Registered Offense

Hotel Duncan is tucked discreetly next to Yale University’s campus, on Chapel Street, across the street from an art school building. It is marked by a tall vertical sign with golden letters that no one seems to take the time to look up at. The hotel’s own Web site calls it “eccentric.” Online reviews of the hotel either excoriate its noisy heating system and stained amenities, or forgive the hotel’s drawbacks in view of its prices (around sixty dollars per night). The hotel claims to have the oldest hand-cranked elevator in the state of Connecticut.

And according to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s sex offender registry, the Duncan also currently serves as a permanent residence for seven convicted sex offenders. (I later learned that one of them had moved, but the registry had yet to be updated.)

Phillip Palmieri lives there. On July 14, 2006, he was convicted of second-degree sexual assault for having sex with a minor. The girl was 14 and he was 32. I met with Palmieri in the hotel’s lobby, because he felt uncomfortable speaking about the topic in a coffee shop or in any other public place. I knew his basic measurements from the state registry—the 40-year-old Caucasian male stands at a modest five-foot-seven and weighed, when the information was last updated, 180 pounds. He was released from prison on June 17, 2008.

In person, Palmieri looks leaner, younger, and better groomed than in his photo on the registry. His hair is dyed jet-black and he wears skinny jeans. As we spoke, his ice-blue eyes were animated and his tone was energetic.

I had never met a sex offender before this encounter. I knew the story of Megan Kanka: on July 29, 1994, in a town in New Jersey, Jesse Timmendequas lured the seven-year-old girl into his house across the street from hers, raped her and then strangled her with a belt. Timmendequas had had two previous sex convictions, but the Kanka family was never informed of this about their neighbor. In response, national and state governments made major changes in the way they legislate where sex offenders can live and how specific information about these crimes is relayed to the public.

But there are still problems with the system. Because the state registry does not provide detailed information about offenders’ crimes, I assumed Palmieri had forcibly raped his victim. The idea of seven convicted rapists living only a tenth of a mile away from my dorm room sounded to me, a 20-year-old woman studying at Yale, like the premise of an improbable horror film. The scariest aspect of the situation wasn’t their crimes, but the fact that I didn’t know enough about them to be able to judge the level of potential danger for myself.

Palmieri says he “fucked up.” He had just come out of a divorce after a five-year marriage with a woman seven years older than he was. When he met the 14-year-old on a “Gothic” social networking site, he was in bad shape, he says, “at the bottom of the barrel.”

The legal age of consent in Connecticut—and in most other states—is 16. Palmieri says he thought the age of consent was 15 years old, a “misguided conception” based on the fact that a few of his friends at the time were dating 15-year-olds without any trouble. But the girl was not even going to be 15 for two more weeks.

The relationship was consensual, Palmieri says.

“I hate to break anyone’s heart, but no, I didn’t hold her down and put a knife to her throat. That’s what people think. It’s a hard stigma to break free from,” he says. Palmieri, as the registry indicates, was convicted of sexual assault in the second degree, which does not involve force in Connecticut law.

The state is in the process of complying with a federal mandate to include more information on the state registry, which will help clarify individuals’ crimes and separate higher-risk sex offenders from those less likely to harm their communities after incarceration. As I listened to Palmieri’s stories as well as those of two other sex offenders, however, I realized that the proposed legislation will not resolve major problems in the way our system treats sex offenders. The failure to distinguish between low- and high-risk offenders is not limited to the registry, but affects the entire system. It’s a system, I became convinced, that is counterproductive, preventing many low-risk offenders from reintegrating into society, increasing the likelihood that they will commit crimes and putting the rest of us in greater danger.

There is no law in Connecticut regulating where sex offenders are allowed to live. Instead, the Court Support Services Division in the state judicial system oversees probation officers who create customized plans for individual offenders once they are released from prison, explained the division’s director, William Carbone.

“Finding a place for a sex offender to live is always difficult, he said. The state employs what Carbone calls a “containment model,” in which a probation officer, treatment clinician, and an advocate for the victim collaborate with each other and the offender to determine the optimal post-incarceration plan. This includes determining where the sex offender is allowed to live. The ultimate decision on where offenders are allowed to live rests with the probation officer.

Usually an important part of each plan is preventing the offender from living in close proximity to those under the age of 16, in order to prevent the offenders from committing another crime, Carbone said. Because of this requirement, many sex offenders end up living in shelters until the state can find housing for them. This effect may be mitigated to some extent when Connecticut’s first residential treatment facility opens in Montville, Connecticut, in a few months, after a long battle between legislators and angry community members. The facility will help sex offenders readjust to life outside prison. But the facility only has twenty-four beds, not nearly enough space for all the offenders who might need it. And when they leave the facility, those offenders will still have to find homes, which can be difficult for anyone with a sexual assault charge on their record.

Hotel Duncan is not an anomaly in its housing seven sex offenders, Carbone said, though he did not know of the hotel specifically. There are many reasons why probation officers might direct offenders to the hotel, he said, including that it is not in the immediate vicinity of minors. Officer David Hartman of the New Haven Police Department said the department does not pay close attention to specific residences on the registry unless there is reason to do so. There been no cause for concern at Hotel Duncan, he said.

Palmieri has lived at the Duncan since he was released, because it was the cheapest place he was allowed to live. He is unemployed, collecting odd jobs here and there from employers willing to overlook his felony charge. He had his own place before the conviction but couldn’t afford it after prison. He also considered moving back in with his parents, but there were minors living in the apartment complex, so he wasn’t allowed.

“It was either this or the homeless shelter,” he explains. Palmieri has seven more years on probation.

Although finding a new place that probation will approve seems like a matter of sheer luck, getting out of the hotel is not impossible. In the past year, there has been some turnover as three offenders moved out and one moved in, according to my perusals of the registry since last winter. Edward Boppert used to live in the Duncan but moved six months ago to West Haven, to an apartment his brother helped him find. Compared to Palmieri, Boppert seems deflated when I meet him, like something’s been beaten out of him. He’s 68, a retired multi-machine operator now settled with a pension and Social Security. He seems determined to hold on tight to what he has, simply by being unassuming, and he takes pride in his success so far.

Boppert urges me to talk to the manager of the Hotel Duncan, his former landlord, as a “reference.” His reasons for speaking to me are clear: he has been convicted of a crime and wishes to change society’s negative perception of him.

“He’ll stick up for me. He’ll say that I always minded my own business,” Boppert says earnestly about his landlord.
In the letter I originally sent to Boppert requesting an interview, I made no promises. I explained I was looking for an account of his experiences reintegrating into society since he was released from prison. In order to make my request seem more palatable, I asked for the parts of his story he was willing to share—the details he was not willing to share, he could omit. I don’t want to believe that the details of his or the other two sex offenders’ stories were false, but at the same time, I don’t know what they chose not to tell.

When I ask him to explain how he got into trouble in the first place, Boppert gets quiet. “It was—” He looks around the Starbucks to make sure no one is watching and then cups a hand beside his mouth and leans toward me. “It was just computing,” he whispers. I press him for details.

“Computing,” he whispers again, then feels obliged to elaborate. “Porn.”

“Like…children?” I say. Of course, I already know most of Boppert’s story from the registry. He was convicted of five counts of illegal possession of child pornography on August 31, 2007, and he was released on January 28, 2010.

“Yes,” he responds, and looks disappointed with himself. He tells me he was caught while in the process of moving residences—the pornographic pictures he’d found online blew out onto the driveway. The movers found them and turned him in. It’s good that it happened, he says, because it made him stop looking at child pornography earlier than he would have otherwise. He has nine years of probation left to go. According to the registry, he’s the same height as Palmieri. I can’t see it under his red-and-white flannel shirt, but I know he has a three-inch scar on his right shoulder.

Using the addresses on the registry, I attempted to contact the five other offenders, besides Palmieri and Boppert, currently living in the Hotel Duncan. The hotel’s receptionist told me that one had moved out about a year ago, though the change had not been updated online. Another, the only one living at the hotel with a federal conviction, had been recently changed on the registry to “non-compliant”, meaning he had not checked in with probation for more than three months. He did not respond to my letter or calls. Three declined to be interviewed.

The last sex offender, James Szelest, 38, said at first that he would only talk to me on the record if I omitted the hotel’s name and address. If people read my article and found out there were sex offenders living there, customers might stop staying at the Duncan. If enough people were turned away, he explained, the hotel might go out of business.

This put me in a difficult position. On the one hand, Szelest’s address was public information, easily accessible with a few quick online searches, and I could not omit it from the article. But on the other hand, he had a good point—my article could deter potential clients, put the hotel out of business and send him, along with the others, to a homeless shelter.

The state’s probation system essentially forced the offenders to aggregate in one place. And not just any place, but a hotel on a busy street right next to an affluent university, sure to garner attention. In publicizing this information, the state registry, a tool meant to ensure community safety, could actually be responsible for putting them all on the street. The overall system seemed inherently faulty, dangerous and unfair, for the sex offenders and for the communities where they live.

Two years after Timmendequas raped and killed seven-year-old Megan Kanka, President Bill Clinton signed Megan’s Law, requiring each state to register sex offenders and to publish personal information about them. As long as these two basic national requirements are met, each state has authority over its own version of the registry. It is more recent legislation, passed in 2006, that requires registries to categorize offenders by the level of risk they pose, but Connecticut has postponed updating its registry for budgetary reasons.

