Bonfire of the Vanities

Posted on 01. Nov, 2002 by in Uncategorized

Devil?s Night earned its name in Fair Haven this year. Near midnight on
October 30, an empty barn on Wolcott Street went up in flames. A few
blocks away, an abandoned home on James Street met the same fate.
Across the neighborhood at a house on Lombard Street, a car slammed
into the garage door, reversed, and sped away. The car too was later
found consumed by flames. When the sun rose on Halloween, both
buildings and the car had burned to rubble; no trace of the fires?
origins could be found in the smoking remains.
The destruction was a bitter irony for Fair Haven, where a recent
economic upswing has ushered in a spate of development ventures that
have begun to rejuvenate an area once regarded as New Haven?s immigrant
slum. The fires themselves are likely the result of long-standing
conflict over what course this development should take and, more
importantly, who gets to control it. During the last several years, the
neighborhood?s predominantly Latino residents have pushed back the drug
dealers and gang members who used to rule the streets. Family-owned
businesses and freshly renovated houses have cropped up on almost every
block. On Grand Avenue, El Charro imports the makings for its
traditional tacos all the way from Mexico. A fresh fruit stand crops up
every morning in front of the Dollar King. Local business owners,
residents, and politicians are laying out enthusiastic plans for its
revival. But while their goal is the same, their visions for how best
to achieve it often clash.

The Devil?s Night fires may be just the latest battle in the ongoing
war for control of Fair Haven?s future. It is no coincidence that the
targets of the attacks were two of Fair Haven?s veteran representatives
on New Haven?s Board of Aldermen, Raul Avila and Kevin Diaz. The
torched barn belonged to Avila, whose house stands in front of it; the
vandalized garage was Diaz?s. And just to make clear that the political
connection between the events was no coincidence, the still anonymous
vandals apparently targeted the James Street house because it was owned
by the Fair Haven Development Corporation (fhdc), a nonprofit housing
agency with close ties to the aldermen, who both sit on its governing
board.

The history behind the fires is long and bitter and has split Fair
Haven into two camps, one allied with Avila and Diaz and the other
closely tied to the powerful administration of Mayor John DeStefano.
Avila and Diaz have long used their positions to exercise control over
the neighborhood?s development. Carping that neighborhood improvement
should always originate within the community, they demand that any
outside group that wants to work in Fair Haven defer to their authority
and operate through the network of businesses and nonprofit development
agencies that they control. But lately, DeStefano and his allies have
charged that Avila and Diaz have gone too far in their backroom
manipulation and strong-arm politics. Last summer, DeStefano backed
rival Democrat Johnny Martinez against Avila for state representative?a
slap in the face for a veteran Democrat like Avila. When Martinez died
in a car crash in October, DeStefano switched his support to another of
Avila?s rivals, Juan Candelaria, to make sure that Avila did not get
the job. Candelaria, with the critical backing of the Mayor?s office,
easily prevailed.

The mayor?s office claimed the mantle of good governance and clean
politics against Avila. With plenty of community discontent to marshal
to its purposes, City Hall made a convincing case. But the hands of the
city administration and its allies stopped looking so clean in late
October, when two well-known supporters of the mayor were arrested for
absentee ballot fraud in the elections for Democratic ward
chairmanships last March. That race pitted Menen Osorio-Fuentes, a
staunch Avila-Diaz backer and president of the board of the fhdc,
against the sister of Angelo Reyes, a staunch DeStefano supporter and
one of the men later arrested for tampering with the ballots. Reyes?s
green pick-up truck, which is often blazed with DeStefano For Mayor
signs in campaign seasons, is a common sight on the streets of Fair
Haven, where he is a successful private developer and energetic
community activist. He has made no secret of his opposition to Diaz and
Avila?s politics or to the fhdc.

Just hours after Reyes and Yale senior Michael Monta

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