Monday, March 3, 2008

A river runs through it

The following is a column by Randall Beach

Life on the riverbank: improving a neighborhood, one good deed at a time

Chris Ozyck vividly remembers the first time he drove across the Ferry Street Bridge and got a look at Fair Haven, a historic neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God! I love this!’” Ozyck recalled.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Today Ozyck, 41, is living in a big house overlooking that river with his wife and two kids. He has done more than his fair share of helping revitalize his neighborhood and enliven life in the Elm City.
Some locals know him as “the Polar Plunge guy,” the man who first organized those New Year’s Day mass leaps into the surf at Lighthouse Point Park to benefit the city’s parks projects.
Others recognize Ozyck as the one who brings students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, as well as kids, into poor neighborhoods to establish gardens in his role as green space manager for Yale’s Urban Resources Initiative.
The more well-off know him as the owner of Alfresco, a landscape design business with an environmental focus.
And then there are the litterbugs, druggies, loiterers and prostitutes who used to do their dirty deeds near his house and have learned to stay away or clear out when they see him coming outside to ask, “Are you OK? Can I help you?”
For the past nine years, he, his wife, Rosemary, and their kids, Rosemary Grace and Adeline, have lived in the green, red and yellow house on Quinnipiac Avenue. It was built in 1893 by an oyster baron and it features a large wraparound porch, all the better to look out on the river.
He showed me around his back yard, which features a monkey puzzle tree, a hearty orange tree, a frog fountain and a swing set.
As a city resident myself, I mentioned to Ozyck that when I’m talking with people from the suburbs and I tell them I live with my family in New Haven, they invariably say, “Really? Right in the city?”
Ozyck laughed and nodded. “We always say we live in an historic district, which eases their apprehension.”
Their daughters, who are 6 and 8, attend Nathan Hale School, part of the city’s public school system. Sometimes they garden with him in Newhallville. “I want my kids to be urbane, to have broad knowledge about things.”
Ozyck loves the diversity of Fair Haven; walking around, sampling it, meeting different people. “I think people live here because they want some sort of interaction. In the suburbs you don’t get that. Those casual interfaces lead to what I call ‘ladders of opportunity.’ I think that’s so important.”
Ozyck grew up on Lake Candlewood in New Fairfield, learning to appreciate waterfront communities. He said when he “recruited” his wife from Newport, she was dubious about spending her life in New Haven. “But now we’re connected here,” he noted. “We’ve made a lot of good friends in the neighborhood, fought a lot of battles.”
For instance, there is that Ferry Street Bridge. When it was closed in November 2002, traffic more than doubled on Quinnipiac Avenue.
Ozyck and his neighbors got mad, started to talk and began to organize. Working with state legislators and city officials, they helped the city get enough money for the $18.29 million reconstruction of that bridge. Ozyck expects it to open this fall, a few months ahead of schedule.
“All this stuff for me is like civics,” he said. “Going to meetings, speaking up, talking to people, developing relationships, understanding the issues.”
He also picks up the trash along Quinnipiac Avenue, and he’s not the only one. Ozyck has found this discourages the bad guys from hanging around.
When he moved into the neighborhood, there was a lot of that activity outside his house. But he got into the habit of confronting them nonviolently. “I have a big presence,” he noted. “I wrestled in high school.”
He also told the bad characters he had a video camera monitoring the block. It was a lie, but it helped chase them away.
As for the Polar Plunge for Parks, he got it started nine years ago Jan. 1 when he drove to Lighthouse Park with his family and, while they watched from the car, jumped in. The following year, he invited some friends to join him. This year, about 500 people were on hand for expanded activities such as horse-drawn carriage rides. The beneficiary is the Elm City Parks Conservancy; he is that group’s former president.
As Ozyck escorted me outside, he had this parting comment: “I think we’re over the gloomy period in New Haven. There’s a lot more hope. People want to invest here.”
Randall Beach can be reached at or 789-5766.

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