Dynamic Duo

Dynamic Duo

Stand on the front lawn of Whitneyville’s white clapboard church, with Lake Whitney at your back and two blocks of stores, restaurants and offices in front, and you’d swear you were in a small New England downtown, not a neighborhood in a city of 60,000.

Some residents of Hamden’s Whitneyville want to keep it that way—so badly, in fact, that they bought that church and its neighboring brick house to save them from an uncertain fate and protect what they see as the centerpiece of their tight-knit neighborhood.

But there’s more to this story than the preservation of two historic buildings and two acres of land that once belonged to Eli Whitney. Just as Whitneyville residents Jen Brosious and Laine Harris were staking their retirement funds on that purchase with the hope of creating a new center for the community, Robert Sheiman was looking for a space in which to fulfill his own mission. “I think we have a breakdown in civic institutions in America,” he says. “I thought something similar to this was one possible way of dealing with that lack of civic institutions.”

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With an eclectic background as a trained chef, an end-of-life caretaker for elderly patients with psychiatric issues and a worker at a farm that calls itself “beyond organic,” Sheiman was driven to address “some of the pressing issues that are going on in society right now.” Accessible, self-sustaining communal space, he thought, was part of the solution. “How could we take that historic mission to be public space for a community, that grounds a community, and reinvent that for the 21st century?” he asks.

Whitneyville Cultural Commons is Brosious, Harris and Sheiman’s answer. With the help of a board of directors made up of other Whitneyville residents and stakeholders, they’ve created a campus that hosts meetings and workshops, cultural events, performances, church services and the daily work of several for-profit and nonprofit organizations. WCC was incorporated as a non-profit in October of 2015 and purchased the property from Harris and Brosious earlier this year.

Located just up Whitney Avenue from New Haven, WCC’s two buildings—now referred to by their addresses, 1247 and 1253—feel both historic and fresh, following a thorough but respectful renovation. 1253’s auditorium, with its crimson stage curtains and sparkling strings of overhead lights, is small enough to be inviting but big enough to host an audience of about 120 people. A whimsical balcony runs around three sides of the space, surrounded by twelve offices and meeting rooms of varying sizes. Downstairs, 1253 boasts a kitchen—not yet commercially certified for cooking but usable for food preparation and reheating—and a large, open meeting space that until recently was home to Checkmate Creations, a digital services startup. That group grew in its year and a half at WCC from a staff of three recent Quinnipiac graduates to a company of 20, justifying getting its own offices in New Haven. Coworking options like the one that got Checkmate started range from open, shared spaces to communal offices with private desks to fully private offices, with access to larger meeting rooms as needed.

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Outside, late afternoon sunlight sparkles off the lake, framed by orange and gold leaves. Furniture on a small patio that links WCC’s two buildings is about to be disassembled for the winter. Inside 1247, another lower-level meeting space with exposed stone walls and polished hardwood floors is ready for use.

Upstairs, stepping into the sanctuary of the old Congregational church is like stepping back a century. Floorboards creak. Shadows shift. A pipe organ in the balcony waits to be played again. This space has, no doubt, seen a lot in its 183 years. The fact that the church and its neighboring building are listed on the National Register of Historic Places helped WCC win a grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to create a five-year strategic plan.

But the church is not just a relic. Its congregation continues to meet here, despite having given up the building for purchase, along with two other churches of different denominations. WCC is also home to a theater company, several nonprofits, weekly Red Cross mobile blood drives, a lobster food truck, a recovery group and several “coworkers,” with space for more ventures.

A longtime Connecticut resident, Sheiman has a vision that extends beyond Whitneyville to other communities in need of the same kinds of resources and vision. He sees WCC as a “pilot project” that might help establish other centers that pay for themselves while offering support to the organizations that need the most help and do the most for their communities.

What’s next for Whitneyville Cultural Commons is anyone’s guess. Sheiman’s ears are wide open. “Is there some other unmet need?” he asks, waiting for an answer.

Whitneyville Cultural Commons
1247 & 1253 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm
(203) 780-8890

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image #1 depicts part of 1253’s auditorium. Image #2 depicts a coffee station at WCC.

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