T here’s a shining, silver chess set sitting out in the sun, on a folding card table. Sure, it’s out there for the kids, but a couple of grown men sit down for a nice afternoon game, and they’re welcome to it. The kids—and young adults, and students, and grandparents—they’re all otherwise occupied. There’s plenty to do on this once-vacant lot: Sidewalk chalk abounds. Microphones and guitars and drum sets are lined up under the shade of generous tents. There are paints and crayons and pens and plenty of other instruments of color. There’s a mobile, compact, digital arts studio.
This is the Winchester Revitalization Art Project. WRAP for short. “Basically, we’re an initiative of the city to help revitalize the Winchester corridor in Newhallville using art and cultural activity—with a modest budget,” says Gerald Moore. He’s project coordinator for WRAP, a sculptor by trade, and fully committed to this neighborhood. “The city’s intent was to activate the lot so it wouldn’t deteriorate. To their credit, they saw art as a way to do that.”
The lot at 535 Winchester Avenue, just down the street from Science Park in the Newhallville neighborhood, has been empty for years. The city hasn’t found an interested developer, try as it might. In the meantime, they’ve turned to art and culture to “re-activate” the lot, attracting a human presence, a musical presence, an artistic presence in a space once empty and abandoned. And it’s worked. “You see, there’s no vandalism, garbage, no deterioration,” Moore says, his arm sweeping across the lot, now energetic and buzzing with noise and activity. “The community has responded really positively. They’ve come out to support this, and each other.” With help from various city departments (including a budget of $75,000 over three years), the advent of WRAP has seen that lot cleaned up and emptied of trash and brush. Now, three times a week, it attracts about fifty people—student groups, teachers, neighborhood kids and parents—visiting each other with art as the connector.
“The point is to take art directly to the streets, to engage the community in cultural activity of every stripe: music, painting, theater, spoken word, sculpture, drawing, 3-D design, voice, poetry,” Moore says. “Whatever the community is open to—we just want to bring the arts more directly to this neighborhood as often as possible.”
Kelly Murphy, the city’s economic development director, is hanging out at the lot with Moore this hot afternoon. Standing with her, taking it all in, is the city’s new arts and culture czar, Vivian Nabeta. “There’s been a lot of private development in Science Park after years of false starts,” Murphy says, referring to the sprawling office and technology park just down the street. “We’ve had over $150 million invested in the area in the past few years, but that energy and development just wasn’t connecting to the rest of the neighborhood.” In response, New Haven’s Livable Cities Initiative cleaned up and maintains the vacant lot, and the Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism was tapped to energize the space and make art accessible. “They’ve been given an incredibly modest budget and turned it into this great community-building exercise,” she says.
In the expansive, grassy stretch of land behind them, there’s a live band playing jazz and funk, riffing, messing around, getting serious. Teens and adults hop in and out of the drummers seat and from behind microphones, forming an ever-shifting, continuously jamming organism. Some are seriously good. “A lot of them are just young people from the neighborhood,” Moore says. “They hear the music, and they come over to see what’s happening.” WRAP calls these afternoon block parties “Arts on the Avenue,” with plans to keep them going through the summer months. Once it gets colder, WRAP will move indoors to churches, schools, restaurants and Science Park itself for after-school programs, coffee houses and open-mic nights.
“I believe art has value,” says Moore. “I think art motivates from within. An individual starts seeing themselves and their world in a different way. Then from that point, you can start having conversations about education and economic development and the other nuts and bolts of building community.” Listening to neighborhood concerns, responding to what young people need and want to see on the lot—that’s what’s important, Moore insists. “Unless you give them a voice, a way to express what they’re really feeling and the way they see the world, which art does, then it’s not a real conversation. Then community-building is really hard,” he says.
Anthony Johnson and a friend have wandered over to the lot at 535 Winchester Avenue from where they live, just around the corner. “It’s a positive thing they’re doing for the community,” he says, nodding. “If this wasn’t going on—well, this is a good distraction. Kids see this, hear the music, they want to partake. Without this, they’d be out on the corners. The only other thing they’ve got is the streets. They need this right here.”
The young people in question seem pretty supportive of the whole thing as well. Josh Williams, 16, is practicing a play on the lot with his theater group, called Speak Life. They’ll perform it later this week, same time, same lot. “When we do our play, there’ll be a lot more people out here watching us instead of standing on the corner, getting into trouble.”
His troupe-mate, 19-year-old Angelique Quinones, nods. “It keeps kids like us from getting involved in stuff we shouldn’t. And then, when they find they love arts and love what they do, they just want to keep doing it.”
Winchester Revitalization Arts Project | Arts on the Avenue
535 Winchester Avenue, New Haven (map)
2-6pm Mon, Wed and Fri through August 24
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.