The offer of a tour of several New Haven neighborhoods by a self-described “ex-hustler” was hard to turn down for two reasons.
The first is that I study cities, specifically housing policy, and have written many a story and paper about what happens to communities when the government changes the type of buildings in a neighborhood and the rules about who is allowed to stay.
The second is that I know this game. For three years now, every week I have walked visitors through Yale and explained the place to them as a Yale tour guide. I talk about what goes on inside the buildings and what kind of community we have here.
In short, we have a complicated community. It’s hard to sum it all up in an hour and a half, so the version that goes out to visitors ends up being each guide’s imagined version of the school rather than the Complete Truth, which expands and collapses in different places at different moments and is knit daily of a thousand interactions, transactions, and relationships. We tend to veer toward what we value in the place, in the hope that others will see that as well.
I met Hugh “HG” Gallman and Darrell Allick through a fellow student who got to know them while researching the New Haven rap scene. Through their tour, Allick wanted to show me what they valued in the Dixwell area of New Haven, known to them as The Tribe, and how it had changed since they grew up there. Eager to hear their perspective, I got in the back of their sedan.
“The Tribe” refers to the community that grew up in the Elm Haven housing project on Dixwell Avenue between Webster and Bristol Streets. At the time of its demolition, the Elm Haven was the oldest public housing in New Haven. It made way for a development called Monterey Place, a mixed-income housing community that abuts Yale’s campus just past the police station and health center. Like all mixed-income housing, Monterey Place is a social experiment; theoretically, interspersing market-rate homes with government-subsidized homes would dilute the culture itself of poverty and promote more positive values in the community.
After he picks me up on the northeast corner of Yale’s campus, Gallman doesn’t drive straight to the Tribe. To help me understand what his area used to be like, he is driving us to another part of town, heading east down Grand Avenue toward the neighborhood of Fair Haven. We turn left down Franklin Street and begin to encircle a group of red brick, three-story buildings called Farnam Courts. At the front of the development, there is a busy playground of parents and children. At the back, there is a long wooden fence and residents walking with their heads down.
“So this is called ‘the G,’ which is short for the Ghetto,” Allick begins. “I couldn’t tell you why they call it that. But these are the worst projects in New Haven. Even though they remodeled them about four, five years ago, they are still projects. A lot of illegal activity still takes place around here.”
Allick would know. He says he is allowed over here because of his history of hustling. “I know everybody from everywhere. If we was talking on the phone, I could figure out where you at according to what projects you was in. ‘Oh, you was in the Hill? The Island? The Ville? The Tribe?’ ”
The Tribe’s physical frame has been remodeled into Monterey Place for thirteen years now, time enough to check back in about the culture of the area. By spending time with Allick and Gallman, I hoped to find out what the culture had changed from, and what it was changing into.
“So our buildings were like this, but worse,” Allick continues, pointing in the G. “Dirty, nasty, filthy. That’s how it was back in ’88, ’90. And our high-rises were twelve stories instead of three, like you see here. Remember this.”
When we are done in Fair Haven, we reverse course back toward downtown New Haven, pass it, and turn up Dixwell. The sign announcing “Monterey Place,” with a perky “y” styled to look like a musical note, appears freshly painted. So do the wood-paneled homes behind grassy lawns. They are all professionally landscaped. If Farnam Courts is The Wire, Monterey Place is The Stepford Wives.
This car ride is a trip in a New Haven public housing time machine.
Monterey Place was designed in the mid-nineties by the Housing Authority of the City of New Haven (HANH), the local arm of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Elm Haven high-rises had been demolished in 1991. It took seven years for the construction of low-rise, garden-style apartments and townhomes in their place. The majority of these homes are designed for one family. Only some are subsidized. Management of the property was transferred to a private real estate firm, and Monterey Place was inaugurated.
The Housing Authority, which remains responsible for overseeing around three thousand housing units and over three thousand Section 8 Housing vouchers, offers rent-assistance for low-income families. HANH is the largest landlord in the city. It also has the tricky mandate of strategically adding or relocating government-subsidized housing units where it sees fit.
“Affordable housing is one of the last government benefits to remain geographically defined,” says Cynthia Horan, a professor of urban politics at Yale. “Most things the government provides you today are based on qualities that move with you when you move. Your family income, for example, is going to determine whether you get a welfare check or whether your children get free lunch at school.” Horan says subsidized housing is unique in that the government is pointing to a specific area on a map that it wants to improve. The Housing Authority has to consider how that area fits into and affects the city as a whole.
