Setting up shop in Dixwell Plaza, however, was another story entirely.
Marquis Santiago, a lifetime resident of the Dixwell neighborhood, demonstrated the importance of both the structure and its location. “It’s the only plaza on Dixwell Avenue. This reaches out to all the communities. You got community here, you got another one down the street, back there you got a community,” he said, pointing to each in turn. “This is a home base for everybody to come to. People come here, for these stores, for Greater New Haven … from all different towns.”
The Greater New Haven Business and Professional Association plays a key role in Dixwell community-building, but the plaza’s reputation depends on its other tenants as well. As academics and urban planners strive to strike the perfect balance of “mixed-use” spaces in burgeoning cities, Dixwell Plaza has transcended into a sort of “omni-use.” There are, in order, a health center, a church, a pharmacy, a restaurant, a library, a photography studio, a beauty parlor and a dojo, among others. Business and service know no boundaries here. Community organizations and storefronts sit side by side to provide a common area for the Dixwell neighborhood.
Dixwell Avenue, and thus the Dixwell neighborhood, was originally named for John Dixwell, one of the three judges who fled to the Elm City to escape persecution in England after condemning King Charles I to death. Two of his fellow judges, William Goffe and Edward Whalley, give their names to the other roads that spin out from Broadway. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the land around the avenue had developed into a dense region. The neighborhood began to form as one of the largest and most culturally important black neighborhoods in the city. By 1930, blacks accounted for 50 percent of the neighborhood’s population, growing to 75 percent just 30 years later. The factories of New Haven were a major draw for black migration from the South.
In 1888, the site of Dixwell Plaza was sparse, host only to a smattering of single family homes. By 1924, however, the area had become denser and more mixed-use: Three cleaning and dyeing businesses, two bakeshops, two garages, an auto parts store, a plumber, a movie theater and a drug store, located not far from the current pharmacy. The other side of Dixwell hosted several more shops, a few lunch rooms and a confectionary store.
The jazz scene was a predominant part of the neighborhood’s culture. George Clark, president of the Dixwell Plaza Merchants Organization, remembers the jazz clubs: “Plenty off and on, one of the most popular ones was the Monterey, … and that was a wonderful club, run by a gentleman named Rufus Greenlee. He had been a New York dancer, decided to open this building [and] ran it for at least 20 years. Some of his family is still around.”
The club hosted greats like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald and was a place for music lovers, black and white, to come together. A new documentary, “Unsung Heroes,” chronicles the jazz scene. But the clubs began to disappear as unemployment climbed steadily, urban renewal projects devastated well-established communities, and television took over entertainment. Now, only faint hints remain apparent only to those looking for them: The housing development across the street still bears the name “Monterey Place,” after Greenlee’s club.
In 1967, the site was targeted by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency, responsible for other destructive urban renewal projects throughout the Elm City. They removed the original buildings and built Dixwell Plaza. There are no records of the architects. The current home of the Christ Chapel New Testament Church at the north end was built for a supermarket but assumed its current use in 1979. The library opened with the plaza and was designed by Orr, deCossy, Winder and Associates. In Elizabeth Mills Brown’s “New Haven, a Guide to Architecture and Urban Design,” the transformation was recorded rather jarringly: “This has been a program to rebuild a neighborhood completely, wiping out the memory of the past … and creating a brave new world — new streets, new centers of public life, new symbols of community. The Plaza is the hub of the new community, pulling together shopping, institutional and cultural functions.” Dixwell Plaza’s omni-use would be present at its inception.
Built at the same time as Dixwell Plaza was the space’s long-lasting but ultimately ill-fated complement: the Q House. The brutalist-style community center, designed by New Haven’s first African-American architect, Edmund Cherry, offered community programs and activities that worked in conjunction with many of the tenants at Dixwell Plaza. “We had the Q House … for the kids, for the community,” Dixwell resident Santiago lamented. “That’s what brought all the community together.” Unfortunately, the Q House closed in 2003 after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The building sat abandoned for more than a decade until it was torn down in 2017. Thankfully, the building was demolished to make way for a new Q House. But nothing has materialized yet, and the empty lot boasts only a sign and fenced pasture. Optimistically, the Q House is set to open later this year. Since the closure of the Q House, the role of Dixwell’s community center has fallen on Dixwell Plaza. Its omni-use core allowed it to maintain operational off of the private businesses it hosted, in conjunction with public services. The library, according to Santiago, is “all they have” for the neighborhood’s children.
Dixwell Plaza, unlike most modern strip malls, does not have a single owner, although the general uniformity of the plaza’s architecture indicates otherwise. The plaza actually comprises 11 separate buildings with nine owners, according to George Clark, a consultant for the Greater New Haven Business and Professional Association and the president of the Dixwell Plaza Merchants Association, which was formed in 2006. The condo association was a joint effort by various merchants and Yale Law School students, who created a legal structure for the organization. The tenants of the various buildings make contributions to the operation of the association, which then provides services such as snow removal and parking lot lighting. Additional clauses in the organization’s founding document prohibited the sale of alcohol and the presence of adult bookstores, pool halls, pawn shops and 24-hour convenience stores. A C-Town grocery store opened in Dixwell Plaza in 2007, underscoring the resurgence in the plaza’s economic development. The grocery store, however, closed within two years.