It is a problem that Connecticut’s current registry does not provide much information that could help viewers understand the level of risk that individual offenders pose, said Mike Lawlor, a former state representative and now the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice and planning. On December 5, there were 564 sex offenders in 449 locations within five miles of my zip code, 435 offenders in New Haven, and seven in the Hotel Duncan, according to the registry. It gives physical information, conviction and release dates, addresses, and the degree of sexual assault for each individual, but not, for example, whether the individual has assaulted males or females, adults or kids, strangers or acquaintances.

The state has a system to determine whether sex offenders pose high, medium, or low risks of recidivism and harm to the community, but the information is used exclusively by probation and parole officers and is not even publicized on the registry, Lawlor said. He also, controversially, argues that some low-risk offenders should not be on the registry at all, including some who were convicted for statutory rape.

“For example, a high school senior who takes a high school freshman to prom. The classic case where the parents call the police. O.K., that’s what the law says, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the guy who had sexual relations with this girl is a high-risk pedophile,” he said. Ideally, the state would establish a board responsible for determining risk specifically for publication on the registry.

Most people perusing the registry in its current form will assume, as I did, that all of the sex offenders living in the Duncan pose a high risk to the community. Most people would probably be afraid of what might happen at the Duncan. Lawlor said if the state added risk categories notifying the public whether or not there are high-risk sex offenders living in the hotel, this clarification would help assuage these fears. But I’m not sure that solution alone would solve some of the major problems with the system.

A few weeks after our first phone conversation, Szelest called me back and left a message apologizing for his earlier resistance to being interviewed.

“It’s hard enough being published already,” he said, referring to the registry. Unlike Palmieri, who will only be on the registry for a total of ten years, a standard amount of time for sex offenders, Szelest said he will be on it for life, because of the court ruling on his case.

He was worried about losing his home at the Duncan if I published the story, he said, but decided he wanted to “get his side out.” He was arrested for the possession of child pornography, according to the registry and corresponding court records. He said he turned himself in to the police after his wife found the photos on his computer.

Szelest said he “disgraced” his country by his actions. He is an Army veteran and has been threatened by his neighbors in the Duncan and by other veterans. Although an expanded registry would help the public determine the risk offenders pose to those around them, Szelest added in a later interview, he is put at risk by the fact that his legal status is public. More information is not necessarily better for his safety.

Meanwhile, recent research questions whether the registries really increase community safety across the nation, said Randall Wallace, program director of the Center for Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior at nonprofit The Connection. The organization oversees treatment for all offenders in the state of Connecticut and will oversee the treatment facility in Montville once it opens. Although Wallace said the most effective registry would categorize offenders by risk level, he added that research shows no significant correlation with registries and reduction of risk of recidivism for the offender. In fact, some experts say, registries can decrease community safety by causing members of the public to focus on offenders who are strangers to them. Most victims of sexual assault, however, know their assailants. In relying on the registries for information, the public may be ignoring threats from people who are closer to them.

Why did this ineffective system develop? Possibly because early research on sex offenders made conclusions based primarily on studies on high-risk sex offenders, instead of distinguishing them from offenders who did not pose a high risk of harm to the community, according to David D’Amora, an academic expert on sex offense at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The way academics view sex offense today is very different from the way they thought about sex offenders a few decades ago. Early studies focused only on the highest-risk offenders, suggesting that sex offenders were drastically different from other criminals, D’Amora said. Sex offense was treated like an incurable behavioral problem that could only be managed, such as substance abuse, instead of like a curable disease.

“The person is responsible for their behavior and needs to be held accountable, but that got turned into, ‘Oh my goodness, they can’t ever change,’” D’Amora said. “We went too far in trying to think about it.” Academics reached conclusions about basic characterizations of sex offenders that were inconsistent with the reality of the situation.

But Wallace said he “adamantly” disagreed with the idea that some offenders can be cured, adding that the reality was more nuanced. Many sex offenders have specific incurable problems closely related to their sexual crimes, such as anger management and alcoholism. During the treatment process after incarceration, Wallace said, the state system determines which problems are linked with the offenders’ crimes and then creates a therapeutic plan to manage them long-term. But both agreed that there was a population of offenders at low risk for recidivism who should be cycled out of the system as soon as possible.

Research shows that only a small minority of sex offenders recidivate and that the majority who do actually commit non-sexual crimes correlated with factors such as lack of employment and housing, D’Amora explained. So Szelest’s worst nightmare, being kicked out of his home at the Duncan, could mean trouble for the rest of the community as well, since many of the offenders in the Duncan aggregation would become homeless.

Indeed, there is a group of sex offenders more dangerous than the rest, whose crimes are symptoms of incurable mental problems. The issue is that many laws in states across the country have been developed based on this small subsection, instead of based on empirical studies of the larger population, D’Amora said.

“In fact, when we over-respond to low-risk offenders, we actually increase their failure rate, which does not increase community safety,” he said. This over-response could deprive low-risk offenders of stable housing and jobs, making it more likely that they will fail to integrate completely into society. Sex offenders living in unstable situations are more likely to commit crimes that may have nothing to do with their original offenses, endangering the community.

There is a new trend at the federal and state levels toward developing policies that are based more on what the evidence says works, instead of on a “knee-jerk response,” D’Amora said. It’s important for low-risk offenders to be able to develop appropriate skills, behaviors, and relationships in order to properly reintegrate into society and avoid recidivism.

Boppert and Szelest both lost their marriages to their mistakes, and both live alone with only minimal contact with their families and former friends. Palmieri is convinced that the system is attempting to ruin his relationship with his boyfriend, Sucre Romero, 21, whom he met after being released from prison and coming out as bisexual.

Romero is a drag queen performer at York Street Café and Palmieri often went to his shows to help out backstage. But last spring, Palmieri was assigned a new probation officer who banned him from attending, saying it was sexually stimulating and therefore inadvisable. When Palmieri complained to the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, he claimed his probation officer changed her reasoning for the restriction, instead saying it was justified by the presence of alcohol at Romero’s performances. She put a GPS tracking device on his ankle to prevent him from going, and then several days later she wrote up a warrant that said he had violated his probation. Palmieri, who spent twenty-two days in prison because of the warrant, said there was no basis for it. He said the probation officer had falsely accused him of possessing pornographic videos of his boyfriend performing in the shows. Palmieri added he was fired from his job as a bellhop at Hotel Duncan because he had to miss work while in prison.

“The twenty-two days I spent in prison when she violated me, twenty-two days away from [Romero]—I was a basket case,” he said. “And they say they want us to have healthy, consenting relationships.” He is now involved in a court case related to the incident and was the subject of a June 30 article in the New Haven Register. In that article, he was quoted as saying, “You can’t keep me from getting sexually aroused…Be happy, I’m getting sexually aroused by adults.”

In early November, Romero tagged along during one of my interviews with Palmieri at the top level of the store Gourmet Heaven. There were a few other tables occupied, but Palmieri seemed less worried this time about being overheard.
It was easy to see the tension in their relationship. Romero lives in New York, and Palmieri isn’t allowed to leave the state without checking in with his probation officer in advance. Sometimes Romero makes plans for long-distance trips with his friends, and both in the couple are disappointed when Palmieri cannot get permission to go in time. The relationship confused me—I’m less than a year younger than Romero and getting past a potential partner’s sexual assault charge would be difficult for me. I asked Romero what his reaction was when Palmieri first told him about his legal status.

“It was unexpected,” he said, when Palmieri revealed the information to him after a few weeks of dating. But by that time, he had already gotten to know his boyfriend and realized that he was a good person. That made it easier to forgive his mistakes, Romero said.

Not everyone in Palmieri’s life has been as understanding. One of his probation officers once told him that his relationship with Romero was unhealthy, because he said Romero looked like a 14-year-old. One of Romero’s friends told Romero he would rather date a murderer than a sex offender. Comments like this upset Palmieri—people make assumptions about him because of his charge, before they know anything else about what he did or who he is.

He once read an article in a local paper interviewing a man released from prison after serving more than twenty years for killing his wife “in a crime of passion.” Palmieri says the article praises the man for starting his own business and turning his life around after being released.

“Never in anybody’s lifetime will we see an article like that about someone with a sex offense…I can’t be around minors, but does this guy have any restrictions about getting married again? It’s ridiculous,” he says.

The stigma also harms the people who were victims of the original sexual assault crimes, said Tina Greaves, director of victim advocacy at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services. Victim advocates are involved in the probation process after a sex offender is released from jail. Their job is to make sure the victim’s perspective is represented in the decisions made about where the offenders can live and work. A large percentage of sex offenders know their victims, so if an offender were to commit another sexual crime, it would probably involve someone they already know. Offenders that are better integrated into society after incarceration are less likely to commit another crime, so it is safer for the victim if the offender has a more stable life.

Last winter, before I had even met Palmieri or the other offenders, I visited the Duncan to talk with the hotel’s manager, Richard Longo. I told him what the interview would be about before I got there, but he seemed shocked and defensive when I brought up the topic in person.

Longo said he hadn’t been aware that there were, at the time, nine sex offenders living in the hotel, adding that he didn’t “keep tabs on it.” This seemed unlikely to me, especially since at the time Palmieri was also employed there as a bellhop. Longo said he had no idea whether the hotel’s other patrons were aware of the fact, unless “they are savvy with a computer” and he refused to comment on whether patrons should be told about their offending neighbors when moving in. I tried to get him to elaborate, but he effectively sent me packing.

