A New Haven Neighborhood Embraces its Library | Connecticut Public Radio

A New Haven Neighborhood Embraces its Library

Jul 28, 2011

A recent report from New Haven's Public Health Department found that in 2008, 100% of people arrested for murder in the city were under the age of 35. Half of those were under 25. But a small library, tucked into a strip mall in a neighborhood often labeled one of New Haven's most dangerous, is making a real difference with city youth.

It's family night, and about 15 kids from the nieighborhood are learning to make Afro-Carribbean folk dolls from plastic bottles.

"Where do they come from? The Carribbean? No, they come from Africa, right?"

This is the Willis K. Stetson Branch Library in New Haven's Dixwell neighborhood. It's part of the city's Free Public Library system. Just a few years ago, families were afraid to bring their kids here. 

"It has come a long way. We've come a very long way."

Branch manager Diane Brown was born and raised in the Dixwell neighborhood. She holds a masters in library science, but says when she took over in 2006, she wasn't spending her time upping circulation or developing collections. She was busy breaking up fights.

"The community was having a tough time. There was a lot of teen violence," she says.

"Some of the issues that we had were kids selling drugs in front of the plaza," says community activist Shafiq Abdussabur.

Like Brown, Abdussabur grew up in the neighborhood. Now he's working with youth to reduce gun violence.

Back in 2006 there was deep tension between rival neighborhood groups jostling for territory. And those disputes often came to a head in the library. Abdussabur worked with Brown, trying to make the library a safer place. He says he watched her reach out to religious leaders, educators, businesses, and police.

Brown says it paid off.

"And it worked. It worked. People got to understand what the library was for, people got to respect it. They knew it was a place to be quiet, it wasn't a place to fight and argue. It was a safe haven."

Abdussabur says she was then able to focus on programming and education. 

"I mean you name it, she had that library jumping. Introducing her to the library actually turned it into like a neighborhood cultural mecca," he says.

Now, Stetson buzzes with children, teens and adults browsing books. Brown says people come for help with tutoring or job searching.

"I was dedicated to making it change because I needed people to see why the library is important - and it's not just a place where someone's just going to "shush" you to death."

Recent budget cuts saw the library's hours cut from four to three days a week. Patrons were disappointed, Brown said, and circulation dropped. But come September -- they just got the news -- the library will be open every Saturday as well.