Eld Street Revives!

Eld Street Revives!

Or Does It?

In the spring of 2005 I had just returned from a year at the University of Oregon, and I was relieved to be home. My studies in landscape and urban design, especially a semester spent designing for the town of Bay City, Oregon, had made me newly, keenly aware of the very different relationships people have with landscape, and the ways these ideas are reflected in the built environment. Residents in small western towns like Bay City see the land as a resource and they know it individually – as hunter, logger, fisher, owner, hiker – and so their consequent town-scapes reveal little commonality except for the convenience of adjacency. I experienced Bay City as a disorienting pastiche, a collection of odds and ends with no underlying rationale or organizing principles, and without an expressed collective, civic spirit. In the Midwest where I grew up the built environment sings of community. The responsibility everyone has for public life is eloquently expressed in the the siting of buildings and the activities they contain, in the centrality of parks and green spaces, in cohesive, coherent architectural style1. Even though much of this historic fabric has been undermined by development and sprawl, it is legible here in New Haven, and it forms notions of citizenship as much as it reflects them. My first few weeks home I dreamt repeatedly of New England churches, greens, and town centers, as I re-centered and recovered a part of myself. Of course this is not a new insight about differences of place in the U.S. But my experience of Bay City brought the reality into sharp personal focus, and was the well I drew from as I began a series of community volunteer and political actions to improve conditions in my New Haven neighborhood.  

Once a vibrant and connected neighborhood of mostly Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants, Eld Street and its environs suffered the usual urban decay precipitated by the rise of suburbia and the construction of federal highways: neighborhoods divided, single family homes chopped into apartments and sold to off-premise landlords, transient populations, increased poverty and crime, and a coincident neglect by the city. Still, when I moved here in 1990, the area was inviting, located as it is near to downtown and the New Haven Green, to Yale University, and to other well-heeled neighborhoods. Much of the housing stock was beautiful if neglected. And we were unique – eleven languages were spoken then on Eld, not counting four variants of English. It seemed an urban place worthy of investment by the city and its residents.

 

We Begin

The first step was to bring together a group of civilian advocates and actors to conceive a shared vision. In 2006, Eld Street was diverse in age, income, occupation as well as race and nationality, but I knew most of my neighbors. Having my studio at home meant I was around all the time; having a front porch and garden meant many chance encounters and conversations. I slowly realized, though, that not many of my neighbors knew each other. So I produced a few editions of the Eld Street Gazette, (featuring very local news) that I left on doorsteps. I began spending more time on the street too, to help my neighbors make in-person connections. It seemed to work; Eld Street became livelier and friendlier that summer, both intimate and open. To encourage this new, lovely feel of the place, I organized a street wide tag-sale, which brought residents from neighboring streets to Eld, too.

Eventually a core group formed – Rebecca, a vivacious, energetic graduate student;  Helen, the older politically sophisticated and savvy summer visitor, and my husband  Bruce. Our plan to develop and make Eld Street visible as a community and political force began with organizing a block watch group, and a block party. While the block watch group gave Eld Street some visibility, we had little political power. We needed leverage, and Helen knew organizing a much larger group was essential: in politics, attention is paid to leaders. Hence the block party.

The broader gesture of community was emphasized in our flyers advertising the party, but an understated goal was to register voters, and we thought it useful to have campaign representatives there amid the grills, live music, and games. This was the 2008 presidential election cycle and Connecticut had a lively, contested Senate race. Rebecca was in charge of outreach, and a few days before the party date she called us together with some startling news – Ned Lamont himself, upstart candidate for Senate, was coming to Eld Street to campaign. And so he did, bringing Congresswoman Maxine Waters2ABC, NBC, and the Washington Post.

Afterwards we discovered (to our surprise and delight) that the block party had been broadcast live on C-Span.  And City Hall had been paying attention. The reaction was passed on to me later:  “What the hell is going on on Eld Street?!?!??” In the usual way, a political courtship began. I was appointed to the New Haven Ward 9 Democratic Party Committee, the political body responsible for nominating and endorsing candidates for the alderperson seat. Visits from candidates, meet-the-candidate teas for my fellow activists, and joint meetings with sister block watches were arranged, and then negotiations began.