I called Longo again this fall, equipped with notes from my research and interviews. But he again refused to comment, even when I informed him I would publish the article either way. I understand why he was defensive. He probably felt as though I was threatening the hotel’s future, although he is doing the community a service by taking in the sex offenders, whether or not that is his intention.

One of the offenders living at the Duncan is Joseph Dabrow, who is non-compliant. The registry indicates that Dabrow is guilty of three counts of sexual assault in the fourth degree, or nonconsensual sexual contact including rape. There were no more details about the crime. Though he was listed as a federal offender, his charge in federal court was not identified. But after a quick Internet search, I found an article in The New York Times from January 27, 1999, which revealed more detail: As a Boy Scout troop leader, Dabrow was accused of sexually abusing some of his scouts between the ages of 12 and 15, groping several and exposing himself to others. The federal charge was for illegal possession of pornography. He pled guilty to the federal charge and asked the judge to give him a maximum sentence in order to qualify for a sex offender treatment program at a federal prison in North Carolina, according to the article.

The law aims to target offenders who commit crimes such as Dabrow, but offenders who have committed nonviolent crimes seem to be getting caught in the legal net. I lack the information and expertise necessary to try to predict whether Palmieri, Boppert, and Szelest will commit crimes in the future. The state’s new regulations promise to make the determination of risk easier for people like me, but the next step is for the state to legislate differently based on those categories.

Hotel Duncan is striking, not necessarily as an example of an aggregation, but as an example of a place willing to house people who have been highly stigmatized in the public eye. Driving sex offenders into homelessness and into the desperate situations that often lead to crime seems dangerous, for them and for us. Low-risk offenders with homes, jobs, and healthy relationships, those who are successfully integrated into society, are less likely to resort to actions that make our communities unsafe. It is a question of pragmatism, not forgiveness. The important goal is to improve our society by lifting its most marginalized members.

Szelest, Boppert and Palmieri agreed to talk to me because they are each forced to remain at the lowest points in their lives. They are constantly looking for something else to help them pursue normal lives again, to persuade those around them that they deserve more.

Szelest—nicknamed Turtle because of his weak chin and broad shoulders—hardly leaves the Duncan. He was abused by his adoptive father as a child and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, only exacerbated by his time in the army and the harassment he has faced since prison. He’s on full disability pay and sees a clinician on a regular basis, often visiting the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Haven. Ironically, Szelest graduated from paralegal school before he was charged and said he gave out a lot of legal advice in prison, while also researching law on his own time. He wants to move on, but he doesn’t know how. He’s left with remnants of a family, remnants of a life.

“I had plenty before but I don’t have any of it now, because I’m not sure what to do,” he says.

Boppert, retired, seems like he has the easiest lifestyle compared to the other two offenders. He doesn’t have to worry about money or employment. He is working on finishing his treatment program, and although he is near its end, he says it could take two or more years to finish, depending on his probation officer.

Besides his program, he goes to church and does his “Bible stuff” in addition to reading and watching a lot of television shows. He takes things day by day, he says, though sometimes he doesn’t feel like a “normal person.”

“Sometimes I cry at night,” he says. “That’s how bad it is.”

Palmieri is being evicted from the hotel—after losing his job as a bellhop there, he won an unemployment hearing in October, allowing him to collect further compensation from the hotel. He said the eviction is probably due to that situation. I wanted to hear the hotel’s point of view on the dispute, but Longo was unwilling to speak with me.

Palmieri is not sure when he has to move out or where he will end up living, but he seems resigned to the unpredictability of his life. He is still searching for jobs, and he has only found two temporary landscaping jobs in the last few months.

Surprisingly, when I last speak with Palmieri, he seems less anxious than he’s been in past conversations. He says he tries to get out of the Duncan as much as possible by spending time with his boyfriend and with his family. He’s angry at a public that deems him perpetually guilty and a system that seems to enforce this judgment. At the same time, he desperately wants to rejoin society.

“How much more of nothing can I have?” he asks.

The state probation system aggregated him with other sex offenders in a hotel in a busy street in the city of New Haven. This factor, combined with his lack of employment, lack of stable income and the tension on his most meaningful relationship, prevents him from living a normal life. And no one seems to be helping him. National laws and public opinion treat him the same as they would a dangerous rapist—a different kind of aggregation—making it more likely that he’ll end up on the street. The main threat to the community of Yale University and downtown New Haven is not people like Palmieri, but a system that makes them more likely to commit crime.

Meanwhile, across the country, families are sleeping a little more soundly.

Playing Hardball

Jericho Scott
Jericho Scott, pictured here in 2008, on the mound.

Three years later, the remnants of Jericho Scott’s brush with youth baseball superstardom reign neatly over his small bedroom. A signed shirt from television personality Jimmy Kimmel hangs on the wall next to Jericho’s own FatHead, a brand of oversized wall sticker usually emblazoned with the likenesses of major league all-stars, not scrawny nine-year-olds pitching for pizza parlor-sponsored youth teams. His limbs flailing and his face scrunched into a ball of childish effort, the Jericho whom the sticker depicts hurls one of the famed fastballs that got him kicked out of his league and into the national media spotlight. Today, Jericho cringes a bit at the image. “I don’t like how I look in that one,” he says.

On August 20, 2008, Jericho, now 13, took the mound at New Haven’s Criscuolo Park for the then-undefeated Will Power Fitness team of the Liga Juvenil de Baseball, a small summer league he’d joined mid-season. The L.J.B. warned that Jericho, an above-average pitcher in this new league who was still only the third-best pitcher on his spring PONY League team, threw too hard and needed to change positions or move into an older age group. Jericho’s coach and parents ignored the warning and sent him out to pitch. After league officials promptly declared the game a forfeit and Jericho broke down in tears on the mound, editorials from New Haven to Idaho argued that the young boy was punished simply for being too good.

Over the coming weeks, as the Scotts raised money for a lawsuit against the league and the league held press conferences defending its decision, media outlets around the country trained their gaze on Jericho and turned a few bad decisions into a morality tale for the ages. It started when Jericho’s mother, Nicole, brought the story to News Channel 8 in New Haven. Soon journalists descended on Jericho’s home. Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno came calling. Mourn the enforced mediocrity of our youth! yelled talking heads on ESPN. Look at the home mortgage crisis if you think youth baseball is the only place where people are no longer allowed to fail! wrote others. Jericho was featured in a three-minute segment on the CBS Early Show in which he’s seen pitching on a sidewalk in New York City. He fumbles his catcher’s nervous return tosses and hides behind his mother’s legs as a crowd looks on. The eager host exclaims at a 47-mile-per-hour fastball that is in fact average speed for a nine-year-old.

It was a display of rampant journalistic moralizing, though Jericho and his parents say they never felt victimized by the media. But why did Jericho become a national media figure in the first place? I was amazed when I stopped to think about what Nicole reportedly yelled that August afternoon. “This will be the last year,” she shouted. “Once the lawyer is done they’re gonna eat shit and there ain’t gonna be a league next year.” I wanted to know why it all mattered so much.

Nicole runs a lively, orderly home in the rundown community of Fair Haven. Outside, teenagers hang out on street corners and trash litters abandoned yards. Inside, when I visit her, Nicole gracefully juggles the needs of her three daughters, who all have come down with a bug. She passes judgment on requests for soda and Wii as we talk about her children. “This neighborhood’s not the best,” she says. “I try to keep them focused on doing things to stay positive, enrolled in stuff so they’re not in the neighborhood.” Leroy, Jericho’s dad, stops in for dinner between a full day at work as an auto mechanic and a class his union is holding.

Jericho is an A student and a self-professed “neat freak” who has become one of the best thirteen-year-old pitchers in New Haven, according to his long-time coach Mark Gambardella. Gambardella coached the better-organized spring outfit on which Jericho played before and since the pitching incident. Yet still, Jericho’s parents worry. “You don’t want me to talk about Jericho,” Leroy said abruptly when I called. “Me and him, we’re having a tough time.” As Leroy sees it, Jericho’s been dealt a good hand—two parents, a stable home, a supportive coach—and hasn’t quite had his eyes opened to the misery that is only a few bad decisions away for him. “He doesn’t know what it’s like to have nothing.”

Jericho has never been in serious trouble, but Leroy wants him not to forget that his talent and upbringing alone won’t save him in a town where “you have fourteen-year-olds holding pistols.” Jericho carries himself with self-assuredness, but both Leroy and Gambardella know a sensitive boy beneath the “city front.”

“I’m not sure how strong he is on his own,” Gambardella said.

Once the public outcry against the league’s injustice faded, the Scotts became easy targets for criticism. John Williams, the prominent New Haven civil rights attorney who handled the Scotts’ lawsuit, describes the case now as a “typical example when adults meddle needlessly in the lives of their children.” Craig Fehrman, a graduate student in English at Yale and the reporter who covered Jericho’s story for Deadspin, a sports news Web site, told me that Nicole and Leroy “were putting a bad energy into the kid, where the way he performed in sports was a reflection of them.”

Nicole, who admits that she and Leroy are “the loud parents” at games, can certainly be held responsible for feeding the media fire. Gambardella said that “Jericho would have stayed probably quiet if it was up to him.” Nicole still thinks that her lawsuit against the league will make it to court and vindicate her, even though Williams says he gave up years ago. “It could go on till Jericho’s 19 years old,” she proclaimed.

And the notoriety has worn on Jericho. “He doesn’t show it, but it’s really hard on him,” Leroy said. “With the exposure he’s had, it’s a little worse for him. He’s known in the community. You can’t be an average kid egging someone’s house on Halloween.”

