Rebuilding a Community With Cupcake Batter

by Treston Codrington

A bright smile, an open door, and a hot oven on Lilac Street breathe life back into Newhallville, New Haven. Minister Cynthia Johnson is cultivating “the next Julia Child” when she opens her home for baking sessions with neighborhood kids. The goal over these five years has been to restore the “creative diversity” she believes is endemic to Newhallville, but currently under-expressed.

Born and raised in Newhallville, Ms. Cynthia has lived in the same house on Lilac Street for 28 years. “I grew up on the other end of Lilac. Then I moved to Winchester Avenue…then to Sherman then back here to Lilac Street.” Lilac Street is a two block street in the neighborhood that Ms. Cynthia says, “is too small to be divided.”

The thoughtful Ms. Cynthia has borne witness to the transformations Newhallville has undergone over the past few decades. She grew up during an era of transformation.

The late 1960s and 1970s were for Newhallville, like the rest of the country, bleak times. The great economic downturns and urban decay that noisily rocked cities like New York also quietly ravaged smaller places like New Haven, and its various enclaves.

Newhallville had grown and developed as a thriving middle/working class, majority African-American neighborhood under the employ of the Winchester Repeating Arms factory since 1870. The company built houses for its workers: primarily one, two, or three family tenement-style houses. Eventually, these families earned enough to own the houses outright. At one time, Newhallville had the highest rate of African-American home ownership in Connecticut, and remains one of the highest.

Ms. Cynthia fondly remembers the times when the people of Newhallville supported themselves and each other. “There was a lot of diversity of skill. I never had to leave a four block radius. Everything I needed was right here.” The laundry, the school, the grocery, the tailor: They were all owned or operated by people who lived in the neighborhood. “If Mom didn’t have, she would send me down the street to [a neighbor] for a cup of sugar. It was that kind of place,” she says with that characteristic bright smile, followed by the endearing chuckle. “If Ms. Mary found me misbehaving on the street, she could whoop me. She’d tell my Mom who would then whoop me because Ms. Mary had to whoop me.” She laughs.

But in 1965, the Winchester Company departed when the owners realized that New Haven could no longer be profitable. The prosperity left too, then eventually people. People whose families had lived in or owned a property for several generations began to leave to find their fortunes elsewhere. The armament plant changed hands a few times, but the best times were behind. In 2006, the then U.S Repeating Arms Plant was closed, laying off 186 workers and ending over 130 years of arms production in Newhallville.

In the years before Ms. Cynthia moved back to Lilac Street in 1987, repeated strikes and the near bankrupt state of the armament plant drained the economic life of other local businesses. “Most of those businesses are gone. The economic diversity isn’t here anymore. [Since] people can’t afford to pay for the diversity. Lots of people have credit issues. People talk all the time and say, “This lot would be good for this thing. I think that would do well over there. But hardly anyone can do anything to get it started,” she says. One can feel the weariness in her voice, but also the glimmer of hope.

“People really can’t afford the insurance premiums.” High-crime rates have plagued Newhallville in recent decades. “It’s definitely been a roller coaster ride.” The loss of the factories brought not only poverty, high dropout rates and higher incarceration rates. But as Lieutenant Sharp of the New Haven Police Department says, “Things have quieted down, but the perception remains.” That perception has scared away a lot of potential investment from the neighborhood, but not all. The residents of Newhallville have been taking it upon themselves to restore their home and make it a wonderful place to live.

Ms. Cynthia believes that Kids’ Kitchen, her baking class, is becoming a vehicle of restoration that she would have never imagined it to be. “It just started out with my kids. It was something for them to do and enjoy at Christmas time. Then as kids turned into grandkids, it continues and we started doing it throughout the year. Then one thing lead to another.” Kids on the block joined in. Then kids from the church. Now she has children of all ages coming into her home to bake on certain afternoons after school, especially around the holidays. “It gives kids the opportunity to create, make a mess, and laugh. It teaches them how to communicate and realize a sense of community”. Ms. Cynthia has always believed that a sense of community is the key to reviving the life of Newhallville. After all, “people make the neighborhood,” not just the buildings.