In making these choices, HANH is limited by what it can afford to build and refurbish. This makes for slow work. Because public housing developments have gone so famously wrong in the past, this work is also highly scrutinized by the neighbors.
Monterey Place was built fourteen years ago. Is it working today?
“It’s tricky to say whether public housing works or not, because there are no across-the-board metrics,” says Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent. Having covered Connecticut for over thirty years, Bass has seen many New Haven projects come and go. As a first measure, he suggests comparing crime rates before and after a development is redone. Secondly, how has the appearance of the place changed? And most difficult to measure, but of towering importance, is whether those theoretically transformative relationships between low- and high-income tenants is occurring: “Are neighbors friends if their backyards are connected?”
A 2003 Yale Law Review article pointed out that the Dixwell neighborhood had indeed become safer since the development of Monterey Place, and that there was a waiting list to live in both the market-rate and the subsidized units. Past HANH head Robert Solomon is generally satisfied with the project, but he says there is has an important drawback to keep in mind. Because the project spread out the affordable units, they became fewer in number overall: “You’re always looking for ways to create more units. Always, when the need is so high.”
Putting aside the generally positive numerical indicators about the quality of life in Monterey Place, there has certainly been a change in the way residents relate to each other. But it’s a little more complicated than whether neighbors become friends.
As Allick remembers it, Elm Haven began with the premise that “if you can’t get a job, you can always hustle in the projects, and everybody had your back.” Mentally, he says it was very hard to justify stepping out of this culture, and “the body follow the mind.” Now both Allick and Gallman have stepped out: they mentor juvenile offenders at the state-funded Juvenile Review Board, and Allick gives talks at Dixwell-area Hillhouse High School encouraging kids to choose alternative paths from joining the traffic.
Allick says the culture in his old neighborhood has changed in that “now, with the new project, it’s responsibility time. You gotta go out there, get a job. You gotta step outside the box, and a lot of people can’t step outside the box.” Because of their old habits, many of the residents of the Elm Haven were not allowed to move into new homes in Monterey Place. There were several police inspections of Elm Haven homes right before its demolition, and “if your house got raided and they found drugs, you couldn’t come back and live over here,” Allick says. “It happened to a lot of people.”
This is when Allick and Gallman first point out a downside to the changes in the neighborhood: “It broke everyone up,” says Allick. “We’re not able to see each other like we used to see each other, like every day. Now they all claim to be from another project, and they act funny when they see each other.”
We drive by two closed buildings that the navigators point to as losses for the community. The first is their “hood club,” for which Allick gives me a different name depending on which year I ask him about: it was either Cardinals, the Dirty Bird, Butta J’s, or Red Café. It resembles a cement block. The second place is a community center called the Dixwell Q House, which Gallman says “was like a father figure to many.”
“They had sports there—football, basketball,” says Allick. “We could go there for recreation. There were arts and crafts and a ping-pong table, and dances at night for the community. Now people are fighting for it to open back up. There is a petition, and even the alderman is on board.”
Most of all, Allick seems to miss knowing everyone. We drive into the neighborhood to the south and he explains that the Tribe was friends with the group in this community, called the Tre. These are neighborhood groups, not gangs, Allick maintains, but still “if you was from the Tre, and you shot someone from the Tribe, we would retaliate. If they shot one of our boys, we would go back and shoot one of their boys.”
Labels carry heavy weight in these situations. The New Haven Police Department has used the term “gang” in association with violence in the Tribe, but Allick maintains that these were simply personal beefs, and that current neighborhood groups are different from older New Haven gangs and national gangs like the Latin Kings that have been edging in recently. “Bloods and Grape Street—that’s not from here; that’s California stuff.”
We’re headed for the Tre now, and Allick has a suggestion for a better route. “Turn up here, H., onto Edgewood.” He swivels backward to explain, “I memorized New Haven so much that I travel by the light. I memorized all of the quickest traffic lights. I’m impatient, so I will go the easiest route according to which light is going to change and which takes the longest.”
It’s not long before Allick recognizes someone at a home we pass and comments to Gallman, “Blizz be over here all the time—he always on the porch.”
“Well, I think he married one of them,” Gallman replies.
“It gotta be Ron G baby mother. It gotta be the younger sister.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Alright—it can’t be the other one, because she live on the other side of the fence. I used to think ‘Why Blizz always on the porch?’ but you just confirmed it! He married one of them.”
Allick turns to me in the peanut gallery. “There are three sisters we know over here, and one of my boys married one of them.”
