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Middletown Green Community Center: By the People, for the People
Just off the North End of Main St., behind the liquor store and past its adjacent parking lot, a large building sits vacant and still. Above its entrance hangs a sign that reads, “Green Street Teaching and Learning Center,” serving as a poignant reminder of what the community has lost and a symbol of hope for what the North End’s future may have in store. Green Street Arts Center, a University-funded community center which operated after-school education and arts programs in Middletown’s most impoverished neighborhood for over a decade, was shut down at the beginning of 2018 due to a lack of funding. Now, nearly a year after Green Street’s closure, the City of Middletown must decide what to do with the space.
The Community Health Center (CHC) hopes to buy the building and turn it into offices. St. Vincent de Paul’s soup kitchen seeks to acquire the building in order to expand their operations and accommodate a growing patronage. But some residents of Middletown’s North End have a different vision in mind.
A little over a year ago, soon after the University had announced that Green Street would be closing, several community members gathered in the NEAT (North End Action Team) offices to discuss the future of the of the building and the future of the North End. It was then that the idea for the Middletown Green Community Center (MGCC) was born. Attendees of the meeting voiced deep sadness at the closure of Green Street, and wanted to do something: revive the community center, protect the future of the North End, establish a lasting organization that would provide people in the neighborhood with opportunities. But the organization that they envisioned, and ultimately forged, is different from the Wesleyan-run arts center that once occupied the space.
“In order to run a sustainable, grassroots community center, which is what we are, you need to have more than just the arts, because arts funding is shrinking, year by year,” MGCC founder Jeff Hush ’84 said.
Along with the arts, MGCC plans to incorporate health and technology into its programming, as well as expand its programming to serve Middletown residents of all ages. Hush is confident that expanding the Green Street vision will not only make MGCC eligible for a broader range of local and federal grants, but that the enhanced programming itself will open the center up to more community members and provide important opportunities for people looking to channel their passion and learn new skills.
But none of this will be possible if the organization cannot acquire the building itself. Both of the other groups that put in bids for the building already have established funding and stable budgets. MGCC, on the other hand, cannot secure any substantial funding until it secures the building. Hush is asking the city to grant MGCC the same lease conditions that it granted the University while Green Street was still in operation, meaning it would rent the building for one dollar per year.
“So what it’s going to come down to is will they want to sell, get the money, get rid of the building?” Hush said. “Or will they care enough about the community that they’re willing to work with grassroots people to try to help and improve the [neighborhood]?”
William Halliday, Photo Editor
William Halliday, Photo Editor
On Tuesday, Nov. 13, a public meeting was held in the Community Room of the police department to help the members Middletown’s Economic Development Committee decide. Each of the organizations behind the three major bids was given an opportunity to present their case for why the city should grant them the building. MGCC’s presentation was third on the docket, following CHC and St. Vincent DePaul’s.
The mic changed hands no less than five times during MGCC’s allotted half hour, giving people from every facet of the organization, from board members to educators to parents, a chance to explain why the center would be viable and important. Rob Rosenthal, one of the founders of the original Green Street Arts Center, began the presentation by speaking to the success of the former community center and highlighting how it changed the North End for the better. Firstly, he explained, it helped to stem a lot of disinvestment from housing in the area.
“The current housing at Green Street and in the area, while not perfect, is, as those who knew the old housing will attest, a vast improvement over what was there before,” Rosenthal said. “That came about because of the establishment of Green St. [It] was a sign that the city and Wesleyan and the North End community were going to pull that community together and strengthen it.”
Secondly, Rosenthal told the audience, Green Street had created a place where kids in the North End could go to interact not only with University students and faculty but with organizers and educators from across the region. Shanay Fulton, an MGCC board member and the parent of Green Street alumnus, emphasized how important this kind of exchange was for her son during his time at the center.
“I didn’t even know my son was doing drumming lessons!” Fulton said in an interview with The Argus. “I can’t afford these college programs these that are [expensive] when he could go to a program that could be free. I wanted my other son to go the following year…and I was like, ‘damn, it’s closed.’ So now he can’t go, [and] he never got to experience that.”
The third major way that Rosenthal said Green Street enhanced the neighborhood was through the community pride that it instilled in North End residents.
“At the time that Green Street was first established, the North End was in pretty bad shape,” Rosenthal said. “When asked what would you most like in this area, [residents] said we’d like a community center, we need some sort of heart of the North End. And so for over a decade, Green Street was the heart of the North End, and served that, I think, in a way that both solidified and stabilized and strengthened the community, and [has] been extremely important.”
