Imagining Atwater Street

Posted on 10. Dec, 2011 by in Features

Adam King

Adam King, founder of the Atwater Resource Cooperative, at his home in Fair Haven.

When Adam King ’88 looks at Atwater Street, he sees wealth. He sees it in the overgrown backyards that could become gardens, in the rundown houses whose extra rooms could become common spaces, and in the out-of-work residents whose skills could transform the neighborhood.

Atwater is in Fair Haven, one of the poorest areas of New Haven, Connecticut. King was originally attracted to this neighborhood, which lies to the east of the city center, across the Mill River from more affluent areas, because it is inexpensive, and he purchased two houses here in foreclosure sales last spring. As he describes it, he drove by a for-sale sign on the street and made a spur-of-the-moment decision. “I just said on a whim, ‘I’m going to do this!’ he said. “ ‘I’m going to start the process, start moving my life toward where I want it to head.’ ”

Since then, things have happened quickly, King said. King, 45, and his roommates Adam Wascholl and Bill Richo, both in their late twenties, moved into one of the houses and encouraged a few friends to invest in neighboring properties. Recently, acquaintances have also taken both of the unoccupied apartments in King’s second house. All the members of the group met through a shared interest in alternative, sustainable lifestyles. They currently own four houses on the street and are looking to expand. King, Wascholl, and Richo have dubbed the venture the Atwater Resource Cooperative, or ARC, and they have a long list of plans for improving their own lives and those of the people around them.

The first time I visited their house, Wascholl showed me the backyard, every inch of which is crammed with ambitious projects. There’s a chicken coop full of sleek hens, a pile of materials for construction on King’s second house, a cluster of bright blue barrels for collecting rain water to treat and use, a compost heap, some solar panels, and a stack of bins for building raised garden plots—most of the soil in this neighborhood is contaminated by lead and unsuitable for growing food. ARC’s members hope to someday raise much of their own food in their backyards and live as locally as possible.

When he isn’t studying alternative lifestyles, King, who graduated from Yale and has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, is a professor of computer science at Fairfield University. He told me his work incorporates cognitive science and metaphysics. His enthusiasm for systems and ideas exerted such a magnetic pull on his answers to my questions that even the simplest clarification launched him into a realm of abstraction. He has a tall, wiry frame and curly brown hair, and an energy that always seems just barely contained. He reminded me of the rabbi at my family’s synagogue, who always brought social issues into his sermons and could get so lost in passionate exhortation that he spoke for twice his allotted time, never noticing the children sneaking out of their seats to start eating the lunch laid out in the rec hall.

King is at his most fervent when he talks about money, which he believes is at the root of all the world’s problems. He told me modern currency is “everything and nothing”: everything because people spend their whole lives trying to obtain it, and because it’s the glue that binds together enormous global systems, and nothing because it’s not what we actually want—not food, shelter, education, or leisure.

Driven by this belief, King has been researching alternative currency for the last six years. He and Wascholl run SHARE Haven, a timeshare bank whose members accrue “SHARE hours” when they help each other with home improvement, yard clean-up, and other projects. They spend their hours by calling on other bank participants to work for them when they need a hand around the house. On Atwater Street, as at the timeshare bank, the plan is to make less money and spend less money, to move as far as possible outside a system that King says has everyone working more hours to have more money to buy more things. To this end, Wascholl has already left his job as an accountant to focus on SHARE Haven and ARC, and Richo works only part-time as a librarian at Yale University.

When I first met King, I was skeptical of his sweeping claims about money, but I admired his conviction and his decision to test his vision in a neighborhood plagued by unemployment and crime. At Yale, students are told over and over that their youthful, hardheaded optimism is enough in itself to effect positive change. I’ve heard this from Teach For America recruiters, from Reach Out coordinators who plan service trips in the developing world, and from others who have a stake in the truth of the claim. Each time, I’m frustrated by the arrogance of the idea, but tempted by its hopefulness all the same. What if King, who so clearly believes in everything he is preaching, could prove it right?

King’s house, an unremarkable duplex with peeling paint, looks like any other on Atwater Street from the outside, but inside it is freshly painted and carpeted, tidy and warm with a bay window. Gesturing to the street outside the window, King and Wascholl told me they imagine the neighborhood as a desert island. “If we all landed on an island, and we’re all skilled and there are some resources there but we have no money in our pockets, would we sit around saying ‘We have no money, so we can’t work with each other?’ ” Wascholl asks. “No, we’re going to create a system and we’re going to start working together.” He said people on Atwater Street who are unemployed and have no money feel as if they can’t do anything to improve their circumstances. If they could take money out of the equation, they could see their own potential and that of their surroundings.

King didn’t move to Atwater to make a statement. He didn’t think much about the neighborhood at all. He just chose a place where he could buy an affordable house—his monthly mortgage payments on his two properties come to a total of $2,500—and now that he’s here, he’ll work with whoever is interested. He started this summer, holding a festival for local children and planting trees up and down the street with the help of the Urban Resources Initiative, a partner of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Longtime community organizers have welcomed King.  Lee Cruz, who lives and works in the same neighborhood as King and is the community outreach director of the nonprofit Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, is excited about ARC’s potential. He told me that, by putting time and energy into his house, King is helping everyone by contributing to the sense that Atwater Street is a good place to live, and by involving his neighbors in his projects, he is strengthening the local community.

The more time I spent with King, though, the more I wondered how much his presence was really helping his adopted community. King told me that the interactions between people on the street serve the role in his economic model that money does in most of America: they are the raw material with which everything is made. “Community is, again, everything and nothing,” he said. “Everything is going to come out of that—every content.” King earnestly believes that his ideas could help his new neighborhood, but the neighborhood is, first and foremost, the raw material for his vision.

Until recently, King lived in the East Rock area, which is heavily populated by Yale professors and graduate students. He said he likes that his new neighbors have more practical skills than his old ones, mentioning an out-of-work carpenter who might help Wascholl renovate some of the ARC houses as an example.

“They have more resources in East Rock,” Wascholl said when I asked if they ever considered starting a project like ARC there. He was sitting cross-legged on an armchair with one of their two cats curled in his lap. “By resources, I mean they have the money to do things. So if, say, they wanted solar panels. Odds are they have more money in East Rock to do that.”

“I think here, we have more wealth. There, there’s more money,” King said confidently. “I mean, here, there are people who actually know how to do things and have time to do things. And it will actually mean something in their lives.”

Though King is articulate and brimming with optimism, I came to think that he has a tendency to over-simplify. His redefinition of “wealth” is one example. His statement that, since the economy is a construct, “nothing happened” during the Great Depression is another. His vision of the future is hyperbolic: he plans to be “off money” within a year, and predicts that the American dollar will have lost all value within five.

King hasn’t tried to explain these far-reaching visions to his neighbors because he’s afraid of being seen as an authority figure and worried that the promise to “take people off money” could sound like a scam. His instincts about this are probably right, but I began to wonder if he could truly claim to include the Atwater Street residents in his project without doing them the courtesy of revealing his motives. I began to question whether, in a community so urgently in need of positive energy, King’s utopian fervor was quite the right kind.

The belief that people who approach life thoughtfully can figure out a better way to do things has always been a part of the American cultural landscape, but it is usually the purview of academics, intellectuals, and progressives. In 1843, Transcendentalist philosophers and political reformers set a precedent for the communes of the 1960s. Charles Lane and Amos Bronson Alcott, whose daughter Louisa May Alcott penned the classic novel Little Women, founded Fruitlands, a small utopian commune where members attempted to grow their own food and raise their children collectively. King, a philosopher and academic, fits the mold.

King and his predecessors have in common not only the hope that it is possible to live by their ideals but also the freedom to try. They have education and resources to fall back on should their projects fail. Alcott struggled to make ends meet for most of his life, but his well-to-do family and friends were there to bail him out with loans when he could not feed his children.

As in the past, communal living arrangements today appeal most to the young, the liberal, and the highly educated. In New Haven, the most active groups include a co-op house on Orange Street whose residents are all in their twenties and early thirties, around half enrolled in Yale graduate programs, and a small committee of older people who plan to build a cohousing community called Green Haven as soon as they purchase some land. The Green Haven group hopes that the houses in their neighborhood will cost around $250,000 each, with some smaller units possibly priced lower. The price of these homes—the buy-in to be part of Green Haven—is within reach for the members of the planning committee, most of whom are nearing or past retirement age in fields like nursing, book editing, and teaching. Wascholl and King said they are aware of some of the other cooperative living projects in New Haven, and they are interested in working with them once ARC is more firmly established. Several of ARC’s members had planned to buy houses in Green Haven before hearing about the new community on Atwater Street.

