This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.
Students led their teachers out of school, onto a city bus, and to a housing complex they call “Skittles,” as they got a start rewriting a local history book with on-the-street scenes from New Haven neighborhoods.
The 11 students from High School in the Community (HSC) took the trip Thursday as part of a “Discover New Haven” class. The class has been taking walking tours to explore the city and updating an outdated history text about New Haven’s neighborhoods. They started out close to home, downtown and in Wooster Square.
Teachers Jack Stacey and Matthew Presser rounded up students at lunchtime Thursday and set out for a first destination a bit farther away: the banks of the Quinnipiac River in Fair Haven.
As they stepped out the door, students got the chance to teach their teachers something: How to take the bus.
Presser told kids to go to Grand and Olive, where they could catch the D bus down Grand Avenue, the main artery that cuts through Fair Haven.
As Stacey led students outside around 12:15 p.m., students quickly corrected that advice. Why walk all the way to Grand? Christian Rivera asked. The D bus picks up right on Chapel Street.
“You guys gotta lead, because I don’t know where I’m going,” confessed Stacey.
He followed Christian and several bus-going classmates across Olive, down State Street, to Chapel Street.
“I take this bus all the time,” said Christian, who commutes from Newhallville to Wooster Square for school.
An HSC veteran who’s been teaching the Discover New Haven class for five years, Stacey lives in East Haven. He was one of 21 teachers who earned the right to stay at HSC this year to take part in a “turnaround” effort managed directly by the teachers union. The school has won $1.5 million for the first year to oversee an experiment in overhauling the school, which was earning failing grades in every major way high schools are measured—by standardized tests, attendance, and the dropout rate.
Stacey’s Discover New Haven class hearkens back to the roots of HSC in 1970 as a “school without walls,” where classes took place in the community instead of at a central site. He said when the trips require taking the city bus, he lets his students lead the way.
In the outdoor “classroom” of Chapel Street Thursday, Stacey conferred with his students on how they would pay the bus fare. He pulled out several 10-ride bus passes. The passes were discounted for kids 18 and under. Kids thought he shouldn’t use one for himself.
Then they decided Stacey, who’s 63, would pass for a senior citizen, qualifying for a lower, 65-cent fare. Stacey rifled through his wallet.
“What happens if I put three quarters in? Will I get in trouble?” Stacey asked.
The answer was no. As they prepared to board the bus, Stacey noted Presser was not there.
“Do you want me to go on a reconnaissance mission?” Ronald Godin asked.
It turned out Presser was waiting at the intersection he had directed kids to go to, at Olive and Grand. He didn’t have enough cash to get on the bus. Presser could probably pass for 18 and under, students decided. They planned to pick him up at the next stop.
Soon after, the D9 bus pulled up, and students jumped aboard. Christian took out his cell phone to capture sophomore Marisa Misbach’s first-ever ride on a city bus. As the bus passed Presser’s stop, Christian popped to the front of the bus with the passes and an extra dollar from Stacey to make sure Presser and an 11th student could board.
“Matt, is this your first time on the bus?” they gently teased. Presser said no.
Presser, who declined to give his age, is entering his third year teaching in New Haven and his fourth overall. He was one of 10 new teachers, many of them young, who joined HSC in September as the school replaced a third of its staff as part of the turnaround. Stacey said Presser has brought a jolt of energy and new ideas to the Discover New Haven class, which he conceded was getting “stale.”
When the bus stopped at Grand Avenue and Front Street, the next lesson began—this one led by Chatham Square neighborhood activist Lee Cruz.
Cruz ticked off historical tidbits about the neighborhood.
“George Washington”—yes that George Washington—“was the first one to pollute my neighborhood,” Cruz said. Washington’s troops used to camp on the banks of the Quinnipiac River, he explained. They had muskets with led bullets with them. When it rained, the rain soaked through their bullets, depositing lead 8 to 9 feet deep into the soil.
The neighborhood wasn’t always called Fair Haven, Cruz added. When Englishmen came up the river in 1636, they named the area “Dragon” after a mysterious animal they spotted from far away.
What was that animal?
“A seal,” answered Christian.
He was right. Before taking the trip, students researched the area by listening to audio clips on the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association website.
Neighbors later renamed the area “Fayre Haven” in 1824 as they were trying to boost commerce in the area, Cruz added.
Then he led a nearly two-hour walking tour recounting the area’s more recent history.
He stopped at the headquarters of Fereshteh Bekhrad, an Iranian-born architect and developer remaking the banks of the Q. He pointed across the river to where Bekhrad revamped the Dragon Point condos that were abandoned amid the 1980s crack epidemic. The new condos, which sell for a half-million dollars, are gentrifying the area, he said.