Back to Gallman: “I didn’t know…so he left Tash. Right?”
When I give Yale tours, I explain our own comically overprivileged mixed-income housing system, the residential colleges, which I would argue does create diverse friendships. And just as Allick took close care to describe the community aspect of the Tribe, there is much talk on Yale tours about the general happiness and lack of competition among the student body here.
Does that generalization describe all Yalies, all of the time? Certainly not. I don’t think 18 to 22-year-olds would really have formative experiences if they were happy and comfortable all of the time. The anxiety of navigating Yale is hardly comparable to the anxieties of living in the old Elm Haven, but it is a tangible part of the tapestry of life here.
Darrel’s tour certainly paints the Tribe in a positive light. But must he acknowledge the darker moments between community members in the Tribe to be telling “the truth” about the place? He and I both deal in allusions—we will mention those moments if asked about them. But I see in Allick my own tendency to favor qualities I value in my community when recruiting new members, or explaining ourselves to visitors—I think it helps turn those values into realities. Allick and I aren’t going to bring up competition among students or the lure of a career in the drug traffic, because we believe in the power of narrative to shape a culture.
To hear a different voice from the inside of the Dixwell community, I walk into Monterey Place on a Sunday afternoon during holiday season. In the community resource center, a white-painted building next door to Wexler-Grant School on the north end of the development, the New Haven Police Department has funded a holiday party. Children emerge across the empty lawn, trailing parents with take-home baggies of fried chicken and Cheetos. Inside, two women are directing the takedown of decorations, which will be bundled in a lace tablecloth that tears off a little at the corner when you try to tie it. It’s kind of stiff and has a couple of hot sauce stains.
“Don’t worry about it, honey—I think that may be on its last leg.”
The lady in charge is Barbara Whitaker, president of the Residents’ Council of Monterey Place. She is “a senior citizen and proud of it,” with a buoyant Congresswoman hairdo and a floor-sweeping peacock wool coat. She and fellow event coordinator Gloria Gray are gathering up the extra food and distributing it to those making their way out. “If we leave it in the kitchen here, kids will just steal it.” Finally, the only things left in the main front room are an empty table and a Christmas tree blinking a glow across the cement floor.
Whitaker has lived here since 1964, save a five-year period when her husband was in the military. She got a degree in social services and has been active in community leadership since the early eighties. “And she is related to everyone in New Haven,” says Gray, who at fifty has several grandchildren of her own. Whitaker’s job is to mediate between the residents of the subsidized Monterey Place units, the Housing Authority, HUD, and the private landlord Beacon Corcoran Jennison (BCJ). She can tell you all about the negotiations surrounding the planning of Monterey Place, when “they told us we were gonna have chandeliers, and then that went under the rug. Oh, and basements, which I wish we did have with all these storms and stuff.”
Today Whitaker’s biggest day-to-day work is navigating the “gray area” between the stipultions of the different agencies that supervise the low-income residents. HUD only comes to inspect their homes once a year, but BCJ requires four to five inspections a year, about which they give varying degrees of notice.
“It’s an aggravation. It got to the point where we got two lawyers from Legal Aid,” said Whitaker, “because the real estate company has some big time lawyers—money, honey—all the way in Washington D. C., so we got our lawyers to say to them, ‘The laws of Connecticut state if it’s not an emergency, they have no right to come into your home when you are not there.’ As a matter of fact, one girl moved out because of it. Oh god, what was her mother’s name? She comes home, and this maintenance guy is standing in the middle of her floor. And she didn’t call for maintenance!”
“Oh, wow,” murmurs Gray.
“Oh, it’ll come to me. I think it was Renée’s niece—”
“Renée that passed.”
“Oh, okay. Okay. Shawna.”
“Yeah. It was her house. And really it was an invasion of privacy.”
Like Whitaker, Gray has lived here since the beginning. She says the biggest change in the community since it was redone is that people are “more to themselves. We have a lot of new people here, which is good, but they don’t socialize or interact as much.”
“When we first moved here,” Gray continues, “all of the parents got together, and we gave them respect. Everybody was our mom. And you had better give them respect because if you did something wrong, everybody’s on the phone, and by the time you got home, Momma’s in the door. Today you don’t have that.”
Whitaker agrees. “At old Elm Haven, no matter what all our problems were, I’ll tell you point blank: we had a unity there. Maybe it’s because of the way the homes are situated now. It’s supposed to be less dense. Today you put up a poster for an event, and not that many people will come.”
Gray chimes in: “Used to be with events, you would know somebody who knows so-and-so, and everyone’s asking ‘are you going to the meeting tonight?’ Not anymore. Then again, a lot of people don’t like the way it is here no more.”
“That’s because they have to follow rules and regulations, which is a good thing,” says Whitaker. They both agree the changes in the community are good on the whole. But they say young people’s involvement in crime is rising since its original drop in the early 2000s. “Back then, the guys who go to the Q House could leave at eleven or twelve o’clock and end up safe. My fear now is that another neighborhood may come driving by and shooting and things of that nature.”
“That’s my concern,” says Gray. “You can have programs for the kids, but these kids are what they call ‘beefing’ with other groups for reasons I don’t know. As soon as you get the kids in, you’ve got innocent kids that’s being killed as well. You’ve already seen the newspaper. There’s like, what, thirty-something homicides already this year?”
The end of 2011 marked a twenty-year high of thirty-four homicides in New Haven. Both city-led and grassroots initiatives have sprung up in response to this; the week I spoke to Whitaker there was a panel at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School called “Fighting Back” attended by two hundred people. Panelists included our own Allick, as well as Mayor John DeStefano, and Dixwell beat cop Shafiq Abdussabur. Abdussabur is a well-known youth advocate who runs a program educating young men about gun violence.
“I know Shafiq,” says Whitaker. “I wish more people came to his programs, but they’re teenagers, and you know how they get. It’s like, ‘POLICE!’” She raises her eyebrows and shakes her hands on either side of her head. “I would like to see the kids who really need a role model come to the program—you really need to reach these fifteen-, sixteen-, fourteen-year-old guys out here. Their trust is not going to come easily, even with Shafiq. Trust is earned. It’s not given.”
Whitaker says she doesn’t keep in close touch with old Elm Haven residents who moved away. She wishes more of those who stayed on at Monterey Place would be involved with the Residents’ Council. “People were very vocal during the transition process. But now they just sit back and say ‘OK, it’s done.’ But it’s not a done deal. People should still be concerned with the problems in the community, instead of only speaking up when there is a regulation that they have to fuss about.”
Although Whitaker would like residents to be more proactive about setting a positive tone for young people, she thinks the changes to the current management of Monterey Place have made progress as far as setting a behavioral standard. She would agree with Allick that change starts in the mind, and praises the landlord for its policies. “Some people, you can take them out of the ghetto, but they still have that ghetto mentality. I’m glad BCJ is strict,” she says. “I got tired of living in the Wild, Wild West.”
Robert Solomon, who served HANH for a total of fourteen years as director, board member, and chairman of the board, was also a ten-year director of clinical studies at Yale Law School. Since 1994, Yale has operated an Employee Homebuyer Program that will pay employees thirty thousand dollars toward buying a home in certain areas of the city that include all of New Haven’s “Empowerment Zones”—neighborhoods designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to receive special funding because of the “high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, minimal access to business capital, and poverty.” Before the end of 2011, employees received $35,000 if they bought a house in the Dixwell zone. Yale has directly funded a mixed-income housing project downtown called the Residences at Ninth Square.
In other words, when you’re talking about making over New Haven by determining who settles down where, you have to talk about Yale. The changes in the city over the last few decades would not have occurred without the influence of some minds from the university, whether they were crafting public policy or providing private support. On tours, I say that New Haven benefits from having Yale just as Yale benefits from being in New Haven—again, the kind of PR you say because you want it to be true, not because it is unconditionally so. Yale has had problematic effects on the city as well, and the truth is that the two are so intertwined, it is worthless to speculate about what one would be like without the other.
This narrative of the university benefiting the city has become stronger—at least in the press—over the past few decades. In a sort of town-gown university dream, a March 2011 Wall Street Journal article said that downtown New Haven was undergoing a “renaissance—reversing a flight to the suburbs and bringing people back to the city” due in part to Yale real estate investments in the city.
Allick is not so quick to heap praise on the University. He says Yale wants to take all of the current residents of Monterey Place and move them out to a just-remodeled, mixed-income development in West Rock. “Yale don’t want no violence next to their school, period. So if they could buy the property and move everybody out, they willing to do that,” he says with raised eyebrows. “Have you heard anything about that?”
I am appalled, but also skeptical. I haven’t heard. Where did he hear?
“There is a guy who lives out there in the Brookside”—one of the developments to get redone—“who used to come and tell us things. He would let us know what’s about to happen, but he don’t come no more. You should check if it’s true.”