Some New Haven residents have also grown interested in a new movement called Transition, which has influenced the members of ARC. Though not part of the cooperative housing movement, Transition embodies many of its values. Founded in the United Kingdom in 2005 by Rob Hopkins, a professor of ecological design, it warns that fossil fuel depletion, climate change, and the failure of the world economy will soon render it impossible for humans to live the way we do. We should prepare for this inevitability, Transition proposes, by learning to live locally and rely on our neighbors so that our communities will be “resilient” when crisis strikes.

Terry Halwes, a member of ARC who is in the process of renovating his new house on Atwater Street, has floated the idea of a New Haven Transition chapter. Though it never gained momentum, King said he hopes that Atwater will be a “Transition street.” When neighbors see the members of ARC raising their own food and sharing resources, they will want to join in, too, and when people from other parts of Fair Haven and New Haven see the principles of Transition succeeding, the ideas will spread.

Transition lists racial and socioeconomic inclusiveness among its goals, but, predictably, it has been sprouting in towns where people bike to work and take their kids hiking on the weekends, where they’ve been preaching the social and ecological benefits of localization for years. There is already a registered initiative in the area of Western Massachusetts where I grew up, in a picturesque valley that is home to five colleges and universities, and that votes left on every issue.

When I asked King if I could meet some of his neighbors, Dawn Chiaraluce and the couple Ken and Christine Voight were planning an errand to the pharmacy. It would be a good chance for me to talk to them, King said. Ken Voigt is the carpenter King hopes to recruit to help with many of ARC’s projects. Christine Voigt and her friend Chiaraluce have also been involved with ARC, volunteering to plant trees and helping out around King, Wascholl, and Richo’s house, sometimes in exchange for cash.

Chiaraluce came to pick me up at King’s house. She is middle-aged and looked tired and cold, with pale lips and circles under her eyes. When we reached the Voigts at the end of the block, I could tell that King’s request had inconvenienced his neighbors. “He’s rude,” Christine said in annoyance. “He’s in his own little mind.” Even wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt with the hood up, she was attractive, with blond hair and a small, twinkling nose piercing. She lit a cigarette, hunching around the flame to protect it from the rain. Her voice was loud, with a smoker’s rasp.

They told me that King’s projects missed the point. “People need money,” they repeated over and over. Too many people in this neighborhood are struggling to keep up with their mortgages, they said, in danger of losing their homes.

King’s attempts to barter also insulted them. Ken mentioned an article published about ARC in the New Haven Independent in July, which says that one of King’s neighbors mowed his lawn in exchange for a lunch of tofu and vegetables. Ken was that neighbor. He told me that he mowed the lawn as a favor to King and was offended by the idea that he did it for payment. “It makes it sound like I can’t feed myself,” he said.

The blurred line between gift and transaction angered Christine as well. She told me she has given Chiaraluce financial assistance during a tough time “because she’s my friend, not the way he wants to do it.” The misunderstandings deflated me. King had violated an important social norm, but he had no idea.
Chiaraluce summed it up: “His heart is in the right place, but it’s never going to work.”

Looking at the facts about Fair Haven, it’s hard to see King’s optimism as anything but irresponsible. In this part of the city, the median household income was recorded at $33,000 a year in the 2000 U.S. Census. According to the same census, the neighborhood’s residents are 42 percent Latino, and federal police raids in the neighborhood in 2007 found at least four households of undocumented immigrants. Fair Haven sees fairly routine prostitution and drug busts, and five women were arrested on prostitution charges in a sting this July. The area also suffers from violent crime. Eight of the fifty-five murders that have occurred in New Haven since the beginning of 2011 happened here, according to the New Haven Register. The challenges start young: New Haven’s 38 percent public high school dropout rate means that many kids are wandering the streets by junior or senior year.