Hush echoed this sentiment, insisting that a community center should address the needs of the community, as dictated by the community. Hush also addressed and criticized the other bids, outrightly charging the CHC with perpetuating the opioid epidemic in Middletown, and claiming that St Vincent’s, despite its important contributions to the community, wouldn’t be capable of instigating the kind of development and opportunity in the North End that residents want to see.
MGCC, he reiterated, is a grassroots organization, one which was created by community members themselves to address the challenges plaguing their own neighborhood. They know what the residents of the North End need because they are those residents.
“We [aren’t] just white, rich middle-class people,” he said. “We cover the spectrum of people in the community.”
Hush paused for a moment and looked at the audience.
“Would people please stand up if they’ve come here for Middletown Green?”
All across the room, people shuffled their chairs, exchanged glances, and stood. Hush, practically glowing under the community room’s fluorescent light, flipped his long brown ponytail back towards his PowerPoint presentation, and beamed at the audience, at his neighbors, his co-workers, his friends, who comprised about 80 percent of the people in the room and who had come to support MGCC.
Next, Banning Eyre ’78, a MGCC board member and senior producer of public radio series Afropop, spoke to his extensive grant-writing experience in the arts and humanities. The funding environments for the arts has changed over the years, Eyre explained, shifting its focus towards arts initiatives that promote social justice, initiatives similar to MGCC.
“We view the MGCC as the perfect opportunity to implement a new vision of sharing knowledge and expertise with local youth,” Eyre said. “We’ll do this through internships, workshops in techniques such as audio editing and media digitization. The aim is to get kids to think about their own cultural stories in a much larger, global context. And we’re very confident that this approach will be highly fundable in this new fundraising environment.”
c/o Jeff Hush
c/o Jeff Hush
After the presentation, out in the lobby of the police station, board members Tanjah Thompson and Shanay Fulton chatted about the future of the building and lamented the closure of Green Street. Fulton used to work in the hotel industry and relied heavily on the after-school program to take care of her son until she finished work.
“We’re single parents, and when you’re a single parent and you have to work hard for your child, and there’s no building for them to go for after-school programs, they’re in the street,” Thompson said.
Thompson and Fulton aren’t the only ones who still miss the community center.
“The kids ask me ‘are we going to get the center back?’” MGCC board-member and former Green Street Arts Center leader, Cookie Quiñones, said during the presentation.
The Middletown Economic Development Committee will have an answer for them by early January.
“I take this so hard, because we need this center for these kids,” Quinones said. “And we need this center for the adults, for the parents. We have a center that is already built for that community. [But] we truly need this building to be able to give these kids everything they want and these parents the help that they need.”
Acclaimed Folk-Pop Artist Williams '89 to Fundraise for NEW NORTH END CENTER
Earlier this month, acclaimed folk-pop artist and author Dar Williams ’89 joined the Green Street Task Force (GSTF).
Williams has agreed to help fundraise between $50,000 and $100,000 to support the beginnings of the new community center, according to the Chairman of the Middletown Green Community Center, Jeff Hush ’84.
“I’ve talked to students and professors and been given tours of the building over the last eight years,” Williams wrote of the former University-run Green Street Center in a message to The Argus. “Green Street seemed to be the best of both worlds; it had solid programs in beautiful classrooms and studios, but everyone seemed to have their own relationship to it.”
The GSTF, a coalition of Middletown and University community members working independently of President Michael Roth ’78 and his administration’s new Civic Action Plan, was drafted late last year in response to the University’s summer decision to discontinue funding the center.
The old center offered a wide variety of community-oriented classes and artist residencies but was best known as a local and low-income youth educational institution. The center’s programming, which began as a partnership between the University, the city of Middletown, and the North End Action team (NEAT), ran out of the 51 Green St. address in the North End neighborhood for over 12 years. Toward the end of its operations, Green Street welcomed up to 3,000 Middletown residents annually.
While the previous center’s programs concluded last fall and the University’s lease is up on June 30 of this year, the city has been soliciting proposals for 51 Green St., such as the GSTF’s bid from December 2017. The GSTF hopes to build upon the space’s former programs to include health and technological education focuses.
“We want to expand its mission to include, first, a much wider age range than primarily elementary school kids, and, second, a broader set of programs that serve more of Middletown, bringing together people from very different populations within the city,” reads the GSTF proposal. “In one space, our three new spheres—Technology, Health, and the Arts—will create ‘positive proximity’ (as Dar Williams writes in 2017).”
Hush and Williams hope to begin collecting contributions from alumni and residents shortly.
“This project is in the works,” Hush wrote. “This weekend Dar and I and my sister, Katie Hush, a professional fundraiser from NYC, will be discussing how to move forward with the fundraising plan; this will be an elaborate plan involving concerts and whatever else we decide is most promising. Because my sister is helping, Dar will not be alone in ‘running’ this fundraising project; she will be working directly with me and with Katie.”