Robert Solomon says there is no legal way Yale could do that. “There are protections on the subsidies for many of those homes, which means there is a period of time in which they can only go to low-income renters. In Monterey Place, some of the protections last thirty years, some longer. Somehow there is always a rumor that Yale would want something like that, but they have no way of mandating it.” I passed the information back to Allick, wondering whether the rumor reflected more widely-held stereotypes in the neighborhood about Yale’s intentions with public housing in the city. Gallman and Allick’s offer to be tour guides to me was part of the community outreach projects they have been doing since they’ve “stepped outside of the box.” The first time I met them, they had come to eat lunch with some Yale students to explain pressures in youth growing up in New Haven. Allick wishes there could be more informal hanging out between Yale students and kids at high risk from “the street—from the real New Haven.”
Since our tour, Allick has continued this kind of work. He hopes to have his criminal record cleared soon. Depending on how you frame things, Gallman has poorer timing or graver past sins—on a phone call, Allick told me he had been “locked up” for three years. Gallamn had been fighting a sales of narcotics charge since January, 2010.
At the end of the day, regardless of Yale’s institutional aspirations, many New Haven residents measure its relationship with the city through the Yalies they know. Whitaker could care less whether Yale wants graduate students to live in Monterey eventually. She remembers with fondness a program during the seventies through the nineties in which Yale students would come work with the kids and “show them the world outside of just this…It’s good to set them down and say, ‘you’re a man,’ you know, or ‘you’re a young lady.’ Fine. But teach me how to live in the world.”
On Saturday, March 31, two events had been carefully planned that aimed to bring Yale and New Haven communities together. The first was a march to protest racial profiling in the wake of the February shooting of unarmed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer. The second was a rap showcase featuring Yale and New Haven rappers cohosted by WYBC Yale Radio, the African-American Cultural Center at Yale, and a new Yale student organization called Middleman that aims to “improve conduits between the university and New Haven’s inner-city neighborhoods.” Middleman’s founder, Alan Sage, was the one who had first introduced me to Gallman and Allick.
At noon on the 31st, an email went out to the WYBC Yale Radio DJs announcing the cancellation of the evening event due to security concerns from the Yale Police. An email from YPD Assistant Chief Michael Patten to the Yale Daily News cited “tensions we’ve seen between various groups in the city and recent incidents occurring outside events.” The phrase “fear of gang activity” was used by the organizers as an explanation for its cancellation.
The march for Trayvon Martin took place at 4 p.m. with gusto. Over four hundred participants, roughly a quarter of them Yale students, gathered at the Q House and marched down Dixwell Street and through Yale’s campus on Elm Street, circling the New Haven Green and ending up on the steps of City Hall, where various community organizers gave speeches. I saw several faces at the march that I might have expected to see at the rap showcase that evening, but more importantly, there were so many faces at the march. It was conceived by the political action chair of the Black Students Alliance at Yale, who worked with various other activist groups from Yale and New Haven such as NAACP chapters and community organizers from the Dixwell area. Also present was Dixwell-area alderwoman Jeannette Morrison, who is working with a group of Yale students and New Haven residents to advocate and fundraise for the re-opening of the Q House. There was the rogue speaker during comments who made sure to remind Yale students present that their university was built on the back of slave labor, but several others commended so may Yale students for attending the event.
Gallman, Allick, and I finished up the fall tour of New Haven driving by the colony of tents on the New Haven Green. “What are they doing?” Gallman had asked. I spoke to him briefly about Occupy Wall Street and dissatisfaction with the wealth distribution in the country. “Ohhhh,” Gallman intoned. “Were they the ones that got sprayed by the police?”
“I think so, in New York.”
He and Allick most certainly fall in the 99 percent, but they seemed a little bemused by the campers’ manifesto. The Occupiers didn’t have much hustle.
The Tribe, too, has lost some of its hustle since it became Monterey Place. The Q House and “hood club” are vacant, and it’s now “responsibility time” instead of everyone having your back. Neither City Hall nor the Tribe wants to return to the dense projects of the past, but I got the sense that the old soul of Elm Haven could perhaps be harnessed to strengthen Monterey Place. The fight to reopen the Q house is an example of this possibility. Gallman and Allick’s tour might be just one version of the story, but by holding up the qualities they value in their community, they showed me the importance of considering the souls of New Haven neighborhoods instead of just their statistics.
Photography by Brianne Bowen, map from Wikimedia Commons