In the pharmacy, it was clear that the Voigts and Chiaraluce needed to finish their errand and were tired of answering my questions. I watched a teenage African-American girl march up the aisle having an angry conversation on a cell phone, a child in a drenched parka trailing after her, while King’s neighbors wrote down their phone numbers and I apologized for catching them at a bad time. Back outside, the sky was dark gray, the houses sagged under the pelting rain, and the street was deserted. I biked back up Grand Street, away from Fair Haven and toward Yale, unable to escape the feeling that King’s optimism had nothing to offer, and neither did mine.

Hope is in short supply these days. Even among utopians, it seems to have dwindled. In fact, King told me that he doesn’t use the word “utopian” because it has become a pejorative associated with naïveté. Instead, contemporary cohousing and co-op residents use the milder phrase “intentional community.” They share a purpose, but they aren’t making any promises.

The utopian imagination is losing ground to the dystopian. Environmentalists shake their heads over inexplicable weather reports. The old bemoan the behavior of the young, who grow up with computers for playmates. The Transition movement thinks we can change for the better but says it can’t prevent the end of life as we know it.

My generation has grown up in this dystopian era. Like so many adults, King wanted me to explain why he sees so few young people involved in the movements that he thinks could save my generation from itself. “I’ve been very surprised, to tell you the truth, about younger people’s noninvolvement with this,” he told me. “It’s really disconcerting, actually. It seems like somehow they’ve become cynical but have also bought in.” He told me his students at Fairfield seem less apathetic than lost. While their professors still believe in the possibility of change, the young have no interest in revolution. “I don’t know what that’s about,” King said. “It’s probably a lot of fear. When I was growing up, there was a strong feeling that adults knew what they were doing. You don’t have that now.”

King is right, I think, that my generation is not so much apathetic as defeatist. We’ve seen over and over that it’s hard to opt out of the system, even if you see its flaws. In our eyes, even the most visionary movements have failed. Fruitlands shut down after seven months because its members hadn’t grown enough food to get through the winter. Dick Margulis, a member of Green Haven, told me about his experience living in communes, beginning in the 1960s. “All of that works really well when you’re young and idealistic,” he said. “But human jealousies and arrangements creep into any arrangement that’s shared purse, and gradually, those situations tend to break down.”

We’re well aware that if something hasn’t been fixed yet, it’s not because no one has tried. And if there’s one thing we’ve been taught, it’s that everything is connected, and when you tug on a string, you’re as likely to tighten the knot as to unravel it.

King doesn’t deny that this mindset is rooted in reality. In fact, he expects that the economy, the environment, and the energy infrastructure will all collapse in the next decade. But he thinks these pressures, combined with the unprecedented fluidity of Internet communication, are creating a “consciousness shift” all over the world. He cited the Occupy Wall Street movement as a sign that people are starting to see the future differently. “I think we’re in a ten-year period of the biggest change that’s ever going to happen on this planet,” he told me, “and I really want to be a part of it.” King said he isn’t deterred by negative reactions from neighbors like the Voigts and Chiaraluce. He is planning to try to explain his ideas to them, but if that doesn’t work, their skepticism will become irrelevant when money as we know it ceases to exist.

The end of the world is a classic part of the utopian vision. It clears the way so that humanity can start over and do things better this time around. Maybe I’m shortsighted, or maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I don’t think that all of our problems will be solved that easily. And if I’m right, then the residents of Atwater Street will continue to need money, not just for things they might be able to make themselves, but also for things they can’t, like mortgages and doctor’s bills. If people like the Voigts and Chiaraluce can’t step out of the system, people like King need to find a way to create hope inside of it.

Lee Cruz, who welcomed King into the neighborhood, has lived in Fair Haven for almost six years and worked here far longer than King. In his eyes, it’s a magical place. He took me on a tour of the neighborhood on a brilliantly sunny day in late October, beginning by the Quinnipiac River, three blocks east of Atwater Street. “Just look at this,” he said. The stone-and-clapboard houses that dotted the banks were painted in cheery pastels. Cruz told me they used to belong to ship captains and first mates when this was a thriving harbor town. The water was a surprisingly rich blue against the bright fall foliage, or, when the sun hit it, a dazzling pane of light. “It’s a little paradise,” Cruz said.