Independently of GSTF actions, Williams had initially learned of the impending closure and sent out an email to alumni to raise awareness among graduates.
“I put out a test balloon, really informally, to various Wesleyan Facebook sites,” Williams wrote of the late December letter. “I basically said, ‘Who wants Green Street Teaching and Learning Center to continue…existing?’ I asked for names, class years, and careers. After five days, I sent 426 names ranging over 40 class years to the mayor and started talking with Jeff Hush about what kind of alumni support could help.”
Members of the GSTF are well aware that they aren’t the only group vying for the space.
In an interview with the Hartford Courant, Executive Director Ron Krom of St. Vincent de Paul, a local Main Street soup kitchen, also voiced an interest in submitting a proposal to the city. Additionally, rumors have spread that the city is considering opening a police station of some kind at the address.
Over the following months, Hush and the GSTF hope to continue garnering support and strengthen their case, with their current focus centered on creating a budget for their proposed Middletown Green Community Center.
“We have now created our first two budgets for the Middletown Green Community, one for operations at 51 Green St. and the second a capital budget for creating our own Tech Center there, modeled on Wesleyan’s new Digital Design Studio,” Hush wrote. “We have assembled several partners to share the space with us, including Russell Library, Close the Gap (a College Prep tutoring program), NEAT, and Afropop Worldwide. Our first step with these partners is to enter an official proposal in the [request for proposal] process which Mayor Drew promised us (at the Jan 2, 2018 Common Council meeting) will be happening soon.”
Hush says that the Common Council’s proposal request process is likely to begin in the coming weeks.
Task Force Proposing New Community Center For Middletown
A grass-roots task force in Middletown is proposing a new community center with arts, health and technology programming that would replace the now-closed Green Street Teaching and Learning Center.
The group of more than 25 local residents, business owners and Wesleyan University students is hoping to submit its report as a proposal for the common council to consider.
Middletown Residents Worried About Wesleyan’s Plans To Close Green Street Arts Center Next Year »
The group’s proposal includes preliminary budgets and a range of ideas for the three focuses of health, technology and arts.
“One reason we need the technology and health pieces is, believe me, that’s where the money is, not in the arts,” said Jeff Hush, a Grand Street resident who has been leading the community task force. “Unless we can sustain it with funding, we’re going to fall into the same trap Green Street fell into of relying on grants or funding from Wesleyan.”
Wesleyan said it could not continue to support Green Street, which was supposed to have been a self-sufficient program when it opened in 2005. While grants provided more than half of its operating budget, Wesleyan was almost exclusively the source of the remaining funding.
“The community has made very clear to us they don’t want the city to just come up with a use for it,” Drew said. “Nothing’s going to be done unilaterally. We’re intentionally not coming up with a singular vision for it ourselves.”
Hush said over time as the center’s budget and staff declined, its core focus on after-school programming for younger kids remained but programs for teenagers slipped away. There is a huge opportunity, he said, to utilize the space for new programs for middle school and high school students working with local artists and Wesleyan students.
“By bringing in Wesleyan alumni and students and any other artists, we can create arts programs to help kids go from young, curious artists to becoming career artists,” Hush said.
Arts programs have been the mainstay at Green Street, but Hush, who runs Food and Movement Therapy with business partner and fellow task force member Rachel Hedrick, said the group believes programs can be expanded well beyond the center’s arts core. They offer yoga, tai chi and nutritional programs at the nearby Community Health Center.
Wesleyan Professor Rob Rosenthal, the former director of Wesleyan’s Allbritton Center and a longtime North End Action Team board member, said new energy at Green Street could bring in valuable programming and would also maintain a focus on neighborhood stability.
“There were a lot of people, and I was in that group, who were interested in stemming the disinvestment in that area of the North End,” Rosenthal said. “There was a real statement that no, we’re not letting this neighborhood go down, and I think that was incredibly successful.”
Rosenthal said with a technology focus, Green Street could offer training and development for teens and young adults. It could be a place where area businesses could make an investment in the local workforce by offering programming to develop skills in the growing software development industry.
Middletown Officials: No Decision Yet For Green Street Center's Future »
Drew said when the city seeks proposals, he expects the task force to file its report. He also expects St. Vincent de Paul Middletown, which runs the soup kitchen, food pantry and supportive housing, to submit a proposal.
St. Vincent de Paul Director Ron Krom said recently that he has had preliminarydiscussions with the city about moving some operations to Green Street, including the soup kitchen. The building is much bigger than the organization’s Main Street headquarters, but Krom said talks with the city have not advanced very far.