Yet to criticize the Scotts for their stubbornness would be to ignore the central place baseball occupies in their lives. Baseball is not a peripheral passion for the Scotts, a game during which they relax their parenting principles and indulge in narcissism. In a neighborhood they mistrust, the stakes are high, and baseball is the game to which they cling for signs that Jericho is the courageous boy they need so badly to see. For better or for worse, baseball is the community, the coach, and the ethics that the Scotts are betting will guide Jericho into adulthood.

Mark Gambardella knows well what could lie ahead for his players. “I had one team that, right now, my first baseman has killed a teacher at Cross, my shortstop put an ice pick down at Fireside Café into somebody’s back, my catcher did armed robbery,” he said. (Cross is a nickname for Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven.)

Baseball doesn’t just keep Jericho out of trouble. It offers a home to the whole Scott family, from four-year-old Carizma, who is Jericho’s most loyal fan, to Jericho’s older brother Alex, who also played for Gambardella. Nicole joined the ranks of youth baseball coaches this season, signing on to lead a tee-ball team that included her young daughters. Next year, she says, two of her daughters will be playing for Gambardella, who also coaches girls. Even sitting in the stands is important to Nicole, who said she doesn’t hang out much around their home. Jericho’s team includes many families from outside Fair Haven, and early Saturday mornings at the local field and late evenings on tournament trips to Long Island have built friendships that the family holds dear. “That’s what we do,” Nicole said. “We get dressed in the summer and we’re at the baseball park. That’s where we’re at all day.”

Then there’s Gambardella, who played as a boy in the same league in which Jericho now plays and has spent the last thirty-two years coaching youth baseball, seven of them with Jericho. In terms of cost and time, Gambardella offers the Scotts and other families a bargain they won’t find elsewhere. He started a small new league this summer because parents’ other options were too expensive, and twice as many kids signed up as he expected. Gambardella and his son simply doubled their coaching duties. “We made a commitment,” he said.

“Mark is part of our family, outside of sports,” Nicole said. The man whose connection to Jericho was forged through hundreds of pitch signals now comes to every birthday party and graduation ceremony. He was there recently as the family mourned the death of Nicole’s grandmother, who had lived with Nicole her whole life.

Gambardella can identify with his players. “I was no angel growing up, either,” he said. He knows that his duties extend into foul territory and well beyond the fence. “We try to teach ’em life. I like to give ’em someone to talk to outside of their family.”

Jericho has been begging Gambardella to coach an older team next year so that he doesn’t have to move on. “He’s like a father to me,” Jericho said. “And my mom. More like a grandfather to me.”

I wanted to tell this story without any made-for-TV moralizing. But for the Scotts, Jericho’s story does have a moral—an important one. They depend on baseball to teach in an immediate, physical way lessons that aren’t communicated elsewhere in Fair Haven. In the old news stories, the Scotts’ complaints about the bad message the league was sending sounded trite. In person, their claims were urgent and alive. “I teach him, whatever you do, try to be the best at it, in school and baseball and everything else,” Nicole said. “He wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

Leroy’s voice rang with the same intensity as his wife’s. “If you practice hard enough, you can be the best you can be,” he said, after I asked him why the incident made him so angry.

Now, Jericho sometimes finds himself unable to keep up with older kids’ fastballs. “Am I gonna say ‘I don’t want him playing and your kid can’t pitch to him anymore’?” Nicole asked. “If my kid can’t hit, then he needs to practice more. He needs to go to the batting cage and turn it up a little bit and practice more. You can’t hit ’em today, but next time you will. And sure enough he does.”

Back in his room, Jericho mostly mumbles through our conversation about baseball.  But his voice perks up for the first time when he tells me that he also likes to draw. He shows me a handsome sketch he made of Goofy—nose wrinkled, eyes protruding, face lit in bright Crayola hues—with a note for his mom on her birthday. He has more, he says—his favorite piece is a picture of a skull and crossbones with guns—but they’re all packed away. After all, months of attention taught Jericho what I’m really interested in. He takes an 8.5 x 11 glossy photo from a stack in the kitchen and offers to sign it for me. “Thank you for your support,” he writes.

Photograph: Douglas Healey / Associated Press

Imagining Atwater Street

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

Gone Fishing

Sweet Mother’s Milk, $13.75

Bun Lai grinned like an excited teenager as a group of older women asked him about Sweet Mother’s Milk, an appetizer. Lai, the owner and celebrated head chef at Miya’s Sushi on Howe Street, was sitting across from me as I sipped from a bowl of earthy miso soup. On my right stood bottles of sake infusions and oils flavored with garlic gloves and chilis, which sent red and yellow hues dancing on the table below.

“It’s actually really great,” Lai said, getting up. “In some cultures, midwives actually breastfeed young babies, but when they’re done they usually still produce milk for a while. So what we do is have them harvest it, and we use that milk to make cheese.” A second of hushed silence passed. The women’s smiles started to drop. Bun went on, “Yeah, it’s really sustainable and socially conscious.”

I froze, and my mind raced to make sure that I’d heard him right. Before I could even start to think through the potential ethical implications of serving person-cheese, Lai’s straight face collapsed. “Nah, I’m just fucking with you—it’s artichoke heart,” he laughed, breaking out into a broad grin. I learned quickly that Lai has a particular sort of deadpan humor, like comedian Zach Galifinakis if Galifinakis were an athletic Asian-American sushi pioneer.

Raised in New Haven, Lai is the son of a Cambridge-educated surgeon and a Japanese nutritionist. In 1982, his mother, Yoshiko Lai, opened Miya’s, named for her daughter, as New Haven’s first sushi restaurant.

As Lai told me more about the restaurant’s history, I turned my attention to the miso soup and took another sip. Rich cubes of potatoes, buoyant mushrooms, and dark, silky seaweed balanced each mouthful of lightly salted broth. “I dove for that seaweed myself this weekend,” Lai said with noticeable pride. He harvests oysters and seaweed in one hundred acres of coastal water off the Thimble Islands in the Long Island Sound.

“Our kelp has more vitamin C than an orange and more protein than a steak,” he said. It was a brand-new recipe, and he was ordering each customer a bowl on the house. With each bowl, he’d say those exact words to the customer—I must have heard them at least a dozen times. ­

Under Lai’s mother, Miya’s was a traditional sushi bar, serving classic dishes with standard sushi ingredients—Bluefin tuna, shrimp, eel, sea urchin, and red snapper. When Lai took over, the dishes became more adventurous.

Now, the majority of Miya’s offerings are vegetarian, in large part due to the comparatively low ecological impact of eating plants. Miya’s advertises, even boasts, that it serves “the Northeast’s only sustainable sushi” in its sprawling and self-indulgent menu—a fifty-five-page dissertation on food, the environment, and Miya’s culture, filled with the exotic names of Lai’s rolls: Kilgore Trout, Romping with the Goats, the Bad Tempered Geisha Boy.

In my late teens, I became a vegetarian, but, like many others, I realized that I was actually pretty O.K. with eating fish. Save for a few surprisingly bright creatures like octopi and squid, the marine animals we eat are generally about as sentient as rocks, plants, or, more charitably, bugs. Compared to beef, their associated greenhouse gas emissions are low. But eating fish still raises other ethical and environmental concerns.

“I got interested in sustainability about eight years ago,” Lai told me, as he signaled to the servers to bring out a few dishes, “and shrimp was the one of the first things to go.” Shrimp accounts for only about two percent of the world’s seafood consumption, but nearly one-third of the bycatch. This unwanted fish caught in the same nets as the shrimp is discarded back into the ocean, usually dead or dying. For some shrimp trawl fisheries, bycatch accounts for as much as 90 percent of a given yield.

Shrimp farming also can devastate local ecosystems. Ecuador, a coastal republic in South America, has had nearly half a million acres of coastal mangrove rainforests cleared in order to support an industry that exports 95 percent of its shrimp to the United States. “For us to serve cheap shrimp, future Ecuadorians won’t have the freedom to make a living off of their natural resources. It’s a social justice issue,” Bun explained, as his servers brought out a massive slab of rock with a half-dozen rolls on top.

The Kanibaba Roll, 5 pieces, $25.75

The Kanibaba roll is soft-shelled crabmeat, wrapped in warm and savory potato, topped with lemon dill, a toasted Havarti cheese sauce, and a few strands of green onion. A handful of small, bright red crabs garnish the dish, as if climbing seaside rocks topped with seaweed.

“This used to have shrimp in it, and it was our most popular dish,” Lai told me. I looked suspiciously at the crab on top. “That’s an Asian shore crab I caught myself,” he said. “Eat it last.” I scanned his face for signs that he was joking, and couldn’t find any.

I decided to come back to the crab. I lifted it off the top and set it aside, then took a bite of the rich, cheesy potato roll. I felt as if I’d blacked out for a few seconds, then came to with a stupid grin on my face and an inexplicable craving for a cigarette. This wasn’t the type of roll you imagine when you hear “sustainable sushi.”

I took a look at the crab I set aside, and the bite I had left of my kanibaba. “Might as well,” I thought, as I placed the crab on top of the roll, and raised them both to my mouth with Miya’s sleek metal chopsticks. The shell and meat were brittle but delicious.

Asian shore crabs migrated to this continent in the ballast of freighters in the eighties, and have now taken up residence in beaches all along the Northeast coast. They’re a destructive invasive species. They eat the larvae and plankton on which local fish and shellfish subsist. With no natural predators to keep them in check, Asian shore crabs are quickly displacing native crab populations. Lai does his part by using them in his dishes. “I’ll have to take you out to catch them, sometime,” he told me.