“Gentrification”—literally, bringing in the “gentry” to a neighborhood—“is not necessarily a bad thing,” Cruz opined. The neighborhood organizers are OK with the development “as long as people that want to live here are not kicking out other people” and as long as the newcomers respect the area’s diversity, Cruz said.
Cruz led the group past the historic oystering homes on Front Street to the newly revamped Lewis Street Park.
The park used to be a den of drugs, prostitution, and dog poop, Cruz said. He recounted how neighbors got together to transform the park. They raised money for new playground equipment and tore down part of the fence.
They painted a new mural depicting the neighborhood’s historic roots. The park became a safe space for neighbors, as well as the site of free, outdoor movies, Cruz said.
“The drug people no longer come to this park,” Cruz announced.
Cruz told students the progress had its setbacks: For example, one of the new improvements became known as the “sex slide.” The prostitution left the park, he said, but teenagers were using it for illicit after-dark encounters. The problem subsided, Cruz said.
Neighbors feel a sense of ownership over the space, he contended: In four years, no one has marred the new mural with graffiti.
Christian walked away from the park impressed.
“I didn’t know they were so united—like the way they planned all that stuff,” Christian said. “I thought the state did that.”
Christian knew the next stop on the tour. He called it “The Skittles.”
That’s the new nickname for the rainbow-colored Quinnipiac Terrace housing complex on the waterfront, he explained.
“This is probably where the fancy people live,” said a student from West Haven as the group approached the complex. He lived in Fair Haven for 10 years, he said, but “I didn’t know the history.”
Cruz revealed that no—these nicely painted houses are “the projects.” The crumbling brick bunkers that stood there were transformed into new homes through a government grant.
The new QT families have been working with their neighbors to build a butterfly garden along the waterfront, revamp Dover Beach Park, and even plant a new vegetable garden behind the Clinton Avenue School, Cruz said. One of the movers and shakers was a girl in the 4th grade, he told them.
The tour continued across the field behind Clinton Avenue, where people from India, Pakistan, Jamaica and Trinidad play a weekly cricket game to Chatham Square Park, where neighbors organize an annual festival and Halloween party to a New Haven Reads book stand, where you can take a free book and leave one that you don’t want.
“It was inspiring,” Alexus Martin, a sophomore who’s new to HSC, said of the tour. “It made me want to do things to help my neighborhood.”
Alexus said she might start with the parks near her home on Howard Avenue in the Hill.
The stories students heard Thursday will fuel a year-long project to revise an outdated history book called “Inside New Haven’s Neighborhoods: a Guide to the City of New Haven,” explained teacher Stacey. The book, written in 1982 and commissioned by City Hall, describes points of interest across the city, many of which are now gone. For example, Basil’s Greek restaurant on State Street is now a Subway sandwich shop. And the storied Annie’s Firehouse Kitchen, a pioneer in the State Street corridor, has closed after paving the way for other bars and restaurants.
Stacey said he spent an entire summer making weekly visits to the New Haven Museum to put together the class. Now, with Presser’s help, he’s taking it into the modern age.
Students in the class will gather audio, photos and video and weave their experiences into an online map of the city, which will be available to the public, Presser said. Read about visits to Downtown, Long Wharf and Wooster Square by clicking on the map here.
Presser said students often get an overview of U.S. and world history at school, but they rarely get the chance to “understand the rich history of their own community.” Over the course of the year-long class, students will “read accounts, examine artifacts, and meet with long-time residents and historians to understand New Haven’s place in history and pose questions as to its future,” Presser wrote in a course description. He pledged they would “gain practice as not just historians, but as sociologists, beat reporters, and ethnographers en route to discovering what ‘community’ means and has meant in New Haven and how and why the city has evolved the way it has.”
As they debriefed on the bus ride home, students said they liked the interactive approach to history—“except the walking.”
“I thought this would be boring, but this was really nice,” Alexus said.
“I’m going to move to The Skittles,” said Christian, who just moved to Newhallville a month ago. He said he enjoyed touring Fair Haven: “We got to see the past, their present and our present.”
He said he also learned, through the class, that his new neighborhood has a longer name than just “The ‘Ville.”
When the time came to disembark, Presser prepared to get off at the corner of Grand and Olive. Students protested—the stop at State and Chapel is way closer to school, they correctly insisted.
“Darn you and your expert bus knowledge!” Presser replied with a smile, deferring to their advice.
The Discover New Haven class is looking for tour guides for other neighborhoods, streets, and landmarks. Email teacher Matt Presser here to volunteer.
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community: