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I n summer 2012, right-wing politicians, Vietnam veterans and motorcycle club members gathered outside the Communist-friendly New Haven People’s Center. Using Red Scare-style rhetoric, protestor Len Suzio—then a Republican state senator—cast the NHPC as “hell-bent on destroying the American capitalist system.”

In the end, the protestors got their way. The target of their complaint, a $300,000 state bonding proposal intended to fund much-needed repairs of the center’s 165-year-old building, was ultimately refused. To the NHPC’s supporters, the decision seemed overtly political, and not in a good way.

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In addition to a long history of fighting for labor justice, the New Haven People Center’s been a hub of activism against racial segregation, homelessness, war and, more recently, immigrant wage theft and environmental abuses. The NHPC’s story begins in 1937, when the center’s narrow, three-story brick building was purchased by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. While much of the center’s original members were of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian descent, the center was quick to diversify.

It hosted the Unity Players, the first racially integrated drama organization in New Haven, and it spawned the New Haven Redwings, the city’s first black-white basketball team. During the ’40s, the People’s Center organized rallies against lynchings and segregation, and it catalyzed a successful campaign that secured bus-driving jobs for blacks within the city’s public bus system. At the time, all of its drivers were white.

In 1963, local coordination for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington coalesced at the NHPC and, as the ’60s became the ’70s, the center pushed for fairness during the infamous Black Panther Trials. For its central role in local civil rights struggles, the New Haven People’s Center was added to the Connecticut African American Freedom Trail, marked by a commemorative metal plaque hanging next to the entrance.

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Today the center houses an assortment of organizations and committees fighting for progressive causes. The Greater New Haven Peace Council has its office on the second floor of the building and is dedicated to environmentalism and pacifism, hosting anti-war films and speakers at the center. Also present is Unidad Latina en Acción, an organization that advocates for immigrant workers and aims to prevent wage theft and deportation. Free 2 Spit, a spoken word open mic that gives voice to contemporary black struggles, meets on the first floor the first Friday of each month. Chapters of two unions use the space for meetings. The NHPC also housed the Wednesday Bible study and Sunday services of the New Growth Praise Center for three years while the congregation was between permanent spaces.

Joelle Fishman is a proud member of the Communist Party, whose national organization sounds mighty different from the bogeyman we’re used to hearing about, expressing a commitment to “a better and peaceful world… where people and nature come before profits.” A pleasant woman in her 70s, Fishman works for a local version of People’s World magazine, published out of an office on the second floor of the NHPC, where the bookshelves are lined with writings by Marx, Lenin and other like-minded thinkers. Far from gunning for the downfall of America as we know it, as Len Suzio might have put it, she believes in workers’ rights and progressive causes.

Dolores Colón, a long-time NHPC volunteer and Ward 6 Alderwoman, doesn’t identify as a Communist, but she has been a longtime labor advocate and union organizer. “Anywhere I can see a union grow, I’m gonna help plant that seed,” she says. “Unions have a bad reputation in our economy nowadays. They’re always played off as [having a] vicious, unsustainable, voracious appetite for benefits and high salaries.” Particularly in cases where companies are outsourcing their workloads, Colón says, it’s actually management that’s gotten greedy, hoping to grow profits at the expense of people.

Today, the center itself is still in disrepair, though things are improving. What that $300,000 bonding request would have accomplished in one sweep, the center is now having to do in phases. First up were the parts of the building in the most critical condition—namely, badly decayed roof soffits and a brick wall that’d been busted by a tree. Next are historic (and rather drafty) windows to fix, an entryway to restore, a roof to repair and outer moldings to refinish.

Having taken care of a lot of New Haven’s people over the years, the New Haven People’s Center is getting some care in return.

New Haven People’s Center
37 Howe St, New Haven (map)
(203) 624-8664 | peoplescenter@pobox.com
www.peoplescenter.blogspot.com

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Image #1 depicts, from left, Henry Lowendorf, Joelle Fishman and Dolores Colón.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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