In my conversations with the candidates I was clear about what we wanted – the replacement of decayed sidewalks, buried curbs, and pot-holed paving, along with the removal of many dead trees and stumps. Together these eyesores communicated decline and vulnerability, and opened Eld Street to opportunistic crime. Mail theft, auto theft, and theft from cars were common occurrences; muggings and break-ins happened too.

At the same time the group kept up its profile by attending NHPD Management Team meetings en masse. While long-time attendees and power players did their best to sideline us, numbers talk, and as the Eld Street representative I had leverage to trade my ward committee vote for the goods. One candidate sympathized with our wish list and had the mayor’s ear; if elected he promised to spend monies earmarked for Ward 9 on Eld Street infrastructure his first year, neighboring Bradley Street’s in his second. So I gave him my vote to be the party’s candidate, and he was nominated. Roland Lamar was elected Ward 9 Alder that fall with Eld’s and Bradley Street’s votes.

 

The Greening of Eld

Promises have to be kept, of course, so we continued our efforts to spotlight Eld. Citizens we met at the police district meetings shared useful strategies and connections; it was here that I first heard about Greenspace.

Greenspace is a program of Yale University Forestry School’s Urban Resources Initiative. URI’s mission is community development (to increase capacity and political capital in underserved populations), and Greenspace is its tree-grant division, a primary tool. Very simply, neighbors come together over environmental stewardship. All of URI’s goals were congruent with ours, and so a small committee formed to apply for a grant and organize a tree-planting group on Eld. 

Chris Ozyck, the director of Greenspace, generously and expertly guided me through the design of a street-wide planting plan that accounted for all the variables, poetic and prosaic: architecture, the larger city context, utility poles and lines, urban environmental conditions, current tree-planting theory, and species attributes. The plan was shared with neighbors, and the great majority were enthusiastic – happy to get a tree, and willing to dig in. Importantly,  Greenspace provided support in articulating the larger vision for our street and neighboring streets that depended on infrastructure replacement and repair. With the organization’s backing I was able to align politicians, city officials, commercial property owners, landlords, and homeowners with our goals.

In the end, significant participation by residents across all demographic categories and the support of a high-profile, popular organization with political juice gave us enough visibility and power, and the following year Eld Street was transformed – first with new sidewalks, curbs, and paving paid for by the city3and then with the addition of twenty-three new trees, planted by Eld Street volunteers.

 

Down in the Dirt

It was not a smooth process, though. Midway through the politicking a Democratic Party bigwig and friend of a resident (whom I’ll call Suzy) put pressure on one of her employees – another resident – to change Greenspace’s design. Mrs. BigWig instructed her employee to campaign for a design that reflected Suzy’s personal taste4Chris Ozyck’s responding crusade-to-persuade was successful in safeguarding most of the original plan – all except for the eighty lineal feet in front of the apartment block of Suzy “Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am?!?’’5 Jones. 

Of course, it’s hard to make people see past their own noses to the bigger contexts of streetscape and cityscape. The average person is oblivious to factors that go into the design of space, especially at larger scales – that one-way streets are axes and have focal points, for example, or that planting patterns have meaning for navigation and safety. People are mostly ignorant of architectural considerations too, as well as the practical requirements of infrastructure and horticulture. (Nevertheless the average person very much appreciates the aesthetics of good design – evidence is everywhere in copies.) People are also incapable of analyzing existing conditions that are real constraints on urban landscape design – details like street length, width and path – and are unable to assess natural factors like astronomy: most have no understanding of the Sun’s path (let alone its seasonal variations) and therefore wrongly imagine light and shadow effects. The average person is, however, a bandwagon jumper, and lover of groupthink. In New Haven, environmental goals are easy to sell, so these were emphasized as the basis of the streetscape design. Which is not to say the environment wasn’t considered and accommodated, but as one of many factors on parity with all the others. Most importantly, the original design was holistic, like a quilt – thread and fabric arranged in a pattern that connected Eld from one end to the other, one side to the other.

