On the first Monday of November last year, Americans’ mail slots were unusually stuffed with promises. Political hopefuls grinned at constituents and flooded inboxes and voicemails with last-minute Can-I-Count-On-Your- Votes. Across New Haven, a divisive mayoral race huffed its last bitter breaths in the eighteen hours before election day. For a moment, the frenzy found its way to an uncontested aldermanic race in New Haven’s twentieth ward, as Delphine Clyburn wedged flyers behind doorknobs on the block just around the corner from her Newhall Street house.
Clyburn was running unopposed for her fifth two-year term as alder of New Haven’s Ward 20, which spans much of Newhallville, a neighborhood at the northern border of the city with a majority-Black and low-income population. Clyburn had an hour and a half to canvass before she needed to leave for her 2 p.m. work shift at a state-run group home for adults with developmental disabilities. In New Haven, alders receive a stipend of $2,000 a year; most have to work full time jobs in addition to their political responsibilities.
The majority of the block’s residents were at work, so she slipped flyers through mail slots and slid them between door hinges. Her silver hair was clipped back in a characteristic bun, aside from an orderly wisp that swept across her forehead. Occasionally, Clyburn stopped to greet pedestrians with a hug before checking whether she would see them at the polls the next day.
On the day before the election, in a ward with over four thousand residents, Clyburn handed out only about two dozen flyers. She had chosen the particular block not because it would be politically strategic, but because 89-year-old Ella Anderson lived there, and Clyburn wanted to pay her a visit.
When Clyburn knocked, Anderson (whose name has been changed in this story to protect her privacy) answered the door in a flamingo-colored nightgown, wearing curlers in her hair. Anderson ushered us inside and dragged out chairs for us at a dining room table covered in a red plastic tablecloth. Small heaps of mail rested on the table before us.
Anderson brought out materials she would need to renew proof of her eligibility for Connecticut’s Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income households pay for heat in the winter, by filling out forms for a local non-profit called the Community Action Agency of New Haven. Clyburn was putting the pre-election rush on hold that morning to help Anderson reapply for the government benefit that would keep her house warm.
For another politician, the visit to Anderson might have been an unusual detour. But Clyburn treated it as just another part of her job. On and off election season, Clyburn frequently goes “on the doors” both to visit with and advocate for her constituents. Local activists attest that since Clyburn took office in 2012, the change has been palpable in Newhallville. Her ward is slowly becoming a neighborhood city officials can no longer ignore.
For most of her childhood, Clyburn was whisked from home to home, for reasons that often only made sense to her in retrospect. Her parents died in separate car accidents—her father first, and then her mother. She knows that she was 3 years old at the time of her mother’s death because at age thirteen, she found a newspaper clipping about the crash in a Connecticut public library. Soon after the accident that killed their mother, Clyburn and her older sister found themselves under their great aunt’s care in North Carolina.
“She made sure everything was clean,” Clyburn recalled of her great aunt. (Since then, Clyburn has kept her living spaces immaculate; her kids used to call their home “the museum.”) But Clyburn said that if she so much as misspelled a word in her homework, her great aunt would beat her. Her great aunt also implored them not to trust anyone: “You don’t depend on nobody,” Clyburn remembers her saying.
In that house, Clyburn grew up playing baseball and kickball, skating and riding bikes. She would cut out her own paper dolls and build paper houses for them, with paper furniture. But when her grandfather came to visit during the summers, Clyburn recalls that he noticed her aunt’s abuse and arranged for her to move to another aunt’s home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In Bridgeport, Clyburn found herself living with four younger kids she had never met.
That aunt made a habit of disappearing, according to Clyburn; some weeks, she would leave the house Friday and come back Monday. In her absence, Clyburn, who was 13 at the time, said she took care of the four younger children also living in the house. “I was practically like the mom around the house,” Clyburn said. “I knew how to run a house, keep it clean.”