She hopes to turn this into a full-fledged after-school program focused on working with remedial students. “I want to help them overcome math phobias,” she chuckled as she explained her rather brilliant idea. “If I have a recipe for twelve and we only have six people, what do we need to do to this recipe [to make it work]? So instead of two cups of flour, how much will we use? Ya know? The focus is to make this recipe to get cupcakes, but they don’t realize that they are operating on a math concept.”

She has a very specific vision for Mother’s Day. “I am keeping an eye open for churches with a commercial-type kitchen or dining hall where I can get kids to come in and cook for their Mothers. You know, dress the tables and make it special. The kids can even put on a little production and read poems. (Ms. Cynthia is a talented and published poet herself). Again, just trying to get a community feel.”

Ms. Cynthia plans on starting a Gofund me page soon so she can raise money to buy more hardware. Occasionally, parents bring ingredients, but as Kids’ Kitchen grows, she wants to have more capital in it. Investment. It is citizens of Newhallville like Ms. Cynthia who are investing their time, money, and effort into their own neighborhood to revive it. Citizens who comprise Newhallville Community Matters work to build pride in Newhallville by cleaning up and beautifying blocks like Lilac Street every spring. This group was launched in the wake of Yale University withdrawing from the housing projects it was involved with after the overseeing professor was robbed. The group is provided with gloves, bags, shovels, and extra volunteers by Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), a non-for-profit Ms. Cynthia is very fond of.

“I have to say, first of all, I love what they are doing,” she says of NHS. NHS’ ultimate goal, like Ms. Cynthia’s is to create a sense of unified community. NHS seeks to do that by giving people greater pride in where they live by renovating houses. They buy gut houses that the city would otherwise tear down and repair them to very high standards. Investors see the work that NHS puts in and help them along the process of buying and selling the houses. The group has renovated about 15-20 houses over a ten year period that are sprinkled all over Newhallville, including several on Lilac Street. “At first, neighbors, including myself, were suspicious of NHS because we weren’t sure who was coming into the area and fixing up these houses or what their agenda was exactly. That is usually done by absentee landlords who rent it out, but ultimately create a revolving door.” But NHS is interested in investing in not only the neighborhood infrastructure but in the neighbors as well. The goal is to have people own these homes, so they too want to invest in keeping it beautiful.

She had been happy to explain to her neighbors what and who NHS is, especially after going through their resident leadership program herself. This is a ten week program that NHS holds to teach residents about keeping track of community growth, planning, assessing, documenting progress, and of course, how to communicate with community members. It’s all about how to allow the community to work together to improve itself. They also do financial training and homeownership classes that help people learn what it really means to be a homeowner and ultimately be good stewards of their community.

She also applauds the efforts of Pastor Morris and the Promise Land Project. Pastor Morris of Life Kingdom Outreach Ministry in Newhallville has been an active community leader for almost 20 years in pushing back against the appeal of gang life for youth and providing alternatives in what can be a desolate place. The Promise Land Project, founded in 2011, aims to inject life into Newhallville with its prayers and messages broadcasted in the streets via bullhorn, as well as its food distribution and health care info dissemination. It also aims to, in Pastor Morris’ words, “give color to the neighborhood” with its annual street festival, bike rides, and fishing trips. It is also involved with the educational initiative, Solar Youth, that teaches kids about power and renewable energy. Ms. Cynthia recently spoke with Pastor Morris and she hopes to learn about community organizing to help her expand her own project and even work with him to get a facility.

“The prototype for my favorite kind of student is the one who comes in not really knowing what to expect and becomes a team leader. I had a six year old who came in afterschool one day in her uniform. I gave her an apron of mine that was twice her size and as I was showing her how to prepare batter, she was shy and gentle. And I told her, ‘You gotta mix it baby, mix it! Get in there and mix it, baby!’ And now three years later, she comes in with the younger kids and she goes, ‘Mix it, baby. You gotta mix it, baby!’ I love to see that kind of progression.”