In late June, President Michael Roth ’78 announced the closure of the University-funded Green Street Teaching and Learning Center. Located in Middletown’s North End, an area once known for its high levels of poverty and crime, the Green Street Center operates after-school education and arts programs for some of the city’s most impoverished children. The University’s decision comes after nearly a decade of turmoil surrounding the acquisition of funding for the Center.
When the Green Street Center opened in 2005, the University hoped that, over time, its programs would be able to sustain themselves through outside funding provided by both private benefactors and charitable institutions. As Roth explained in a public statement, such funding has proven elusive, making sustainability impossible.
“Wesleyan has spent more than $4 million on these programs, a significant percentage of which has gone to overhead expenses,” Roth wrote. “While Green Street contributes to the community in many important ways, we believe we need a new model for supporting the community engagement of our students.”
Though the University looks forward to reshaping engagement under a new Civic Action Plan led by Director of the Allbritton Center Rob Rosenthal and Director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships Cathy Lechowicz, many from the community are distraught over the closure that will occur in July 2018. University-run after-school programs will end even sooner, just before the end of the fall semester.
Throughout its 12 years of operation, the Green Street Center has provided programming that many residents have found essential, from hip-hop, comedy, theater, and Shakespeare performance programs to a STEM summer camp for girls and a math training program for local teachers.
“I do not live in this community… but in the words of people in the community, they’re devastated [about the closing of Green Street],” said Precious Price, Community Organizer for the North End Action Team, which is an organization whose mission is to support residents of Middletown’s North End and assist them in advocating for their own interests, as well as those of their neighborhood. “They know that not only is this the only real youth program that brings people from all over Middletown together, but it’s the only youth program in the North End. We’re already kind of in crisis mode for our older youth, and our youth that are not in school. We’re trying to find things to occupy them and keep them out of trouble.”
Student Coordinators George Perez ’20 and Katie Murray ’19 expressed disdain and shock over the University’s decision.
“We were really shocked,” Murray said. “We weren’t given an opportunity to tell our story or say anything to stop the decision. My total knowledge of this was from rumors I heard from friends that maybe [the University] wasn’t going to renew the lease, but I had heard nothing from the Office of Community Service or anything from Roth.”
Perez believes that the timing of the decision to end the program may have been scheduled strategically to minimize dissent.
“What was particularly frustrating was that the decision was made in the summer and that’s obviously a time when the after-school program is not in effect,” Perez said. “I think that decision was calculated to make it really awkward for students who would oppose this decision to do so.”
“A lot of students are really upset about this,” Murray added. “It’s a direct affront to all that Wesleyan teaches about being involved in the Middletown community and giving back to the community that we live in.”
Perez and Murray, among many of the other student volunteers, are also work-study students. While the University has offered guidance in finding replacement work, Murray discussed how much she relied on the source of a stable income.
“Green Street has been my full source of work-study income for the past two years,” Murray said. “I love that I can do something that helps me with my career path and still make the money I need to continue to go here.”
Although residents are aware that the University’s decision came as a result of financial concern rather than a lack of caring for their community, Price says there is often an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality. North End residents see the Green Street Center as a vital part of their neighborhood, and can’t understand why the University would close it.
“People love Green Street,” Price said. “As far as I can tell, the Wesleyan students that came out for the meetings [held about the closure] love Green Street, the parents love it. It is a pillar, people call it a pillar in our community. It’s one of the few things that the North End is known positively for.”
The Green Street Center has helped the North End improve its reputation immensely, attracting visitors and giving at-risk youth an education and a much-needed outlet for expression.
“A lot of the concern stems from that fact that we don’t know what will happen with the building,” Price explained. “If it becomes a blighted building, people are scared that it’s going to attract people who do bad things, or that they don’t necessarily want in the middle of Green Street. You know, either squatting or selling drugs, or fighting, or just hanging out.”
To remedy this problem, the city has discussed the possibility of relocating the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen into the building once Wesleyan moves out. Mayor Dan Drew was quoted in the Hartford Courant as saying that the idea is still in its initial stages and that no decision has been finalized. The idea is still worrisome to Price and many residents of the North End.
“People feel like that’s probably going to be an even worse situation than a blighted building,” Price said. “We understand that it would make sense for a lot of businesses and other people to move the soup kitchen there, but we come from the standpoint where we’re saying, ‘would you want a soup kitchen in the middle of your street?’ And if so, put it there. Go to the mayor’s neighborhood and put a soup kitchen in the middle of it. Why is it this community that has to have a soup kitchen? That’s pretty much the consensus from the people who have attended the Green Street meetings.”
However, despite numerous concerns voiced by many in the North End, others have expressed hope that the University will continue community engagement in its future endeavors, filling the gaps that the closure of the Green Street Center will create.
“Green Street has offered numerous classes to MARC participants that have enriched our programs and taught so many skills,” said Linda Iovanna, Executive Director of MARC Community Resources, which is an advocacy organization dedicated to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “We are very appreciative of having had this training available. We hope the wonderful opportunities they created for MARC programs will continue as the new community-based programming is developed.”