Not long after my meal at Miya’s, Lai and I met up with a friend of his, Will Reynolds, as we made our way to Silver Sands Beach in Milford, Connecticut. Reynolds, a charismatic filmmaker who recently moved to New Haven, met Lai at Miya’s. “He took me under his wing,” Reynolds said. The two belted Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” as we arrived. I’m at the Pizza Hut. We grabbed a large white bucket from the back of Bun’s car—I’m at the Taco Bell—and made our way to the craggy rocks on the cold, late-November sand. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Lai’s method for hunting Asian shore crabs is simple. He turns over rocks on the beach, hoping he’ll find the crabs hiding underneath. We flipped over seven rocks without much luck, startling one or two crabs the size of quarters that tried to scuttle away. Lai, Reynolds, and I picked them up and threw them in the bucket. Soon we hit our stride.

“Look under rocks that are big, flat, and not too deep. They need room to get under there,” Lai said. We found one that looked good—it took both Lai and me to flip—and heard Reynolds shout in surprise. A mass of about two dozen writhing crabs scurried for cover or played dead. We laughed and grabbed them by the handful.

After about an hour our fingers were frozen, but we had a bucket full of crabs. It crackled like a bowl of Rice Krispies. “This will last us a while,” Bun laughed, as we made our way back to Miya’s, where the crabs would be boiled, seasoned, and served.

Sakura Sashimi, 5 slices, $18.75

Thin slices of light pink tilapia are treated with sea salt and lime and infused with beet pulp, staining the edges a deep purple. Inspired by Inuit tradition, Lai has frozen the slices of fish, curling up the edges. Five of the large slices are arranged on a plate in a circle, like the petals of a large flower. They taste as delicious as they look. The frozen fish melts in my mouth.

More unexpectedly, the tilapia used in the dish is from the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center, a vocational high school more than twenty miles from Miya’s. Deep within the expansive coastal campus, John Curtis, the school’s director, gave Lai and me a tour of the hatchery. Lai and Curtis laughed like old friends—Lai laughs with everyone like old friends—as I looked into the wide, white tanks that circled the room. Inside the tanks were gray fish the size of my calf, swimming in green and salty water. Students at the school hatch, raise, and sell the fish, working sustainably at every step. “I’ll buy anything these guys will sell me,” Lai says, laughing.

To Lai, knowing where fish comes from is hugely important. “We used to get our seafood from a Japanese company and we had no idea where it came from. You shouldn’t be able to walk into a sushi restaurant and ask them where their fish comes from, and get back an ‘I don’t know.’ ”

“There has to be traceability in seafood,” he said later. “I’d like to see a shift to treating fish and seafood a lot like wine: there should be policy enforcing origin.”
Ariana Bain, a sustainability consultant and graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, helps Lai ensure supply lines are traceable. “Working with Bun is hilarious,” she said. “I’m a very sort of rational, logical person. I’m involved in the back-end operations because Bun knows it’s something he’s not really strong at.”

“Everything’s always fluid with Bun, because he’s an artist,” she told me.

Kiribati Sashimi, 10 slices, $12.75

Lai’s activism stretches further than limiting his own ecological impact. He also strives to raise awareness about the damage unsound choices make to humans. A server brought out our last dish, Kiribati sashimi. A dozen or so thin, pink slices of fish were sprinkled with brown, red, and black spices and arranged like a large flower on the center of a small plate. The perimeter slices lay like petals, with a few pieces rolled tightly in the center, standing up and spiraling out like a rose bud.

“Kiribati is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean only a dozen feet or so above sea level. Scientists estimate that it will be under water in the next fifty years,” Lai told me as I put a slice of the soft and salty meat on my tongue. The tangy salt used in the dish was imported from Kiribati, “their only natural resource,” Lai said. “We designed the spices to simultaneously warm and cool your palette. It’s a metaphor for climate change.”

Lai and I finished our drinks late in the evening, long after it grew dark and nearly four hours after I’d arrived. I stood up to thank Bun for his hospitality. He hugged me good-bye and said, “I’ll see you around, brother!” I left Miya’s with a stomach full of warm sake, cheap beer, and seafood that I had enjoyed with a clean conscience. As I was leaving, I looked back and saw the restaurant’s logo in the large window: “Because man cannot live on rice alone.”

I smiled, knowing that at Miya’s, man didn’t have to.


It’s already past 10 a.m., but campus is silent on a Sunday morning. The overcast sky is the color of cream of wheat, and clouds linger placidly overhead. The cool November air feels too sleepy to stir, and there’s not a hint of a breeze. I’m anxious to get on the road to my aunt’s home in Simsbury, Connecticut and the Massachusetts border, but haste would upset the composure of the moment. Then again, I have a 112-mile day in front of me.

I’d been kicking around the idea for this ride since a confrontation with a cloyingly sweet cupcake a few weeks earlier, at a particularly bad time in my life. “There’s far too much frosting on this cupcake,” I can remember thinking. My parents and I had each been staring into space for the last ten minutes. My mother sat on my dorm-room mattress. My father had chosen the beanbag chair. I keep my equipment in my room, so we were crowded. One of my bicycles rested in a repair stand a few feet above the ground. The other machine lay against the wall. A set of carbon racing wheels filled the fireplace, and various solvents, lubricants, spare parts, and tools lined the mantle. I had bargained hard for the only single in Branford College with two walk-in closets to accommodate my jerseys, jackets, and socks, which all the same lay strewn on the floor.

I was munching on a giant, goopy Halloween cupcake, but the sweetness disgusted me. The toothpaste-green frosting didn’t help matters either. I pushed it away.

I was in a bad place that night. We had come upstairs when my voice began to tighten in the dining hall. It had been a semester so far of tearful phone calls, late-night flashes of panic, and trips to Health Services. Somehow, I was mis-shifting. A lingering, lurking anxiety—about my future, about my inadequacies, real or imagined—had dropped the chain, and my pedals were spinning. The thought of the time, expense, and care my parents had so generously given me only deepened the shame of the moment. I needed a day to be more than a harried, sleepless college student. I needed to do something to remind myself why I’d come here for school.

A long time ago, I caught the “New England bug”— chiefly a dream about family roots, the Ivy League, and Robert Frost poems. My father’s family is from Glastonbury, not far east of his sister’s home in Simsbury, where we had visited her many years ago. After that trip, I liked to imagine myself as a young California whippersnapper returning to his Connecticut roots for a proper university education. While I had made it to New Haven, I hadn’t gotten around to visiting my aunt and uncle, and I hadn’t seen them in nearly seven years. Reconnecting with them after a ride through the Connecticut countryside seemed like a healthy, sane thing to do. If I was going as far as Simsbury, I might even ride to the end of the Farmington Canal Trail at the Massachusetts border, fifteen miles farther north.

Bicycles don’t have faces, but every night the one on my stand stared me right in the kisser. There it was, repaired, poised, expectant, reproachful. The thick welds and wide tubes towered above my room, waiting only for a willing companion. I needed a day to myself, and that meant a day on my bike.

I’ve forgotten my sunglasses. Despite my three spare tubes, a hand pump, a mini-tool, pockets bulging with energy gels, arm warmers, leg warmers, a rear light, and about every other bike-related knickknack imaginable, I always forget something important when I’m going out on a ride. On the other hand, at least people will be able to look me in the eye. Maybe they’ll see a person and not a spectacled, spandex-encased alien.

Never in two years of riding around southern Connecticut have I really biked the Farmington Canal Trail, built over what was once an actual canal. Enterprising merchants completed the Farmington Canal running north from New Haven Harbor to the state border in 1835 in the early, heady days of American industrialization. The canal ran fifty-eight miles and featured an elaborate system of culverts and channels to supply its water from nearby streams. Numerous side channels and holding basins to accommodate two-way traffic adorned the canal route. The canal itself, however, was little more than a glorified ditch—unlined, with a bare earthen bottom.

Just over a decade later, the canal was filled and covered with railroad when shipping by train became more affordable. Today, colorful burnt-orange signs warn cyclists and runners of buried fiber optic cables shooting binary signals down the trail at the speed of light. Pedaling along the Canal Trail today, you retrace a history of relentless progress, of enterprising, single-minded, perpetually modernizing Americans—the same “practical men” Ralph Waldo Emerson critiqued witheringly in his essay “The American Scholar.” They may not have been great literary or intellectual minds, but they reached into the future with undeniable skill and drew it toward them with panache. Tracing tracks laid by calloused hands and trenches dug on cold November days, I feel closer to these men.

Along the trail north of Hamden, the colonnades of trees have shed the last of their autumn leaves. I’m making worse time than I would like—debris from a recent storm litters the trail. The trees stand barren and naked, waiting patiently for winter coats of powdery snow. A few hold out, but their rusty, dark foliage droops from their branches. A “No Skinny Dipping!” sign that’s outlived its seasonal relevance marks a pond on the right. Runners, somber elderly couples, and strollers punctuate the path. Proper cycling etiquette requires a clear “On your left!” when passing others, but it seems mostly to startle. I go slowly past a gaggle of toddlers on the grassy shoulder, but despite my passing distance Mom is frightened.