THE CONTEMPORARY PLAZA
Each tenant has their reason for being in Dixwell Plaza. Mo Soliman, the new owner of New Downtown Pizza & Fried Chicken and a 30-year veteran of the industry, wants to be “close to Downtown, so it’s easy to do business with Yale and Southern Connecticut.” After learning the trade at Wooster Square’s historic pizzerias, he bought the original Downtown Pizza & Fried Chicken four months ago. He has hired a delivery man, a kitchen staffer and his son. But, when it comes to the preparation of the food itself, “I make the pizza.” At the opposite end of the plaza sits another traditional tenant: the Community Health Pharmacy. Also a newcomer, it employs two pharmacists, three technicians and a delivery man. The pharmacy moved to the Dixwell Plaza “because of the community” and plans to stay in the spot for the foreseeable future.
Pizza stores and pharmacies are not really out of the ordinary for an urban mall, but, at the center of the plaza, one of the few buildings with a second floor houses a much rarer find: the Dynamic University Shadow Dojo. Jahad Shabazz, a sensei and professor with over 50 years of experience, runs the place. Shabazz got his inspiration from a group of engaged community members.
“The professor saw what we were doing, he liked how we were out in the community, thought we could team together [and] came back from retirement,” Yansee “Born” Horan said. “He had the building, we had the manpower, so we came together to see what we could do to change the atmosphere of the community.”
Horan believes it is essential for black children to gain a sense of self-confidence and self-esteem and that instilling these values can solve a lot of the Dixwell community’s struggles with poverty and unemployment.
“We got to remind them that they’re a little better than they think they are.”
The “black dojo” was a concept created in the ’60s, when great black martial artists like Moses Powell came to fame. Many of the techniques taught in these dojos were transferred to the teaching that martial artists gave to local police forces. Horan explained that Shabazz has participated in training police officers here in New Haven. “[If] you know how to control a person physically, you ain’t got to shoot them. You won’t have a shoot-first mentality. [It] removes the barrier between the police and the community.”
The dojo itself is a series of small rooms with low ceilings and ambient lighting, all surrounding the large, brightly lit central space, where the professor trains his students. Sitting in the small lobby, one can feel the rhythmic vibrations that come from the synchronized kicks and stomps. A horizontally stretched window provides a viewing frame. Music is always on.
“A lot of times the Eastern dojos are super quiet,” Horan explained. “We don’t really do super quiet, because we got rhythm. … If you’re in a real situation, there might be any type of noise going on, and you’ve got to focus.”
The walls are adorned with pictures of famous black leaders.
“The real skill is the skill of imagination. We want to give them dreams, inspiration. That’s why we put up great black people on the wall. We got Malcolm [X], Marcus Garvey, Freddie Hampton.”
Horan and his group strive to make the program affordable, charging $35 a month, but he still has problems finding students.
“Here, the parents think martial arts is to attack somebody. They don’t want to put their child through a program where they could learn to be a threat to somebody else or seem like a threat to anybody. But here you know how to control yourself, how to make decisions. You think first. … Intelligence is the new gangster.”
These are the teachings Horan and Shabazz try to impart to their 16 students, all kids of varying ages. As for Dixwell Plaza, Horan strongly believes in “this sense of black entrepreneurship. That’s what’s really needed on Dixwell Avenue. That’s what’s going to bring back jobs and revenue to the community. Then you can look forward to passing the businesses onto the youth.”
A prime example is located just below the dojo: B*Wak Productions. Founded by Edmond “B*Wak” Comfort 10 years ago in his bedroom at the now-shuttered Church Street South housing complex, his photography, graphic design, signage and air brush business has grown. B*Wak Productions moved into one of the medium-sized storefronts of Dixwell Plaza last summer. Comfort has two reasons for choosing Dixwell Plaza. The first is unsurprising: the Greater New Haven Business and Professional Association.
“When I first started my business, I sought them out to solidify it, and they gave me pointers, a direction to go in, in order to solidify it.” Comfort is incredibly grateful to the association and has watched the organization continue to support black- and minority-owned businesses over the past 10 years.
“We’re sort of an incubator, before incubators got sexy,” said Harp. Seven businesses, all connected by the labyrinth of hallways, make up the central core of Dixwell Plaza. One of them, New Haven Firestop, is run by Robert Carter. Carter has been designing fire-proof structures for seven years. Carter owes much to Gerald Clark, one of the organization’s founders.
“When I first came here, I didn’t have a business. I came to Mr. Clark, one of the founders. I told him that I wanted to be here but I didn’t have money, and he gave me office space. He said, ‘I’ll let you set up your office here,’ because, when I need to put my paperwork in, I need to have an address, and I didn’t want to do it from home. He told me, ‘You can stay here rent-free until you get a little business.’ So my first total year, they didn’t charge me a thing.”
It should be no surprise then that B*Wak’s production shop has two entrances: one on the Dixwell Plaza main strip and another in the maze of hallways that connects all of the association’s controlled properties. Comfort isn’t the first in his family to operate a business at the site of Dixwell Plaza. His grandfather, according to Clark, operated the Harlem Barbershop in one of the buildings that Dixwell Plaza replaced.