And this is what was lost when three cherry trees were ultimately planted in front of the brick apartments. The result was not as cohesive/coherent a landscape as first imagined nor as tight a community, owing to the discord generated by Suzy and her minion. While most of the street is lovelier – a nice balance of attractive homes accented by a well-curated collection of trees that protect and adorn in all seasons – the cherry trees do nothing to showcase what could be seen as reasonable copies of brownstone architecture. Rather than screen the awkward fourth floor additions and shade the units from direct summer sun, the short dense trees are a visual barrier, obscuring the only lovely architectural features of the building, its front steps, doorways and entrances. An unfortunate choice that will persist, unfortunately.

 

Our Work Continues

Nevertheless there were many other positive outcomes and repercussions. Other block watches and Greenspace groups formed within the geographic area easily recognized as our neighborhood. The Upper State Street Merchant’s Association, a consortium of nearby business owners, revived, and was successful in extending the Town Green Clean Team’s purview to commercial streets adjoining ours. Another civic-minded resident from the area created seeclickfix, a website designed to hold city departments accountable by transparency. Not least, crime dropped and property values climbed (although well-advertised security systems may have contributed). And unsurprisingly, Roland’s political career took off; he is now a Connecticut State Legislator, first in line for Rosa De Lauro’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most importantly, an Eld Street parent with two school-aged daughters expanded on our civic work, becoming an advocate for the neighborhood’s public grade school. Britt’s efforts on behalf of our community is another great story of effective civil volunteerism, worthy of a longer retelling. But the results demand mention here. In New Haven there is always maneuvering and jockeying (underhanded and above board) for the privilege of attending its one excellent school, which is out-of-district for Eld Street’s (and most of New Haven’s) children. Rather than move or finagle, Britt went to work. Her level-headed campaign to discover, share, and build on the strengths of our neighborhood school coincided with the construction of a long-needed new building, and established the bona fides of East Rock Community Magnet School. ERCMS is now ranked a top-tier performer.

 

Fault Lines

It has been almost nine years as I write this history, and we still consider our efforts successful. The gains mentioned above are real, persistent, and in many ways we are the same. There are still Polish and Italian old-timers, students and workers, young and old, and at least eight languages spoken here. Our three adjoining block watches have acted collectively against neighborhood threats, like the time we lobbied against a change to resident-only parking restrictions. But the vibe is different. People don’t hang as much, aren’t as friendly, or as open. You used to feel the ‘we’ on Eld Street; now it’s more of an I, more of an us, more of an us-and-them. There are cliques. An easy target for blame is the rise in number of professional couples, hinting at a dislocating, gentrifying elitist culture. A little bit might be my fault too; after the big dig was completed I retired, exhausted, from an active, public role, without considering what came next.

I think there is more to the story, though. The fractures now visible have older, regional  cultural, and historical roots. They have to do with immigration and changed attitudes about it. Our work paved them over, but the fault zones are deep and tectonic. They are expressed in the aggressively competitive northeast gestalt, and reinforced by the shift from a melting pot ethos to one of multi-culture.

I told the story of self-important Suzy as an interlude, but it was not an isolated event.  There were many more reactions and responses to our activism that I read as inexplicably contrary and hostile. My goal was a bigger we – a group large enough to wield political influence and shape our neighborhood together, but it never happened.

Instead there was resistance. Neighboring streets set up block watches and Greenspace groups in competition. There were flyers, signs, even websites vying for bragging rights and differently from us, attention for the new organizers, who wanted to win a game very different from the one I had been playing. My work had been noticed, but for me this notice was a means to an end, not a goal. I wanted to build a commons, not a name for myself, and certainly not a platform for my personal gain. My goal was our control of our communal urban landscape, for our common good, and my method was simple: strength in numbers. For the new players, however, success was measured in competitive terms: “We can do what you do, we do it better.” “We planted more trees than you planted.” “Our block watch has more members than yours. Our block party is superior.” “We’re bigger than you are, we’re better than you are, we’re more important”.  At its most ridiculous the petty rivalry degenerated into a vicious fight over who was allowed to email whom. No doubt you see the psychological truths behind these reactionary efforts: the aggressive ‘I’ underlying the purported we, the claim of importance and power as badges, and the gross insecurity at the root of it all.