The Rails-to-Trails project that began converting the abandoned rail line to a multi-use path two decades ago has made slow progress, meaning the trail abruptly ends in places. Of course, Google Maps hasn’t gotten the memo. At one point in Cheshire the asphalt dissolves, and following my GPS, I take a dirt-access road that leads me across a nursery stock farm and through a cluster of greenhouses to the old rail line. The spikes have rusted through and the track is wildly overgrown in both directions. I stop to find my bearings. A pickup honks behind me. The driver is the one working on a Sunday, and I’m in the way.

Past Cheshire, the trail joins State Road 10. Time to open things up. There’s a slight tailwind, promising speed, and the bike settles into its rhythm. Not to disparage BMX or the mountain bikers of the world, but, in my opinion, the bicycle’s true home lies on the asphalt. Most simply, a bicycle is a tool for efficiently converting effort into motion. It converts work into velocity through a scheme of silently spinning gears, methodically turning pedals, and the gyroscopic equilibrium of the wheels. We move about the ground but above it.

The experience demands power and control, mediated by clip-in pedals that make the machine an extension of the body. A bicycle beckons us toward the ideal of souplesse, or “smoothness,” a quality of ease and calmness in every action: whether holding a line shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight pack, tracing the quickest arc through a corner, or launching the decisive attack when the road points skyward. Time on a bicycle, moreover, is a profoundly solitary experience. While we ride together and frequently cheat the wind with one another, each ride creates an irreducibly personal event. Each rider and bicycle form a whole, and a ride’s private sounds—the crisp whistle of the wind, the soft thrum of the tires—are engrossing against the silence of a well-oiled chain.

Three hours after I hit the trail, Simsbury’s main drag gradually emerges from the strip malls, fast food joints, and auto-repair shops along the highway. I’m almost there, and I’m struggling to think of conversation topics. My call the day before had been strained. While we had previously corresponded by e-mail about my “road trip,” I had put them on notice at the absolute last moment. “Hi, Aunt Amy? It’s Nick. Geiser, your nephew. Listen, I’m going to be riding the Canal trail tomorrow and I, uh, wondered if I could stop by? To see you and Mark?…” She drove to the point far more quickly: stop by any time, we’ll be out in the yard.

Lily, their golden retriever, charges out of the garage to greet me. My San Francisco home was too small for a dog and a bite from an aggressive poodle colored my childhood opinion of them, but Lily was the one wonderful exception. I find my uncle Mark dispatching a fallen tree with a chainsaw on the edge of the property. His weathered, creased face greets me with a bemused “Howdy, Lance!” I manage a sheepish grin. I follow him back to the house, stepping gingerly to avoid muddying my Yale Cycling shoe covers. Amy relaxes in the living room watching the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team dispatch a far lesser squad. I try for the usual conversational topics about work and school, but find myself talking instead about the Canal trail, weather, and whether I can make it to the Massachusetts border before nightfall.

The visit drags on for an hour. My cleats noisily clomp about the house, and Lily is climbing all over me, mixing her muddy paw prints with the blue paw print pattern on my Yale kit. It’s time for me to go.

After some hurried goodbyes, I’m back on the bike. It’s twilight already. There’s no way I’ll make it to the border before dark. The chill has set in and wind’s in my face now, pushing my pace down considerably. I’d overestimated the amount of time it would take me to get this far. If I want to make it back to school at a reasonable hour, I had better turn around now.

On the journey back, I pedal through towns’ empty Sunday evening roads, with only the dull glow of neon signs and the occasional passing car to break the monotony of the trail. The visit with my relatives could have gone better, I could have made it farther north in a milder season, but I’m not too disappointed. The ribbon of asphalt before me dissolves into the darkness ahead. My wheels thrum. On the bicycle, things are in-between. Where I’ve come from, where I’m headed at that moment are irrelevant—I’m moving.

Secrets Are No Fun

Payne Whitney Gymnasium, 9:05 PM. The volleyball game is over, and I stand with a fellow adventurer in ten stories of bright emptiness. Every footfall echoes. We’re alone, free to explore and investigate Yale’s athletic cathedral. The United States Squash Hall of Fame features a wall-to-wall trophy case with aspirations grander then its five lonely trophies. The crew tank looks like an ominous blend of slave galley and medieval dungeon. It takes only a little imagination to picture floggings on the tile floor. The open volleyball locker room teems with sweatbands, shampoo bottles, and CDs of inspirational music. But—alas!—no secrets. This will not do. Our mission is clear.

I arrived in New Haven for my freshman year with a vague ambition to “keep busy,” until the Freshman Activities Bazaar knocked the wind from my sails. I wasn’t musical, or athletic, and my wishy-washy interest in social justice couldn’t match the ardent passion of my peers. Four hundred undergraduate groups fought for access to my time, body, soul, inbox—but I didn’t feel qualified for anything. I spent nights walking alone in my new city, aimless and nervous, clutching my wrinkled campus map, trying and failing to work up the nerve to knock on a fraternity’s door.

My brilliant college career was off to a slow start when I discovered a group of fellow wanderers with an eye for the mysterious: the Yale Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets. Their first email contained only a link to their Web site. The page read, in full: yes or no?

“Yes!” I clicked.

Excellent. Watch for messages.

My mind swam with visions: pressing secret panels and winning admittance to crypts, tunnels, and towers in the company of future C.I.A. operatives. Before long, a flyer appeared in my entryway: “YSECS Interest Meeting. Silliman Gate, Wall Street. 11:23 p.m. do not be late.” The university’s secrets would soon be mine.

Or so I thought. In their trials by exploration, freshman YSECS rushees learn an important lesson. Yale is gigantic—impossible to fully explore—and most of it is not very interesting. Secret rooms turn out to be electrical closets; secret tunnels, just regular tunnels except with graffiti. Beware the occasional group of stoners who will lure you onto their “secret” ledge to debate the architectural genius of James Gamble Rogers. Their promises are false.

All the same, I couldn’t stop myself from seeing mysteries in Payne Whitney that night. Why did male athletes of old wear shorts that went only halfway to their knees? Why doesn’t Yale dispose of its long-retired tackling dummies and rusting World War Two-era weight stations? Why did the school build a cathedral just to stick a gym inside?

The greatest enigma of all was a sign in the crew tank that read last year was last year—this year is this year. I thought of my high school cross-country battle cry: to run faster, you must run faster! I wondered whether the secret to sporting success lay in selecting the proper tautology. Surely, the Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets would have an answer. For their sake, my companions and I trekked up five floors, and were ready to trek five more…

…but then we heard adult voices and decided to get the hell out of there. We flew down four flights of stairs in a matter of seconds—tiptoed around the ground floor—tried locked exits on every side—realized that getting arrested wouldn’t be the best way to end our first month of college—and finally found the door through which we’d entered and bolted into the fresh air, hearts racing. Forget Geronimo’s tomb. For a night, I’d tasted danger! Yale opened like a flower before my eyes. Soon, I’d be an elder of the Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets, cloaked in black, flirting with freshmen at illicit candlelit parties—

Until they refused to admit me. Or my co-explorer. Somewhere on campus, three lucky freshmen—the successful initiates—must have spent a Thursday crashing every secret society meeting or broken into Harkness Tower with duct tape and a butter knife. No more exploring for me—no more nights prowling the campus with pretty girls. Yale’s thrills had lost their charm. But last semester, as they say, was last semester. Come January, I think I’ll start crashing frat parties.

Heads Up

In Allison Peruso’s classroom, twenty children sit in a circle, quiet and cross-legged. “I thought it would be good for you to watch me write,” Mrs. Peruso says as she prints “Today is Tuesday” on the board in red marker. After leading a chorus of the “Days of the Week” song, sung to the tune of “the Addams Family,” she points to the words she has written. Children raise their hands eagerly to answer. Many can read the letters on the board.

If I didn’t know I was at the Helene Grant Head Start Center, a public preschool on Goffe Street, I would guess that this was a kindergarten classroom, and that the children sitting around the rug were not three and four years old, but five and six. A demanding curriculum is central to the Head Start program, particularly as the importance of early education increases in the public eye. “Times are changing,” says Myrna Montalvo, director of Helene Grant. “Thirty years ago, kids were not getting anything close to the level of preschool education we give today. With the pace of technology, kids now need to know more, earlier.”

Recently, however, New Haven Head Start struggled to provide quality childcare. A 2009 investigation conducted by the federal Administration for Children and Families concluded that the program violated sixteen different regulations. The violations ranged from incomplete health screenings to inconsistent employee trainings to undistributed toothbrushes found on a shelf, still in their original wrappings. The program was labeled an “at-risk Head Start agency,” one of only twenty-four cases to receive that categorization.

Tina Mannarino, supervisor of New Haven Head Start, acknowledges these former deficiencies with grace. “When you think back on it,” she says of the investigation, “it really was very helpful. It gave us the clout to make some very big changes.”

New Haven is the birthplace of Head Start. Edward Zigler, a Sterling Professor of psychology at Yale, designed the program in the early 1960s. In 1963, a New Haven preschool opened as a laboratory for the program. Head Start later went national as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, under the aegis of the Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start’s holistic approach sets it apart from other early education programs: in addition to providing preschooling to three- and four-year-olds from low-income backgrounds, the program also emphasizes health, nutrition, and parental involvement. Head Start provides training sessions for parents, for example, including courses in computer skills, résumé writing, and GED preparation. Keith Young, the agency’s male involvement coordinator in New Haven, works with fathers to encourage their engagement. The program has served over 22 million children across the nation. New Haven now has five Head Start sites, with 750 children currently enrolled.

