Green Light

“I believe in learning by doing,” Doreen Abubakar says. The self-described urban environmentalist is standing on a city lot in Newhallville, work gloves in hand, where the doing is bearing fruit—or, at least, blossoms—on a legion of plants stored in several deep garden boxes. Last season, a half-dozen high school students from Newhallville and the Hill grew 350 native pollinators here: chokeberry, dogwoods, sneezeweed, bee balm, snowdrop shrubs. They earned enough money selling the plants to pay for a greenhouse, which Abubakar’s nonprofit, the Community Placemaking Engagement Network (CPEN), is about to erect in the next phase of its urban gardening plan. This year, students are also building and selling downspout planters.

But CPEN isn’t just about plants. It’s a place for neighborhood residents to “engage,” as the E in its name implies—whether in bird-watching, exercising, learning or simply sharing free pancakes on a Saturday morning.

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Located on and near a green triangle formed by Shelton Avenue, Hazel Street and the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, this spot now known as The Learning Corridor was once known as the “Mudhole,” an area notorious for drug trafficking and gun violence. Today, thanks to CPEN—with help from the city, the Urban Resources Initiative, Neighborhood Housing Services, the Menunkatuck Audubon Society and Pollinator Pathway Northeast—the triangle boasts picnic tables, two information kiosks, outdoor gym equipment, a bicycle pump and tools, a water fountain, a pollinator garden, “learning boxes” to teach neighborhood kids about Black history and an open space for hosting community gatherings and mobile social and medical services. Neighboring lots house the garden boxes, the future greenhouse site and two shipping containers that store supplies and bikes for neighborhood kids to borrow on guided tours. Where there’s bare earth and grass, Abubakar envisions an outdoor kitchen and cafe, a picnic pavilion, a horseshoe pit and an outdoor theater. She also hopes to install internet that would be accessible to surrounding apartments. Upkeep of the area’s extensive resources is handled in part by an employee from the neighborhood.

As she gives a tour of the space, Abubakar cites the population of Newhallville—“6,500 people in a one-mile radius”—and enumerates the challenges they face. “It’s all about placemaking, so understanding where you are and what’s really going to help this community,” she says. She’s in search of volunteers with technical and professional skills—photography, media relations, web design, architecture, landscaping, master gardening, tech support—but only if they’re willing to listen. “When you come to volunteer, you’re coming to help… That means that you’re not coming with your own agenda.”

A case in point is her friend Dennis Riordan, a retired teacher and member of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society in Guilford. “We’re very kindred, even though our backgrounds are different,” Abubakar says of Riordan, who was happy to give me a tour of The Learning Corridor’s plant and bird life. A recent bird walk sponsored by Menunkatuck drew 17 participants, five from Shoreline towns and 12 from the neighborhood, who learned how to use binoculars and then set off down the bike path. Within 100 feet, they’d spotted 10 species of birds and heard nine more—a prime example, as Abubakar sees it, of different people coming together over a shared interest. “Inner-city people” want to learn activities like birding, Abubakar says. “They just don’t have people bring it to them, to give them an experience, to give them an opportunity to explore.” A “Celebrating Black Birders” event will be held today at 6 p.m.

A New Haven native, Abubakar graduated from High School in the Community and learned through the city’s now-defunct Junior Achievement program how to “turn a dollar,” a skill she’s put to work in her career in entrepreneurship training and business services. She’s also founded several nonprofit ventures and given her time as a SCORE volunteer. Though she lives to the south, in the West River neighborhood, a soft spot for this community and a hard determination to succeed brings her back three days a week to oversee CPEN’s work in The Learning Corridor—what she calls “this little jewel that’s hiding in Newhallville.”

The Learning Corridor
On the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail at Shelton Ave, New Haven (map)
Staffed Tues 9am-noon, Thurs 9am-noon & 5-7:30pm, Sat 9am-noon
Walk and talk with doctors every Sat 9am
(203) 819-8398 | DoreenAbubakar@gmail.com
www.CPENInc.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Doreen Abubakar (fore) and Dennis Riordan.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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