There may be other causes invisible to me: sociological (upper limits on the size of cohesive human groups, e.g.) or political (party hacks deliberately sowing discord and division) or personal (someone out to hurt me). But the psychological still holds: competition comes from insecurity, and copying, while at first tribute and admiration, always ends in opposition and dislike6.

 

Civics

I’ve reflected for a long time about the incidence and prevalence of this kind of insecurity here in the northeast. My initial supposition was that it correlated with successive waves of immigration. In her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom Amy Chua lays out the case that first generation parents push their children hard to succeed for this very reason; they are insecure in a new culture and they want their children to feel at home. Many different immigrant groups in close proximity, as here on the coast, might then only intensify feelings of rootlessness and lead to protective assertions and aggressions that divide rather than unite. 

I would have left it there but for a profoundly revealing letter Bruce unearthed at the New Haven Museum, our local historical society. It shows that what it meant to be a citizen on Eld Street was once different. Here is an excerpt:

These are people united in civility, in civic values, in American-ism. They downplay differences of culture in deference to commonly shared values. That is, after all, why they came to this country. They did not come here to be Polish- or German- Americans, Irish- or Italian- Americans. They came here to be simply American. They were happy to blend their culture in with all of the others, watching bemusedly as some practices were adopted while others stayed in the home. Existing societal rules regarding dress, speech, and public behavior were willingly adopted. Such conformity and humility affirmed the commons. A public self was a vote for the greater we.  

The non-urban Midwest where I grew up is still this way, as am I. My closest neighbors and friends feel the same too, even though they are from such disparate places as northern California, Ghana, Germany, the southern U.S., and Wisconsin. Despite our geographies we share a belief in the commons that we assert as a civic value equal to if not greater than individuality. We are neighbors first; we are the neighborhood. We take in each other’s mail; we choose house colors together; we garden for everyone. We share chores, tools, and our children. Our politics, religions, and customs may be different, but they are un-flaunted and secondary; we share and express them closely so we are not set apart. We emphasize our sameness, and we are secure in each other. We are.

Overall in the northeast, however, identity politicking has displaced the sense of public self that elevated a shared culture. Difference is a value7. Audio and visual disruptions to the we assault us daily, as people proclaim their proclivities. Display culture is now the default; badges are everywhere. In all the noise it is difficult to recognize ourselves in others or to feel recognized. And so each of us is a little less secure, a little more uncomfortable and wary, more aggressive and less open. How much better and more mature if we instead (and again) paid homage to our sameness. This is precisely how the gay community campaigned for and achieved acceptance – door-to-door encounters to inform and re-mind: “You know us, we’re just like you.” 

There is evidence from biology to support the kind of community we value here on Eld Street.  Longevity and health directly derive from social cohesion, and are reduced by living among strangers who only assert me-my-I, or a contrary, narrower, rival we8.

I am happier in the commons and in New Haven I struggle to belong, as do my friends.  We talk a lot of leaving – when we retire, when the girls start high school, when house values rise. We know a better way, and we are disheartened by people with impulses that rend our cherished fabric. It will be a shame if what we have made ceases to be. Our only real hope is our children, who have watched us – as we – and who, as they grow, take over the stitching that keeps Eld Street a larger cloth.


Links:
Eld Street Gazette
Block Party broadcast live on C-Span

  1. One of the main ideas in E. Bacon’s book Design of Cities about polity and building in ancient Greece
  2. Democrat, California
  3. This is more significant than it might appear.  In New Haven, homeowners are responsible for the repair and replacement of sidewalks adjacent to their property.
  4. cherry trees streetwide, wrong for so many reasons …
  5. Her words, screamed at city public works employees who refused to take prohibited construction debris to the landfill. In order to confront the guys she found it necessary to speed her sports car the wrong way down two one-way streets …
  6. the main tenet of mimetic theory
  7. Seeking and asserting difference can be an important self-making strategy of adolescence (and one that promotes species survival by sexual adventurism), but it is corrosive at the larger societal scale.
  8. See ‘The Telomere Effect’ by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel
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