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Snapshots of a Plaza A feature by Andrew Sandweiss

A strip mall on Dixwell Avenue plays host to an unorthodox series of tenants and a fierce spirit of community

Set back from Dixwell Avenue, behind a narrow parking lot, and peeking out from a crowded and uneven brick row of businesses, a thin steel sign beckons. The sign reads “Dixwell Corridor Community Partners.” From across the street, you can see the space in its entirety. At a distance, it appears as one unified, red-brick building with an awning spanning the main block. At either end, two tan blocks mark the borders. You cannot perceive the diversity within from afar. It seems a strip mall just like any other.

But, upon closer inspection, the main block emerges as a series of buildings, each of varying height. Each section is distinct in character. The awning moves from light blue to white. The facades transform from pink metal to red brick and from red brick to glass. Some have a second story, some do not. Some of the businesses stand close together, some far apart. And some mask larger operations. The main block goes far back, up to 70 feet. It also delves underground.

Down a staircase wedged between two brick walls, there is a door and, just through it, a subterranean lobby, complete with potted plants and armchairs. A labyrinth of hallways radiates from the space. This is the hidden network behind that cohesive facade. A solitary picture of Muhammad Ali hangs above a couch.

The nave of the Greater New Haven Business and Professional Association lies in a conference room at the end of a hallway. In many ways, this spot is also the nave of Dixwell Plaza.

“[The association] was formed to provide assistance and to advocate for and on behalf of small black and minority businesses,” explained Ray Harp, executive director of the association — and brother-in-law to Mayor Toni Harp by way of his late brother, Wendell Harp, an architect. The group was founded in 1965, when a group of black professionals in the New Haven region felt that the area was not doing enough to assist and promote minority business owners and professionals. According to Harp, the organization has always operated from Dixwell Plaza: first at the corner of Dixwell Avenue and Charles Street and then at its current location at the heart of the strip.

Centering operations in Dixwell was, in many ways, an obvious choice: “Dixwell is and always was the heart of the black economic community in New Haven,” Harp said.

Ray Harp, executive director of the Greater New Haven Business and Professional Association

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.

JAZZ AGE

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.

Beyond the business and professional association, Comfort, who lives in the Dixwell neighborhood, enjoys being close to work. But above all, he appreciates Dixwell Plaza for a phrase that he coined: “A Freddie every day.” The Freddie Fixer Parade is a “Clean-up Campaign started in the Dixwell-Newhallville community, first started under the guidance of the late Fred Smith, a well-known and respected physician and pediatrician in the Dixwell area,” according to the organization Walk New Haven. The idea was to encourage residents in the Dixwell community to have a sense of pride in their space and to help clean it up as well. The annual parade is “the largest African-American parade in New England.” By 1972, the parade was already drawing 20,000 spectators. This year will be the first time Comfort participates not as a vendor but as a business owner.

“It’s important for me to let people know that they can own their own art, they can be their own ambassadors of their own neighborhoods.

There is another “anchor” to Dixwell Plaza: the Stetson Branch of the New Haven Public Library, which has been in the plaza for almost as long as the plaza has existed. The space is warm and inviting, exterior included. The addition of a covered porch and large mural makes it stand out among the other storefronts. On the inside, soft lighting, wooden chairs, tables and the mainstay of any library, books, offer a comforting image. People read or use the computers in the back.

The library sponsors several events for people of all ages: free tutoring, a family literacy day, African dance classes, computer help, chess, Wii U gaming, crochet courses — the list goes on. It has been this way for a long time.

“I used to come here 30-plus years ago,” Horan remembered. “I was under 10, coming here, getting books, reading books. The library is the anchor of this plaza. It keeps the youth drawn in, especially after the Q House closed.”

When the new Q House opens, however, the library will move to a new home inside.

THE “G” WORD

But Dixwell Plaza isn’t perfect. The two arcades on either end have fallen into disrepair. The parking lot situated behind Dixwell Plaza is of particular concern. “If you’re standing on Dixwell Avenue and you look toward the building, you see the building, but you don’t see the parking lot. And that parking lot, in my opinion, is not safe,” Clark explained. Although the city has put in plans to redevelop the site and entertained other proposals for redevelopment, getting everyone to agree to any plan is difficult. “You’re dealing with 11 buildings and nine owners. Each of them has their own ulterior motive for what they want. And neither the city nor the mayor has wanted to have an article come out that they’re forcing people out of business.”

The southern side of Dixwell Plaza is marked by the abandoned C-Town supermarket. “Anytime you have a vacant space that big, it’s a problem,” explained Harp. “People drive by and it’s empty, vacant.” But losing C-Town was not as damaging as one might expect. “We ain’t never had nothing around here like that anyways,” explained Santiago. The overarching problem was not C-Town’s departure but the near-continuous lack of grocery stores in Dixwell. Whalley Avenue offers the closest grocery store, but trudging there through snow and rain can be tough.

But, if there is one problem that has the community truly concerned, it is an external force, a “force of nature,” as described by Harp.

Gentrification.

“We’ve been watching it,” said Comfort. “You can see it coming. It’s almost like it’s coming to get you.”

Talk of gentrification inevitably means talk of Yale. Ever-encroaching development has begun to make its way up Dixwell. “Yale is already moving down. You’ve got the UPS right down the street. They’re right there,” Horan said. A recent parking lot for The Shops at Yale, a housing renovation right next to it and the opening of Tropical Smoothie Cafe near Payne Whitney Gym are all part of the phenomenon.

Horan believes that “the more money getting into the community, the better the community is, [but] it’s about pushing people out that’s the problem — the displacement of the people from the community.” Development and business “shouldn’t be at the expense of your rent being $500 higher.”

Santiago agreed. “With the housing cost rising, it makes a lot of things difficult for low-income [residents].” He described the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory, whose recent rehabilitation into loft apartments has been “weeding out these low-income families that can’t afford these types of rent.” Santiago doesn’t want to see anything like that descending on the Dixwell Plaza or the Dixwell neighborhood.

Jerome James, a Dixwell resident, worries too. “They’re going to push us out. Everybody is grabbing more. And we’re grabbing less and less. Everyone is on top of me. … I’m tired of being on the damn bottom.” His cousin, Tyronda James, a businesswoman in the Dixwell neighborhood, wants this to change: “Yale students are unaware of Yale politics.” Yale needs to play a role in curbing gentrification in its hinterland, and it needs to be a holistic effort, she said.

“Everybody in this community has been around this community for years,” Santiago said. “There are people living in this community that I’ve known my whole life, that knew me before I was born, who knew me when I was in my mother’s stomach. … It’s a nice spot to live. It came a long way.” It’s something he doesn’t want to lose.

Credits:

Schirin Rangnick

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