“Other programs only focus on getting the child ready for kindergarten,” Mannarino says. “Our philosophy is that if you strengthen the whole family and environment, outcomes for kids are better.”

The largest and most influential change since the program was declared at risk has been a complete reorganization of the staff to increase oversight and accountability. Before the audit, one Head Start director was responsible for all five sites in New Haven. Now, each school has a site director to oversee all the functions of the preschool.

Montalvo is the site director at Helene Grant. “It’s much more of a community now,” she says. For two mornings, I watch her stand outside the building as children are dropped off. She greets every parent that walks through the double doors.

The 2009 review also found that children in the district weren’t getting dental health check-ups. It had proven nearly impossible, Mannarino explains, to make sure that hundreds of parents were taking their children to the dentist. The solution was simple and effective. A dentist came to the sites in a van loaded with equipment, and children received their dental exams at school.

The review additionally faulted the district for not engaging parents. “The Head Start program operated with little or no parental involvement in program decisions,” it stated. Since then, the program has established the Policy Council, a governing body comprised of elected parent representatives. According to Mannarino, the Policy Council must approve “basically everything” about the program, including matters of hiring and termination, transportation, and budget.

Two years after the review, reform efforts continue. This year the district introduced a new Scholastic Inc. curriculum. “We’ve been seeing results with it,” says Montalvo. Helene Grant School has also been the first site to introduce uniforms for students—yellow polos with navy slacks and skirts. “Parents like it,” Montalvo explains, “because buying a few uniforms is less costly than buying lots of clothes.”

The district passed its federal audit last year with flying colors. No deficiencies and no noncompliances were found.

When it comes to improvement, both Mannarino and Montalvo agree that the frequent reviews and audits conducted by federal agencies greatly help to keep the program in shape. “Even when you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do,” Mannarino says, “it’s good to have people come see you.”

This is one reason why a recent policy decision by President Barack Obama troubles Mannarino. In an effort to maintain high accountability in the program, Obama has declared that the private sector preschools will be allowed to vie for funding with the bottom 25 percent of Head Start sites. This aspect of Obama’s new plan is not, however, the part with which Mannarino takes issue. Instead, she is concerned that the top 75 percent of districts will not be reevaluated for five years. “Five years is a long time,” Mannarino says. Currently, the Administration for Children and Families reviews districts every three years. Audits and inspections by other agencies occur on different time cycles, ensuring that districts are kept on their toes at all times. The agency is due to review New Haven Head Start again next year.

New Haven Head Start also conducts studies of its own, testing its four-year-olds three times a year. For example, New Haven Head Start offers both ten-hour days and six-hour days. The program’s studies indicated that their children at school for ten hours a day were not progressing as quickly as children who came for only six hours. “We’re taking that very seriously,” says Mannarino. “And we are considering getting rid of the ten-hour option if it is not needed or effective.”

Not all changes have been universally popular. A teacher who has been in Head Start for over fifteen years says that some of the changes have imposed too much rigidity on both children and teachers. She cites “too much paperwork” and “not enough time and freedom to teach the children” as major problems. When asked where the burdensome restrictions come from, she gives me a knowing look. “They come from the same place where we get our money,” she says.

Though some might criticize excessive federal regulation, more criticize inadequate federal funding. “I would really like to see enough money for us to get all certified teachers,” says Mannarino. Of the five Head Start sites in New Haven, only at Helene Grant are all the teachers certified. “Having certified teachers makes a huge difference,” says Mannarino. “We never have gotten enough of an increase to support the change. We’ve been funded at the same level all these years, but health benefits and salaries keep going up. It’s difficult to maintain program quality with inflation.” In this recession, there are more children on the waiting list than ever before in district history.

Still, the New Haven district’s many successes demonstrate that government agencies can indeed make themselves more efficient and address their shortcomings. After talking to those involved in the agency, I’m tempted to say that its rigorous and self-critical approach is something that not only other Head Start districts but also the private sector might do well to emulate.

Feeding Occupy New Haven

A string of multi-colored Christmas lights and the blue-green glow of sunlight filtered through tarp illuminate the food tent at Occupy New Haven. Several cardboard signs bluntly demand that occupants clean up after themselves. The food tent is known more officially as the Food/Library Tent. Half is for food, and half is called the lounge, according to demonstrator Jim Ferrara, a construction worker by day. “This is us basically,” he said, waving a hand at four mismatched chairs, a makeshift bookcase crammed with paperbacks, a bulletin board marred with memos, a battered bass drum, and a generous bouquet of fresh red roses.

On an unusually temperate November day,  protesters ranged outside, some preparing the tents for anticipated rain. Between sixty and eighty-five people sleep here regularly, depending on whom you ask, but many more gather for General Assembly planning meetings on Sunday afternoons. Demonstrators assemble not only to articulate their movement’s objections—to the roles of major banks and corporations in the democratic process and in the current recession—but also to govern this new, tiny, self-contained and well-regulated city on the New Haven Green. At the heart of this operation stands the food tent.

“We were going to have set meal times, but it’s too hard to get someone to cook,” Ferrara told me. The protesters rely instead on frequent spontaneous acts of cooperation. Early-rising protesters often make pots of oatmeal for the group. Some prepare vegan soups to be eaten communally after returning to the encampment from a day of work. Veganism and vegetarianism are common here, though perhaps not as rampant as at other Occupy protests. Dakota Ellingsworth, a physics student on a leave of absence from Carnegie Mellon, eats meat and was pleased to discover that Occupy New Haven also caters to the occasional omnivore. He arrived here after some time at Occupy Pittsburgh, where the meals were hot and regular but contained no meat.

Ellingsworth admires New Haven’s protest. “They’re a good bit more organized than Pittsburgh,” he mused as he gazed upon the Food/Library Tent. While Occupy Pittsburgh is a larger protest, it’s squeezed into a tiny corner of downtown, not sprawled comfortably over a grassy expanse. Richard Riley, a handyman who had been here since three days after Occupy New Haven began October 15, told me that the demonstrators’ rapport with the New Haven Police Department also makes their encampment a model of orderliness among similar protests nationally.

Bread, peanut butter, grape jelly, muffins, paper plates, napkins, and three pump bottles of Purell hand sanitizer were laid out at lunchtime that day. “I only want half a muffin,” Riley said, using a pocketknife to slice a fat blueberry one. He grabbed a cruller from a cardboard box of sticky donuts and a paper towel and stooped to exit the tent into the sun.

A steady stream of donations to the tent shows the demonstrators enjoy support from the community more broadly. The sleek Occupy New Haven Web site provides a streamlined conduit for donations to feed the protesters. Specific needs—canned goods, tarps, socks, bug spray—are listed there like demands for a new world order. Mediterranea Café on Orange Street took after New York restaurants in offering a special vegetarian “Occu-pie,” which sympathizers could pay to have delivered in bulk to protesters. Est Est Est and other pizzerias have also donated pies.

“We get it together,” Ferrara said. “Everybody pitches in.”

Book Trader donates bread to the protest. Atticus donates bread by default, to occupiers who requisition the bags of day-old baguette the store dumps on Chapel Street. Currently, the protesters have a surplus of bread. Ferrara worried aloud that their other supplies were getting low, though it certainly didn’t look that way to me. A cadre of bookcases contained canned vegetables and beans and pasta—and confectioner’s sugar, instant coffee, an economy-sized bottle of Vitamin C. A crate of pears, apples, carrots, and red potatoes rested on a makeshift bench. The potato peelings were destined for a special bin nearby. Occupy New Haven, like other Occupy protests, composts.

The occupiers don’t have a refrigerator, but they do have a camping stove for cooking, a five-gallon water cooler that could have been borrowed from an office break room, and a fire extinguisher close at hand. Smoking is prohibited inside the food tent. Matt Smith, a construction worker with tattoos encircling his left bicep, chastised and chased away another occupier with a lit cigarette. Smith has spent every night on the Green for the past week and a half and hopes everyone will stay into the spring. “Hopefully through the winter, at least.”

Riley was also thinking ahead to the first frost. When I met him, he had just finished raking leaves. He said his freelance repair work usually slows down in the winter. “So I’ll be able to concentrate, make this my job, help people winterize their tents.” A few days later, demonstrators would line the food tent with insulating foamboard and lay linoleum to keep it clean. They plan to install a solar-powered heater. The Occupy movement’s long-term demands may be expansive, but the immediate goals of this village are clear and sensible. Prepare the tents for rain or snow. Cook a pot of soup and clean up the mess. Wait.

The Innovation Scene

I paused before entering The Grove, a sleek “coworking” space on Orange Street. Someone inside opened the door for me and said, “Don’t be shy.” In fact, I was hardly noticed. It was a Sunday afternoon, and Startup Weekend New Haven, a three-day marathon of networking, pitching, coding, and designing, was drawing to a close.

Startup Weekend, a nonprofit organization, has been holding similar marathons around the world since 2007. This was the first in New Haven. Eighty participants from across the country attended between November 11 and 13. Most were from the New Haven area, but others hailed from New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Ohio. They included adults, students, and a precocious adolescent from Catherine M. McGee Middle School in Berlin, Connecticut.

Later that day, fourteen teams would demonstrate their work to an audience of about 140 people. The winner would receive funding, legal services, Web hosting, and space to develop the project—all crucial ingredients for a new business. With the deadline fast approaching, team members—many of whom hadn’t met before Friday afternoon—were scrambling to finalize business pitches and polish their work.