A few minutes into the tour, it was clear that Cruz knows everything about Fair Haven. He first got involved here over a decade ago, through his work with the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and now he says he’ll never move anywhere else. “I’m going to be taken out of this neighborhood boots first,” he joked. He can tell you Fair Haven’s role in every aspect of American history from the maritime economy to the Civil War.

He recounts the neighborhood’s past as if it were a fairy tale. He told me that the British saw creatures swimming in the water when they sailed up the river in the 1600s, and, unable to recognize them, decided they were sea monsters. The animals turned out to be seals, but the town kept the name “Dragon” until 1824.
Cruz isn’t an idealist. He grew up partly in New York City and partly in a low-income housing project, and he told me that too many of his friends from childhood are dead, in jail, or raising families in the same abject poverty into which they themselves were born. He knows how bad life in a bad neighborhood can be, but he’s seen enough positive change in Fair Haven to justify his optimism.

“In a neighborhood like this, it’s not that bad things don’t happen. It’s that the bad things that happen are not the center of the conversation or the center of the way the neighborhood thinks about itself,” he said. When he first moved to Fair Haven, he renamed a nine-block radius after the small park at its center, Chatham Square, and founded a neighborhood association to bring together the area’s residents and those of Fair Haven more generally. His own home on Clinton Street is part of the small Chatham Square district, and Atwater Street is one of its outer boundaries.

The Chatham Square Neighborhood Association has been active since its founding. Once Cruz and others harassed a drug-dealing family on Atwater Street until they moved, and the association petitioned for speed bumps and narrower lanes on the same street to discourage the prostitution and drug sales that relied on it for a fast getaway. They erected play sets in a park where dealers used to conduct their business, helping the neighborhood children paint a mural that reads “We Love Fair Haven” on its graffiti-covered walls. Today, they partner with the Yale School of Public Health to teach good eating habits in schools and put fresh fruit and vegetables in local stores, and they hold an annual Halloween festival and a neighborhood clean-up in the spring.

But of all the group’s efforts, Cruz said none has been more important than coining the name “Chatham Square.” These blocks are no different than those around them—he relabeled them because “Fair Haven” had such negative connotations. “We rebranded the neighborhood,” he explained proudly, adding that both the mayor and Channel 8 News had picked up the phrase within a year. Cruz couldn’t throw out the entire history of Fair Haven, but renaming his neighborhood gave him some small license to start over.

While King is animated, Cruz is reserved. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and a graying beard, and, on cold days, a tweed beret. His speech is soft and measured. But he is clearly at ease in Chatham Square, where he is a familiar sight because he walks the neighborhood twice a day with his dogs. On the morning of my tour, he greeted every person we passed, from a man clearing leaves in his yard to a teenager slouching by in a hoodie.

Cruz told me his role, and that of the neighborhood association, is to provide a combination of “common courtesy and customer service”—not to preach or prophesy. “I have a vision for the way the world should be, and I haven’t given up on that vision,” he said. “But that isn’t the most important thing.” Addressing a hypothetical neighbor, Cruz said, “The most important thing is, ‘What do you want to do?’ Because you want to work with me.” Cruz told me that affluent people who attempt to help impoverished neighborhoods sometimes fail because they get too wrapped up in their own ideas. Reading people is part of helping them, and vision can be distracting.

Though he tries to keep the big picture in mind, Cruz relishes the small successes. In this line of work, they may be the most important kind. During our walk, Cruz pointed out a house on Atwater covered in Halloween decorations over a week early. “This is what I live for,” he said. Someone had spent considerable time stringing cobwebs across the shrubs and transforming the lawn into a miniature graveyard, and their efforts brightened the entire street.

Hope is as important to Cruz’s mission as it is to King’s, but the things that indicate its presence are unglamorous: a well-kept lawn, a big turnout at a movie screening, a mural that is untouched by graffiti after over a year. These victories won’t free the neighborhood from urban America’s myriad, interlocking problems. But they make people feel better about the place where they live and inspire them to improve it, little by little.

