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Billings Forge A Success Story In Urban Redevelopment


August 10, 2009

HARTFORD - Five years ago, Power Minor never would have thought he would live in the Frog Hollow neighborhood.

"I've known about this neighborhood for years," said Minor, 39, an on-and-off Connecticut resident for almost two decades. "There were a lot of drugs around here."

But when Minor found a two-bedroom, two-level apartment at the Billings Forge complex between Broad and Lawrence streets in April 2008, he leaped at the opportunity to sign the lease.

That's exactly the response that the Melville Charitable Trust wanted.

Over the past four years, the trust has undertaken a series of initiatives to tackle homelessness and poverty in one of the poorest sections of one of the poorest cities in America. When Melville bought Billings Forge — a former factory complex a block from the state Capitol that had been converted into apartments — in 2005, urban redevelopment was still largely a synonym for displacing neighborhoods to build malls or offices. But rather than start from scratch, the foundation aimed instead to invest in what was already available.

Billings Forge is now home to about 250 people in 98 units that range from studios to three-bedroom apartments. Just outside the neat, red-brick apartments is a community center where residents of all ages attend classes and workshops. Once a week, a farmers' market takes place in the courtyard. The one-square-block development also contains an artists' studio, a bakery, a catering service and, perhaps most intriguingly, an upscale restaurant.

So far, the trust has spent "well over" $10 million in Frog Hollow, said its executive director, Robert Hohler. Although trust administrators readily admit that the revitalization of Billings Forge — and the Frog Hollow neighborhood as a whole — is a long-term project, residents say that because of the trust's efforts, they have seen a marked decrease in drug use and crime in the past several years.

And more than that, they say, the neighborhood now has a future.

No Guns, No Gangs

Founded in 1990 by the estate of Connecticut philanthropist Dorothy Bigelow Melville to fight homelessness, the Boston-based Melville Charitable Trust had a specific goal when it turned its attention to Frog Hollow. It aimed to tackle chronic homelessness not just through policy, but by investing directly in the community.

The trust's first step, in 2002, was to buy the Cathedral Lyceum, a 16,000-square-foot, century-old, Neoclassical Revival building on Lawrence Street that once served as a community center. After a two-year, $2 million renovation, the Lyceum became the home of the Partnership for Strong Communities, Melville's policy arm. Strengthening the community surrounding the Lyceum was the next logical step.

"Instead of sending money in the mail to practitioners in [ Washington,] D.C.," Hohler said, "why not spend money on children and their parents and give them access to job training and opportunities for personal growth and education?"

These goals have driven all of the trust's initiatives in Billings Forge, Hohler said. But before the trust could start anything, it needed to renovate the complex itself, built by the Billings & Spencer Co. in the 1870s and converted to apartments in the 1970s. Through the years, residents said, the apartments had fallen into disrepair, and hallways and common areas became magnets for gangs and illegal activities.

But when the trust moved to restore the apartments and increase security with guards and cameras, the contrast was immediately noticeable.

"I've seen nothing — no drugs and gangs — so far," said Francisco Morales, a resident of Billings Forge and its predecessor, the Arrow-Hart housing project, for 20 years.

Once the trust acted to solve the issues with the housing itself, the implementation of other initiatives went rapidly, said Cary Wheaton, the managing director of the Billings Forge Community Works, a nonprofit group founded in August 2008 to oversee the programs at the complex. Of the 110 adults who live at Billings Forge, 18 work there, too.

The Firebox, And More

One of the trust's first major projects was to establish the Center for Community, which offers morning workshops and training for adults and after-school programs for children. With 14 computer terminals, the center has also become a destination for Billings Forge teenagers, said José Santiago, a resident for 10 years and a general employee at Billings Forge. On a given day, there are about 20 teens on the computers, some of whom are writing résumés and looking for jobs. But most important, Santiago said, the computers have kept teenagers off the streets.

In 2007, the trust launched both the Farmers Market at Billings Forge and the Firebox, an award-winning restaurant with valet parking and dinner entrées that range from $18 to $33. But rather than cater exclusively to Billings Forge residents, both projects were put together with businesspeople and visitors from Hartford's suburbs in mind. Ultimately, Wheaton said, the only way to provide opportunities for Frog Hollow residents is to attract outside interest and money in Billings Forge.