They were sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated, but their enthusiasm was still obvious. “Things get done when people roll up their sleeves and do work together,” said event organizer Derek Koch. The eventual victorious startups were Shuga Trak, software for teenagers with diabetes that connects glucose meters to mobile phones;, a Web site to raise money for youth projects; and SociaBO, a dating app. One of the founders of was that lone thirteen-year-old, Keshav Patel.

There are currently around fifty startups in New Haven, most of them in information technology or biotechnology. Connecticut Innovations operates a program at Yale’s Science Park that gives tech startups office space and access to resources. That program has reached capacity, and new venues—among them The Grove and another called The Bourse—have opened to provide more working space for startups. They encourage “coworking,” or collaborative work in shared space.

Those familiar with the New Haven startup scene say that the city has plenty to offer entrepreneurs. Ben Berkowitz is one of the founders of SeeClickFix, a New Haven-based company that allows people to report neighborhood issues to their local governments online. He finds New Haven a “less distracting” place to work that is still convenient to New York City. He may be biased—he also designs and sells popular “New Haven. It’s better than your town” T-shirts—but New Haven’s startup scene is certainly more successful than Hartford’s, Bridgeport’s, or New London’s. The concentration of talent and resources here has reached a critical mass, creating a city that is financially and socially appealing to those wishing to start companies.

In October, Governor Dannel Malloy launched Startup Connecticut to promote this entrepreneurial culture throughout the state, investing $25 million a year for the next five years. Startup Connecticut belongs to the Startup America Partnership, a national organization created to give entrepreneurs funding and guidance. Startup America unites an alliance of private-sector organizations while pushing for public policy that would make the entire country more hospitable to entrepreneurship. Connecticut is only the third state to have its own chapter.

Connecticut has traditionally hosted fewer new startups and small companies than other states. New York City and Boston dominate the entrepreneurial scene in this part of the country. But Connecticut’s strong educational institutions and established engineering companies, such as Pratt & Whitney, United Technologies, and General Electric, could help the state to encourage new businesses. Those behind Startup Connecticut hope to transform the state into a model of entrepreneurship by harnessing these resources while providing generous funding and tax breaks.

Entrepreneurs and their funders don’t always see eye-to-eye on the best way to turn the state into a startup hotbed. The goal of Startup Connecticut is to create many jobs quickly. Its stated mission is to “launch many more startups in a much shorter timeframe” while also supporting smaller firms, according to its Web site. But some entrepreneurs say it can take time to develop the right conditions for good new companies.

Miles Lasater, an entrepreneur involved with Higher One, which aims to help universities with their financial aid systems, wrote in an e-mail that building a productive environment for startups could take decades. “It will take sustained attention and work by all the players to continue to focus,” he wrote.

Startup Connecticut is an ambitious endeavor, and experienced entrepreneurs note that new projects may take some time to enact. “Creative development takes time, though it is true that creativity can happen in a flash,” said Jonathan Feinstein, a professor at Yale’s School of Management. “It can take years to lay the groundwork for those creative moments.” Still, although the effects of Startup Connecticut remain to be seen, most agree that Connecticut is a much more exciting place for entrepreneurs than it was even six months ago.

Built to Last

Zachary Rotholz ’11, the 22-year-old who opened a cardboard furniture store on York Street this September, is getting tired of explaining his work to customers. He maintains a friendly and enthusiastic attitude. Yet when he’s asked for what feels like the millionth time, “Is the chair sturdy?” you can hear a bit of fatigue and boredom in his response:

“There’s only one way to find out! Try it!”

Rotholz explains that he has to sell his products twice. First, he must sell the concept of Chairigami. Only after that can he sell the furniture itself. He has also come to realize that he himself is as much on display as is any piece of furniture in the room. Visitors hit him with all the frequently asked questions. Why did you decide on cardboard? How do you come up with your designs? Sometimes, the questions are personal. A Yale student on assignment for a writing class asked him about his love life.

At first, Rotholz appreciated the attention. “It was nice being called ‘the Chairigami Guy,’ ” he said. “But sometimes, I want to talk about something other than cardboard…”

Chairigami was getting media attention even before business took off. By mid-November, Rotholz had made around ten thousand dollars in revenue. A steady stream of customers orders cardboard chairs, sofas, shelves, and tables for homes, offices, and dorm rooms. A wave of publicity hit Rotholz at the end of November, when he was featured on Connecticut’s WFSB Channel 3 Eyewitness News. CNN also broadcast the two-minute clip. Overnight, Rotholz’s Web site received fifteen thousand hits. E-mails poured in. Some people wanted to order furniture; others attached images of their own ideas for cardboard innovation.

Rotholz has received several requests to complete big projects. The first one he’s accepted is to design an entire office’s worth of furniture for a tech startup located in downtown New Haven. He claims that the furniture he sells suits the “urban nomad” way of life, because it is conveniently light and quick to assemble, recyclable, and easy to personalize.

Rotholz is ambivalent about his success. “A lot of people are saying ‘Go Zach!’ I feel like people are rooting for me more than I’m rooting for myself,” he said. “It’s a kind of weird cognitive dissonance. People are saying good job, but I feel like I’m not doing much. I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else, so I really have nothing to complain about. But I’m stuck in a rut right now.”

Appearing on national television isn’t a source of pride for Rotholz. He says he’s uncertain about whether he deserves all the publicity he’s getting. The notoriety was so easy to achieve, he says, that it disturbs him. “It feels like a big balloon, you know? It’s so empty.”

Rotholz thinks of his store as a place to meet new people and exchange ideas, a kind of “social experiment,” he said, but not as a permanent home for his talent. Initially, he wanted to see if people would buy his cardboard designs and to change the way some people think about furniture and environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

When Rotholz secured his lease for the storefront late last summer, his supporters, including vice president of New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65, expected Chairigami to expand quickly and eventually to provide jobs to members of the local community. But Rotholz is not sure he wants to expand, and he’s not sure he likes being a manager. He has not yet committed to a long-term plan. Rotholz’s lease was initially scheduled to end on September 30, and then it was extended to December 30. He doesn’t know how much longer he wants to stay in New Haven; he hasn’t decided if he wants to set up a store somewhere else, or if he just wants to run his business through his Web site. He bikes to work each day in a Charigami T-shirt, well-worn jeans, and Converse sneakers.

He also says he wants to work at his own pace. Rotholz has turned down offers from several potential investors, afraid of losing control to a “shark”—his term for a successful, experienced, fast-talking entrepreneur who might take advantage of the naïveté of someone like Rotholz. He has accepted two interns to help with manufacturing, but every few weeks, another design student who has heard of Chairigami’s success sends Rotholz a résumé, or brings in a portfolio. Still, he wants to keep things simple. No one has given Rotholz instructions, but he’s been learning how to deal with everything that goes into running a business, from lawyers to trademarks.

One of Rotholz’s “sharks” marched into the store on a Friday night in November. The businessman almost immediately suggested partnering with Chairigami on a major project. “What if I ordered five thousand dollars worth of chairs and tables right now? Would you be able to handle that capacity?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’d do my best,” Rotholz responded.

Later, the two sat down on one of the cardboard sofas, and the businessman pulled out his iPhone to show Rotholz a picture of his newborn baby. “Wow, congratulations,” said Rotholz, genuinely but calmly.

“How much do you care about making money?” asked the entrepreneur.

Rotholz shrugged and shook his head. “Not much.” They shook hands and promised to further discuss project details soon.

“I hate charging people money,” Rotholz told me. “I never know if I’m overcharging or undercharging. I wish I could just use a bartering system. Like, ‘I’ll make you this, and you can make me food.’ ”

Many more people visit Chairigami as friends than as customers. Strangers drop by to give moral support. Local musicians leave handwritten “business cards” with him and tell him to check out their Web sites. A man Rotholz suspected to be schizophrenic walked into the store just because he was lonely and needed someone to talk to.

Rotholz speaks readily with these visitors without betraying any desire to impress. People are very generous with their kind words and advice, he said. Often, because they share so much of their lives and ideas with him, he is inspired to design new things that people want—an iPad stand, a toddler’s chair, a beer pong table.

Sometimes visitors challenge him, but at this point, Rotholz doesn’t feel the need to persuade people to accept his concepts or his designs.

“Kind of a fire hazard, huh?” a man suggested.

“Just as much of one as the library across the street,” Rotholz replied.

“The products should be able to speak for themselves,” he said to me. “Personally, I’m not attached to the objects I make. I’m attached to the process. Since I’m never really satisfied, never truly proud of anything I make, I’m not so attached to the final product. I don’t linger.”

Rotholz has memorized most of his designs; he doesn’t usually need to consult his notes for measurements and procedures. He folds and cuts the cardboard without hesitation or the aid of a ruler, drawing the blade through the material in swift and steady slices. “After I designed my first chair, everything was somehow derived from that,” he said.

If Rotholz could spend all his time making furniture, he would be happy. He says he would much rather work as a member of a team, manufacturing all day, than manage the whole operation. It’s really hard to be your own boss, he says. “Marketing is really weird. You have to create the need, create the problem,” he said. “I want to solve problems.”

As a child, Rotholz’s Lego creations never lasted for more than a few moments. After building something, he’d quickly take it apart to start on something new. He wouldn’t linger on his products then, and he doesn’t linger on his cardboard creations now. But Rotholz says his mother recently reminded him that Chairigami has real promise, and the company is worth sustaining and developing. Rotholz’s challenge now is not innovation or persuasion. What he needs is the conviction to stick to Chairigami.