to encourage me to come when I was young. But I always said, Nahh, I have too many things to do—I’m doing this, I’m doing that. But now, that same organization, I’m the head of.
But I started attending as just a member, and then we would have events. Then I would sit on committees and before you knew it I was chairing committees, and next thing you know it was time for a change in leadership. And I was nominated as President of West River Neighborhood Services Corp. And I’m in my fourth year now.
YH: So it was a natural progression, no really specific moments.
SS: Well, I was a homicide detective. So that stuff gets old, you can only do that for so long. I had been in law enforcement for 35 years. And there were things happening that I couldn’t agree with. The old-timers used to tell me, you’ll know when it’s time to go. And it became time for me to go, and I left and haven’t looked back.
YH: How do the two jobs compare? Does one experience inform another?
SS: Well I attend the weekly comstat meeting, which is held in the mornings at 10 am at the police department—only so I am aware of what goes on in my community. I am very much involved in addressing the violence that is happening within the city of New Haven. So in order for me to be an effective leader and know how to come up with strategies that address the violence, it’s imperative that I be plugged in to what’s going on in the streets.
YH: And some of these strategies have been very effective. Chess, for instance—why chess?
SS: Why chess? Well, it’s one of the best tools for engagement. Look at what I do now; I work for my community, try to bring services to it, try to create strategies that deal with food security, public safety, and bringing peace to it. So what better tool for engagement than over a chessboard? What better tool to act as an ambassador that speaks for my character than a chessboard?
YH: You’ve said that urban farming is a way for community members to become more attached to their neighborhood. Why is urban farming good to this end? Do you think it’s something that’s community-specific?
SS: Urban farming is really applicable to any place throughout America. Urban farming helps tie people to the land. When we toil together, it creates a sense of kinsmanship, it creates bonds—natural bonds—when we toil in the soil, and sweat and plant, and we are able to feast on the rewards of our sweat; to be able to feed our families, to be able to see joy. And you might not be able to afford a bowl of strawberries—for them to grow their own strawberries, to pick their own strawberries, and there’s nothing like the ones you can pick your own versus the ones you buy in the store; it makes a drastic difference. It builds a sense of ownership. It makes a sense of territory. You will look out for where the garden is. You will look out for where you plant flowers. You will look out for the land that you’re claiming. And that’s what we want to encourage. We want to encourage a sense of ownership; we want to create ownership in our community.
Urban agriculture is one way of building that sense of ownership, that sense of commitment. And it’s healthy. It’s healthy in a community that’s ravaged by juvenile diabetes and hypertension, and all the other medical woes. What better way to correct your diet and get good exercise? For people with mental illness—what better way to help them feel better about themselves than to involve them with the community and get the community involved with them? It’s a win-win for everybody.
YH: Your wife Virginia is the Vice-President of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut; how has her work inspired you?
SS: Our work goes hand in hand. We’re about change. We’re about creating change. We’re about elevating our people. We’re about elevating our communities. There are a lot of people who are eloquent about what they want to see for their community, and the reality is, what are they doing for their community? What sweat equity? What steps are they walking? What people are they actually engaging outside of their office? My wife and I live and breathe change every day.
YH: Do you have any new plans for 2014?
SS: Huge plans, lots of things. Well, I should mention, for the past two years, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson clinical scholars, we’ve been working to address violence. The model that we’ve been looking at is how a community is resilient after a natural disaster. We are looking to use that same format, except, how does a community stay resilient in the face of violence? So we have a polling instrument that will be going out in the spring. We have a tool kit, a little resource kit and we will be going door-to-door from West River to in this community, Dwight, and again it’s a way of educating and drawing people in in the process to reduce the violence that happens in our community.