Cruz isn’t trying to make this neighborhood anew. He already loves it here. He told me that he, like others who live in Fair Haven though they could afford a house somewhere else, does so because Fair Haven reflects reality more accurately than an affluent neighborhood could. “It’s in that diversity of color and ethnicity and income that we want our kids to grow up,” he said. “And our kids will see that that’s the way the world is. They’re not being sheltered behind a wall. We’ll do what we can to fight against it, but we’re not going to hide from it by moving someplace where it quote-unquote ‘doesn’t exist.’ ” Perfection is always an oversimplification, and Cruz isn’t looking for that. He gave me an alternative vision of utopia—one that embraces this neighborhood in all its complexity.

Cruz is trying to get to know King and the other members of ARC, not because of the value of their ideas, but because he’s hopeful that a community could grow up around their efforts. He pointed me to research by Felton Earls, a criminology expert at the Harvard School of Public Health who demonstrated that when neighbors get to know one another, violent crime decreases. Communities where adults know the children by name fare the best. Adults have more sway over miscreants if they can threaten to call their parents, and those miscreants are less likely to hurt people they know.

Fair Haven’s communities are usually affinity groups. Ecuadorians might help other Ecuadorians, Puerto Ricans might help other Puerto Ricans, and so on, Cruz said. (I thought of the Voigts and Chiaraluce, all of whom are white.) Earls’ theory only applies to communities formed around shared space, not shared interests. Cruz said the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association works to promote inclusiveness, and ARC could do the same. Many of ARC’s projects could bring together the people of Atwater Street, like the garden Wascholl and King hope to start in a spacious backyard, or the day camp they might run for local children.

The best ways to build community, Cruz said, are simply to learn to compromise, and to stick around. When I told him my concerns about ARC, and those that the Voigts and Chiaraluce voiced, he wasn’t surprised. King, Wascholl, and the others “will make mistakes,” he said. “They’ll get people that are naysayers on both sides”—poor people who resent their ideas and affluent people who don’t understand their desire to work with the poor. But they have made an investment by moving in, and if they stay they will become part of the neighborhood and gain the credibility with which to change it.

The last time I talked to King, he was still more interested in world history than in community building, but he assured me that he sees his move to Atwater Street as a permanent one. He’s putting down roots here to prepare for a global cataclysm, but I hope that if it doesn’t come, he’ll continue, as he said, trying to “take care of our own backyard.”

Wascholl told me that his perspective, at least, has changed in his months on Atwater Street. “When we got here, it pretty quickly became apparent that we needed other people involved to make this work,” he said. Wascholl is clean-cut with a young face, but he’s thoughtful. I have often seen him pause to consider an opinion. Though he more or less follows King’s lead, I suspect that he has his own ideas about how ARC should proceed. In our most recent conversation, he told me he is still committed to alternative currencies, but thinks ARC should be open to some cash transactions if that’s what their neighbors need. The currency system is the vehicle. The point of the project is “a great life, the people around you, abundance in relationships, happiness.”

Though utopia is out of style, despair isn’t the only option. Fredric Jameson, a famous utopian thinker and professor at Duke University, recently wrote that the modern era needs to counter nihilism with “anti-anti-Utopianism.” We may never regain the hope that we can get it exactly right, but we can still work to improve the world we have.

To me, Cruz is the essential anti-anti-utopian. He brings to his work not only the dogged belief that things will get better, but also the humility to compromise and the patience to keep trying, even when people reject his help, sabotage his spring clean-up, or vandalize his brand new park. King has the first trait, and I hope that, as he grows to love his new home, he may develop the other two. Regardless of his opinions about money, King has spent a lot of his capital on real estate in this neighborhood. Unlike me, he can’t get on a bicycle and go somewhere more comfortable at the end of the day. If Cruz is right about the importance of community, then it’s in King’s interests to foster one in Fair Haven.

I suspect that King will have a hard time making Atwater Street conform to the vision in his mind, and I think that’s for the best. The problem with utopia is that it’s an end goal. Once you get there, you have nowhere else to go. It is the attempt that reveals the incredible power of the human imagination and the magical truth that changing the way people think about their lives also changes the way they live. I hope King, the cognitive scientist, will see a profound “consciousness shift” in this neighborhood. It may just take place less in his neighbors, and more in himself, than he expects.

Photograph: Harry Simperingham

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