Monday, July 14, 2008

Alderwoman digs in to help ward blossom

By Maria Garriga
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN — Alderwoman Migdalia Castro, D-16, doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty to fulfill her campaign promises.
Castro, 43, is committed to planting trees and flowers in the front yards and public spaces of every street in her Fair Haven ward.
Twice a week, she and volunteers tackle a yard, rip out weeds, dig up the soil and plant flowers that will flourish in conditions of the plot and mulch the beds.
"This is more than just planting flowers, it’s environmental restoration or rehabilitation. We’re talking about carbon sequestration, water quality and screening," said Chris Ozyck, green space manager for Urban Resources Initiative, a nonprofit agency that provides supplies and training for the work to neighborhood activists who undertake environmental rehabilitation.
Community Foundation for Greater New Haven provides funding for the agency, while Yale University supplies office space and interns.
Every plot the URI volunteers work on gets tested for contaminants such as lead. Volunteers plant hardy bushes, which can withstand more lead contamination, next to the homes, and they plant delicate flowers farther from the lead source and closer to where they will be visible from the street.
URI currently supports volunteers undertaking 50 environmental restoration projects throughout the city. Many aldermen participate from time to time. Castro may be the only one who puts such a heavy investment of time into the project.
"Migdalia has a strong vision for the neighborhood. It’s so different from 10 years ago. She is really good at pulling people out of their houses to get them involved," Ozyck said.
For Castro too, hours spent watering and weeding add up to more than the blossoms clustered in front yards and gardens planted in vacant lots. She is using the gardening project as a way of training community leaders while beautifying her neighborhood. Throughout each step of the work, she trains volunteers in community organizing, how to set goals, recruit workers and find financial resources.
"That’s my dream. I want them to replace me when I move on," she said. Walking along Poplar and Exchange streets, she points to plentiful butterfly bushes and other flowers intended to turn the streets into a large-scale butterfly garden.
But before she leaves public office to achieve her next ambition, a law degree, she also plans to make sure her ward has a community plaza on the grounds of the Columbus Family Academy.
"I just have to raise $250,000," Castro said, flashing a sunny smile.
Castro has practice in such endeavors, she said she began fundraising for a drill team she started when she was barely 10 years old.
In addition to her hands-on community service, Castro works two jobs, as a parking garage attendant and a home health aide, and is a busy alderwoman. This year she serves as vice chairwoman of the Education Committee. The nomination surprised Castro. She had run an unsuccessful campaign to help Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy beat Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. become the Democratic nominee for governor. In true party spirit, once Malloy lost the nomination, Castro worked to get DeStefano elected governor.
She said she hopes to impart that same kind of leadership to the neighborhood residents she hopes will replace her, so they can challenge authority or collaborate with others to advance their vision for the neighborhood.
Maria Garriga can be reached at or 789-5726.

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