One day, when her aunt was absent, she decided to make hot chocolate for the other children in the house. She boiled water on the stove, and the water spilled onto one of the other kids—she doesn’t remember how—burning one girl badly enough that she had to go to the doctor. After a year with the aunt who was so often gone, Clyburn wound up in her first foster home.
Clyburn’s first set of parents assigned through the foster system had always wanted a daughter. The Watsons were an elderly couple with no other children, and Clyburn felt loved there. But one day, Clyburn found herself reassigned to a new foster family, where eight other kids—including one of Clyburn’s biological brothers she didn’t know she had—resided.
Clyburn recalls that one of the other foster children living in her new home could not hear or speak. The girl soon wrote Clyburn a letter saying that the father of the house “touched her,” as Clyburn recalls it. Clyburn was 15 and scared; she had been scared of the father even before receiving the letter. Unsure of what to do, she initially kept the letter to herself, and prayed by a stream of water outside the house each night: Lord, help me get out of this house. Help me. Help me.
Soon, her foster sister “began to show,” Clyburn said. In the letter, the girl had only confided that the father “touched” her. But the truth revealed itself in the form of a fetus. As a ward of the state, according to Clyburn, the girl gave birth and was forced to relinquish her baby. The whole family had to go to court. Clyburn said she brought the letter with her and testified against her foster father. Each child was relocated to a different house.
A triangular patch of grass two blocks away from Anderson’s home, where Starr Street intersects with Shelton Avenue, was once called the “Mudhole” — the center of New Haven’s drug trade. In the nineties, a pair of articles in the New Yorker explored gang dynamics at the Mudhole as a case study of urban decay in an era of deindustrialization. At the time, the gradual shutdown of Newhallville’s primary employer, the Winchester Arms Factory, spiked unemployment rates in the area. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, notorious for its racist policies, had redlined Newhallville decades earlier, marking it a “definitely declining” neighborhood and paving the way for institutional discrimination against its residents. In media portrayals, a reputation for crime and poverty followed Newhallville for decades. In 2013, the Yale Daily News described the neighborhood as “among the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city,” claiming that it was “still not a safe place to walk late at night.”
Local activists were committed to advocating for more opportunities and resources for Newhallville. In 2010, residents organized in response to a controversial plan to convert the former Winchester Arms Factory into a mixed-use building that would house, in part, a tech company focused on financial aid reimbursement. The activists held weekly meetings on Mondays in a prominent New Haven church. They demanded that the developer employ more Newhallville residents for the construction of the building.
“It’s not just a portion who should be loved,” Clyburn said; every part of the city deserves equal access to resources.
Clyburn heard about the meetings and decided to show up to one of them—and then another, and another. She had been involved in labor organizing for decades; since 1987, she had served as a delegate for the statewide 1199 Healthcare Workers’ Union, representing colleagues across Connecticut in disputes with management. She even volunteered at one meeting to invite then-Mayor John DeStefano to her home to press him about the new development. When they met, Clyburn felt that DeStefano didn’t sufficiently address her concerns about local hiring. After their conversation, she sent him a thank-you note asking “why he didn’t care for every part of his city.”
At one of the meetings, Clyburn met another Newhallville neighbor, Shirley Lawrence, who was then a lead organizer for a union-affiliated non-profit, Connecticut Center for a New Economy.
“She stood up and asked probably the most important questions in the room,” Lawrence said of Clyburn. “I was looking at her like, whoa, O.K., this is a pretty strong lady here.”
Lawrence’s job involved identifying and mentoring community leaders. After the meeting, she met separately with Clyburn to urge her to run for alder of Ward 20. At the time, Lawerence said, people in Newhallville tended to distrust politicians; she felt that her neighbors were ready for a change. Clyburn agreed to run in 2011 and picked Lawrence as her campaign manager. After the Democratic primary, the New Haven Independent reported that Clyburn, who was new to politics, defeated the incumbent alder, Charles Blango, with a decisive 58 percent of the vote.