Both projects — which use herbs and other crops from a garden on the grounds — have flourished. The farmers' market, which operates on Thursdays from April through October, has become Hartford's largest. Because the market receives a private grant from Westport-based Wholesome Wave Foundation to double the value of food stamps, Billings Forge residents now have regular access to locally grown fruits, vegetables and other goods. Significantly, there are also many visitors from Hartford's suburbs who work in the city, many of whom head across the lawn to the Firebox for lunch.

"It's interesting when people ask, 'Why create [the]Firebox? Can the people in this neighborhood afford to eat there?'" said David Fink, policy and communications director for the Partnership for Strong Communities. "Maybe, maybe not. But there are jobs for people in the restaurant, and it shows that this is not a neighborhood to fear."

Since it opened in spring 2007, the Firebox — which employs 10 Billings Forge residents — has made a name for itself among local epicures. In 2009, Connecticut Magazine readers named it the "best overall restaurant" in Hartford County. As the Firebox becomes a destination spot, Wheaton said, more and more people who visit Frog Hollow will see that it is a safe neighborhood.

HARTFORD - "We want to bring in folks who would say, 'I can have my office right over there. I could move in here, and it's actually safe and it's really nice.'" said Wheaton, a restaurateur who originally moved from Boston to help open the Firebox.

Art And Bread

Bolstered by the success of the farmers' market and the Firebox, Melville recently unveiled several new programs to show Billings Forge residents that there is a "world beyond Frog Hollow," as Wheaton says. The Studio at Billings Forge, which opened in January, offers fine-arts classes and performances. Billings Forge residents and people who live within zip code 06106 may pay $5 a month for a "Community @rts Card," which gives them free access to most classes.

The trust has also given Hartford-based artists a boost. The Workshops at Billings Forge program, which started in June, offers five local artists a free work studio for three months. In return, the artists give art classes at the studio and display their work at an open art gallery on Wednesday nights.

Artist Jonathan Frechette, whose most recent work includes portraits of neighborhood children, said that although there is a long tradition of artists-in-residence, there are few similar programs in the Hartford area. Working at the studio, he said, has given him a unique opportunity to teach children about art.

"By promoting [their] attentiveness, they'll always be able to talk about and appreciate art in a deep way," Frechette said.

Meanwhile, the trust has recently begun in-house job training at The Kitchen at Billings Forge, a artisanal bakery and catering service that opened last month. The bakery offers nine months of training for two trainees — one of whom lives in the complex — and the catering service provides a six-month program for an additional three Billings Forge residents.

Although the trainees will need time to learn their crafts, baker Marcy Robert and caterer Julie Carrion said they expect to reach full capacity soon. With the help, Robert said she hopes to bake 200 loaves each night. She now bakes 80 to 120 loaves a day for the catering service or the Firebox. Carrion said she aims to cater to an average of four clients a week by early fall.

The Challenges Ahead

Since the Melville Charitable Trust took over Billings Forge, residents said it has become a miniature paradise within Frog Hollow.

Whereas people rarely ventured out of their apartments before, small groups now often gather in the courtyard talking, listening to the radio or playing card games. The occasional squabble between residents more often than not resolves peacefully. People greet each other when they walk through the complex. In short, residents said, Billings Forge is now a real community, "a big family."

Nonetheless, residents acknowledged that as a whole, Frog Hollow still faces enormous challenges. "You can still get drugs right around the corner," said Power Minor, who is now a sous-chef at the Firebox. "That won't change any time soon."

And there is the recession. Although the trust remains the largest funder of programs at Billings Forge — its two grants to the Billings Forge Community Works in 2007 and 2008 totaled $580,000 — Wheaton said she eventually hopes to find other partners, which has proved difficult given the economy. The nonprofit group has an annual operating budget of about $500,000.

For Wheaton, the ultimate goal is for the nonprofit agency to become self-sufficient. The Firebox, which operates separately from the other programs, already turns a profit, and the farmers' market is close to breaking even. Eventually, Wheaton said, she hopes that the bakery and catering service will end up in the black within two or three years, despite the fact that both initiatives also serve as job-training programs.

"If we are trying to provide ... self-sufficiency and empowerment, it's important that the organization itself is self-sufficient as well," she said.

For its part, the Melville Charitable Trust said that it will continue to invest in Billings Forge until the day that Hartford is thought of once again as an "urban gem."

"We don't see an endpoint," Hohler said. "We're invested until the residents say they want to buy [Billings Forge] from us."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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