Beyond Four Walls and A Roof: Investing in Community

by Janice Elliott June 3, 2014

Part two in our series on Solutions

Only a stone’s throw away from Connecticut’s Capitol, Frog Hollow is a working-class neighborhood in Hartford, rich in history and vibrant in culture. It is also one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state, with 45% of its families living in poverty. Over the past ten years, the Melville Trust has invested over $20 million in the north end of the neighborhood— investments that have been both practical and strategic, recognizing that neighborhood development is a long, incremental process.

Bob Hohler, the incredibly talented director of the Trust until his passing in 2011, was the leading visionary and driver of our work in Frog Hollow, along with the Trust’s board, which was led for many years by the late Frank and Allen Melville and now by their son, Stephen Melville. The Trust’s first investment, in 2003, was the purchase and renovation of the historic Lyceum building. This served the practical purpose of creating a dynamic and popular conference center centered on housing and community development, and a home base for the critical housing policy and advocacy work of the Partnership for Strong Communities. It also served the strategic purpose of restoring an important neighborhood landmark and bringing new life to the street.

marketTwo years later, the Trust purchased the historic Billings Forge complex across the street—a 19th century former factory converted to apartments in the 1980s—as well as several nearby properties. Together, these properties comprise close to 120 units of affordable and market rate housing. The Trust’s investment improved the housing’s safety, livability, and quality for its residents, while further enhancing neighborhood safety and appearance.

Perhaps the Trust’s most practical investment of all turned out to be its most strategic—and that was bringing a talented restaurateur down from Boston to give the Trust advice on what to do about a somewhat tired restaurant that occupied a key space in the middle of the Billings Forge complex. Cary Wheaton had vast experience opening highly-acclaimed restaurants in the Boston area and managing nonprofit culinary and training ventures. It wasn’t long before Cary’s short-term consulting gig for the Trust turned into a long-term commitment that resulted in creation of the award winning farm-to-table Firebox Restaurant. It also resulted in the launch of Billings Forge Community Works, a nonprofit that, under Cary’s leadership, has become a driving force for community engagement in Frog Hollow by promoting access to healthy food, organizing innovative youth development programs, and creating employment opportunities and economically sustainable social enterprises, including the popular Kitchen Café at Billings Forge.

Some may ask, what dBFCW, Center for Community Changeoes this all have to do with the Trust’s core mission, which is preventing and ending homelessness? We believe that a good place to live goes beyond simply four walls and a roof—that a home is more than an address. It is a place of safety, privacy and rest, a place where we care for our families and connect with our friends and communities. Strong, vibrant, authentic communities are the soil in which we grow and look out for one another—and help ensure that no one is lost.

When I joined the Trust in 2012, it was clear that the Trust’s work had laid a solid foundation for attracting new public and private sector investment to the neighborhood. We have now entered into a partnership with a leading national nonprofit housing organization, Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), to make these investments happen over the next couple of years. The result will be refreshed and more energy efficient housing at Billings Forge and neighboring properties. Meanwhile, Billings Forge Community Works will continue its outstanding work nourishing an active, engaged, and vibrant community. And, of course, Firebox and The Kitchen will continue to delight us all with good things to eat. If you visit Hartford, please come by, especially on a Thursday in the summer, when the Billings Forge Farmer’s Market is in full swing!

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