How did she pull it off? “She probably knocked on every door in the neighborhood,” Lawrence said. “And she still does it to this day.”
At her third and final foster home, Clyburn did not have to worry about a predatory caregiver. But she didn’t breathe more easily, at least not at first. Eight other kids lived with the Coversons at the time, and three more would eventually arrive. Each day, the father would bring the kids candy bars after work. Still, Clyburn remained guarded. “Trust no one,” she recalls thinking. When she came home from school each afternoon, she would immediately retreat to her room. Her new foster mother expressed love for her anyway, promising that she would be there whenever Clyburn could trust her.
Once, when Clyburn was still a teenager, Mrs. Coverson told her that she wanted to adopt her. She wanted to give Clyburn their family’s name. But by that time, Clyburn was engaged. She told Mrs. Coverson to adopt the younger foster children in the house instead.
“I had that thing in me—do for yourself, make your own way,” Clyburn said. “That’s from my aunt. That stayed with me.”
Clyburn met her husband, Michael, through the Coversons’ Bridgeport church, which was affiliated with his North Carolina congregation. “We dated over the phone and through the mail,” she said. They met three times in person before they got married. Clyburn was 19. The Coversons were reluctant to support the marriage; a part of them wanted Clyburn, and all her siblings, to remain in the house forever. But the Coversons worked with Clyburn’s high school friends to put together their wedding.
Forty-one years later, Clyburn and her husband are still together. They moved to New Haven in 1986, buying the Newhallville house they still live in. The couple hashave started multiple churches, and currently run Grace and Peace Cathedral International on Starr Street. In the backyard of their home, greenery flows amidst stone statues. Occasionally, the neighbor’s cat wanders through the yard, around the house, out to the sidewalk. Blue-and-white birdhouses adorn trees. Wind chimes sing on the back porch.
The most anger I’ve ever heard in Clyburn’s voice came out as she scrolled through her phone to show me a photograph of a demolition site in the neighborhood. In the image, which she’d captured the other day, a pile of bricks and debris lay outside a crumbling building. Clyburn said she had asked the site’s manager to throw the wreckage into a dumpster, but the manager said that the dumpster would overflow. “So. What?,” Clyburn flared. “Get the dumpster.”
We sat on green plastic chairs inside the Orchid Cafe on Winchester Avenue. On Clyburn’s cell phone camera roll, photographs of her newborn grandson interrupted a stream of images of sidewalk cracks and untrimmed trees. “I ride around this city,” she said. “I ride around this city [in my car] to see how every neighborhood is faring.” She sees a disparity in the way many city employees treat constituents in different neighborhoods; she has a particular grudge against the Trees department, which she claims doesn’t adequately trim the trees in her ward. Construction sites in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods don’t look like the one in the image she has just shown me, she said. She’s concerned about contaminated materials that could spread through the debris. But for Clyburn, developers’ lack of dumpsters is about more than just the health risk. “They don’t even respect us.”
Soon after she got elected, Clyburn set out to fill the lapses in the city’s care for Newhallville from the ground up. She enlisted someone on every street to report back to her about each block’s condition. These neighbors would inform her about poor property upkeep, whether someone was sick, whether someone had passed away. Neighbors have also told her about suspected drug deals occurring
in nearby houses. Clyburn said she has parked outside of those houses for hours at a time, watching cars driving in and out, to see if the complaints checked out before relaying them to landlords or to the police. She recalled that one day, as she was walking down Reed Street, someone came up behind her and imitated the sound of a gun, threatening her. Clyburn kept walking. “I didn’t pay them no attention,” she said calmly, “because I know why I’m out there.” She scrolled through more photos on her phone, showing me the license plate of a double-parked car and a pile of chopped-up tree branches lying on the sidewalk.
“When I took this ward, I fought for this ward. For Downtown to even care about us,” Clyburn told me. “I felt like we were foster kids with no voice.”