Activists form task force to re-envision Wesleyan Green Street community center of future
The first Green Street Teaching and Learning Center Girls in Science Summer Camp began in 2014. Wesleyan University, which launched the organization in the city’s North End in 2005, announced in June it will not be renewing its lease, and closing the facility June 30, 2018
By Cassandra Day
Updated 7:10 a.m., Friday, December 15, 2017
MIDDLETOWN — An action group formed by community stakeholders has hammered out a proposal for the future of Wesleyan University’s Green Street Teaching and Learning Center, which announced in the summer it would not renew its lease with the city and cease operations June 30.
The recently established Green Street Task Force met Oct. 31 at the North End Action Team downtown with a simple yet urgent mission: Brainstorm a proposal for the community center that would keep it open, give it a new focus, and open up the new concept to broader sources of funding.
Those who sat down at the first session were North End resident Jeff Hush, former NEAT community director Precious Price; Wesleyan Professor of Sociology Rob Rosenthal, and Rachel Hedrick, whole-foods chef and clinical yoga teacher.
The group proposes that a nonprofit called the Middletown Green Community Center be established to assume ownership of Green Street. It arrived at a proposal of “interlocking spheres of activity” in technology, health and the arts for the facility, Hush said.
Wesleyan University has invested over $1 million for the renovation of the building and has subsidized the annual program with over $2 million over the last 10 years, according to Hush, something that is no longer sustainable in the state’s current economic state.
“Over the last five years, the after-school program has shrunk in one key way,” he said. Green Street used to welcome children of all ages — from elementary to high school. Now, only primary school students are served by the arts, homework mentoring with Wesleyan students, literacy and other programs.
Staff has shrunk as well: from a high of 10 to the current five full-time and one part-time employee.
“As they were no longer able to effectively reach out to the middle school communities in Middletown or the high school communities in Middletown, Wesleyan saw their demographic shrinking,” Hush said.
Coupled with the current state of arts funding over last few years, Hush said, it came to a point when Green Street was no longer economically viable.
“We need to find other sources of funding,” he said. “In order to keep the arts going, we need to piggyback the arts on health and technology. “Those are the two sectors where everyone is still investing money. We want to be where we can use those resources to help the low-income people of Middletown and I think we can do that.”
Wesleyan is beginning to move everything out of Green Street to Wesleyan Monday, Hush said.
That includes a state-of-the-art recording studio that is largely unused. “We don’t want that to happen,” said Hush, who is lobbying the university to keep the equipment at Green Street for some part of the year.
Green Street has an interesting history.
“When Wesleyan first started looking into service learning as a way of teaching and looking for grants, we wanted to see what people in the North End were interested in themselves,” said Rosenthal, a longtime North End Action Team board member. “They all agreed that what they’d really like was some sort of community center and something for the kids in the North End.”
Rosenthal played a central role in the founding of Green Street in 2005.
Around the same time, he said, the Yale School of Design held a neighborhood charette in the neighborhood. It had arrived at the same goal.
This three-way partnership between the city (which owns the building), Wesleyan and NEAT had a trifold mission, he said. The idea was to create a vibrant community center in a neighborhood suffering from crime and poverty, an arts center offering lessons by teaching artists that would bring provide a source of income, and counteract plummeting property values that substandard housing was causing in the North End.
“It would be a very visible sign of Wesleyan’s commitment to that area and the city’s commitment,” Rosenthal said. In that mission, Green Street was a success, he said, particularly the after-school program.
“We were never able to make money on the lessons. We never got a critical mass of people from outside the area to pay for lessons,” he said.
“It was clear that Wesleyan couldn’t forever pay the kind of money it was to support it,” he said.
As part of its mission, Russell Library has forged multiple partnerships with community organizations throughout the years in Middletown, including the North End Action Team, Oddfellows Playhouse and Green Street. “We’ve even hired Green Street teaching artists,” said Rolande Duprey, community services librarian.
“To lose Green Street just doesn’t seem right, especially when there is so little funding already, and it’s in the North End. It’s a key player in the culture, and hopefully other landscapes as well — technology and health,” she said.
“I think the proposal sounds really excellent,” Duprey said. “We want to be a part of whatever needs to be fixed in Middletown. If it means giving kids an after-school program that is viable, then that’s what we do. We do it here in the library, with our partners, in outreach to the community and the schools.”
If Green Street weren’t able to continue in some fashion, Rosenthal said, the area would suffer enormously.
“It was in many ways a North End creation and I think the loss of it is pretty severe to a neighborhood that’s gone through a 20-year period of improving and getting healthier and it certainly would be a blow to have it lose, really, the centerpiece of that turnaround.
“In many ways, Green Street was the first big commitment that turned the area around,” Rosenthal said.
Managing Editor Cassandra Day can be reached at cassandra.day@