Clyburn goes to constituents’ homes nearly every week—not only to help them apply for government programs, as in Anderson’s case, but also to spread the word about public meetings, or to check in about whether landlords have responded to grievances. When she meets with constituents, she’ll ask about their daughters or how their health has been lately. These visits, she says, are her way of “loving on them.”
On a day off from work, she once spent six hours talking to residents of an elderly housing complex in her ward who had complained of slow repairs. She made a habit of driving bimonthly food deliveries from a nonprofit called FISH to her homebound neighbors; she and three friends delivered food to all of FISH’s clients in the ward. When 14-year-old Tyrick Keyes died from gunfire in her ward in 2017, Clyburn sat with his mother in the hospital and mobilized neighbors to cook food for her after the funeral. “My Reed Street is my love street,” she said in passing once, in reference to the street where Keyes’s family lived.
“It’s not just a portion who should be loved,” Clyburn said; every part of the city deserves equal access to resources. “I call it love,” she added. “But love could be the way we let development come, the way we let our schools be, housing, the cost of things, how they keep things clean, our parks, whatever. Everybody should be treated the same. But everybody was not.”
Door by door, Clyburn has urged neighbors to demand love from a political system that was never meant to hear them. When she first got elected, she found fifteen of her neighbors willing to commit to serving as community organizers within the ward. Alongside Clyburn, the team of fifteen met regularly and urged neighbors to vote, join city commissions, and voice their opinions at public hearings.
Newhallville “changed a hell of a lot” since Clyburn took office, Lawrence said. “She let people know that you actually can trust someone that’s in politics… From day one, it was about the people, until today, it’s about the people.”
The difference could be felt from the highest office in City Hall. “When I think about Newhallville when I first ran … I went to some of the streets not too far from here, and there was a real sense of despair,” New Haven’s former mayor, Toni Harp, said at Clyburn’s re-election campaign launch in July 2019. Harp and Clyburn both took office in 2012. “What we’ve seen happen here… we have seen a transformation,” Harp said.
Newhallville’s Ward 20 now has one of the highest rates of voter turnout of all thirty wards in New Haven; Newhallville resident Barbara Vereen proudly declared the ward to be “the highest voting Black ward in this city.” When Barack Obama ran for re-election as president in 2012, over two thousand voters waited in an hours-long line in Ward 20, the third-largest turnout in the city, close behind the whiter and more affluent neighborhoods of East Rock and Westville.
“I was putting the ward before my health, and my family, everything,” Clyburn said.
Five years ago, during her second term in office, Clyburn and other community activists beautified and rebranded the “Mudhole” as “the Learning Corridor.” One nearby resident, Doreen Abubakar, secures regular grants to fund biking and outdoor education programs there. The block hosts an annual Harvest Festival in the fall. In August, child reporters in the neighborhood’s Kids TV program released a mini-documentary about the block’s dramatic transformation.
During this period, Newhallville’s Community Management Team—one of the city’s twelve neighborhood-based committees that provide an opportunity for residents to weigh in on new development projects and hear updates from city officials—grew to become one of the most active and effective in town, at least on par with those of New Haven’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Clyburn was one of the people who worked to bolster the group, urging more and more of her neighbors to come out to meetings. A group of more than thirty people, mostly Newhallville residents, had come out for the group’s monthly meeting in September 2019, sitting around several circular tables with built-in blue stools.
As neighbors and guests offered updates and announcements, the Management Team’s chair, local preschool director Kim Harris, rallied the group to participate in upcoming events. It didn’t seem to matter what people advocated for; what was most important to Harris was that the neighborhood’s voice was heard. “Let’s flood the house with Newhallville people,” she said, referring to a city meeting about public housing. Of another public meeting: “I just want to flood [it] with Newhallville people ‘cause there’s a lot of things going on, and we’re gonna know about it.”
Soon, Harris announced a gala hosted by the Board of Alders’ Black and Hispanic Caucus in late October. She wanted to have a table of Newhallville residents there. Tickets were seventy-five dollars, but to Harris, they were well worth the cost. “That’s the best seventy-five dollars I’ve ever spent,” she told the group. “I get to tell them, ‘Newhallville, Newhallville, Newhallville.’”
She urged the group to go. “If we got to lay away twenty dollars a week to make it, let’s lay away twenty dollars a week so that we could be amongst the people making decisions for us.”
Clyburn’s relationship-centered, community-powered approach to political leadership has proven its power, but it’s also taken a toll. By her fourth term as alder, a few of the neighbors she most relied on had passed away. Clyburn tried to take on their work by herself. “Things started—I started breaking down,” she said. She swallowed, held her voice together. “It’s a lot to take on, one person.”
Clyburn began to receive calls about Ward 20 during her shifts at the group home where she worked, which sometimes got her into trouble with her boss. Her doctors implored her to take better care of her health. She had also started withdrawing from her personal finances to assist her constituents—particularly the elderly residents. She would help cover light bills and gas bills. Clyburn even paid one hundred dollars to remove a wheel boot that the city had placed on a young man’s car. “He had to go to work,” she said. “I didn’t really know him that well, but he was in my ward.”
Throughout her forty-one-year marriage, Clyburn was in charge of paying the gas and electricity bills for her and her husband’s home; the rest of her paycheck was hers to spend on what she wanted. But as she lent money to her constituents, Clyburn began to ask for her husband’s help with utility bills. Their kids were paying their own expenses, and her husband grew suspicious. Someone finally told him that she had been helping neighbors with expenses; now, she has to make up the lost money herself. Clyburn laughed as she recalled what her husband said: “Nobody’s gonna help us Delphine, remember?”
Clyburn started to work overtime to make up for the money she gave to her constituents, sometimes starting her shift at 6 a.m. and leaving at 11 p.m. “I was putting the ward before my health, and my family, everything,” Clyburn said.
There is only so much love—only so much time, only so much money—that one person can muster. “I’m still now trying to pull out of my financial base from what I did to my family,” Clyburn said. “I’m struggling back now to rebuild our little nest egg over the years.”
Time slipped by inside Ella Anderson’s home on Starr Street. Channel 8 hummed on the TV in the living room, interrupted by occasional Black Friday ads and a paid message from then-mayoral candidate Justin Elicker. Sitting at the dining room table, Clyburn took out one of the required Energy Assistance forms and walked Anderson through it, pointing out the places where a signature was required. Periodically, Anderson retreated to the kitchen and brought out another form or bill that seemed redundant or perplexing. The papers accumulated on the table amidst piles of notecards and mailers and other receipts. Slowly, Clyburn and Anderson pieced together the source of confusion: it seemed that the Community Action Agency of New Haven had sent Anderson an extra form.
“If I could just get a person to talk to me…” Clyburn said.
As Clyburn called up the Community Action Agency, Anderson read the words printed on Clyburn’s campaign flyer in a murmur: Strong constituent services… She proclaimed that the photograph on the flyer was beautiful. No one answered Clyburn’s call. The agency’s voicemail was full.
Anderson retrieved a new form from the pile, and Clyburn read aloud that Anderson could learn more about the status of her benefits if she created an online account, accessible on her computer and smartphone. But Anderson doesn’t use the Internet. “I keep telling them, they think everyone has that,” Clyburn sighed.
Clyburn gently folded the Energy Assistance forms and placed them on top of a pile of mail. “These are very important,” she said.
Next time, Clyburn said, she’ll come with a plastic bin and a set of dividers. She’ll sit down and help Anderson organize her financial records by year.
“I figured, if I could have you, things could work out,” Anderson told Clyburn. “I’m just not used to people going out of their way to help me.”
But Clyburn couldn’t stay forever. It was almost 1 p.m., and she had to be at work in an hour. She stood up soon after to leave the house and cross the street, where she would deliver a few last election flyers to people’s doorsteps.
— Laura Glesby is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. She is a former editor-in-chief of The New Journal.