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The first time Joelle Fishman walked into the New Haven People’s Center in 1968, a room full of Ukrainian Jewish elders, celebrating their annual banquet, met her with a chorus of welcome. Fishman, a communist-raised social justice organizer, was moved by the legacy of the space as a hub for immigrant and grassroots organizing and by its continued vibrancy despite the age of its operators. She joined one of the tables and listened. These were the surviving members of the first generation of the People’s Center, who founded the center in 1937 based on principles of community building, social justice, and promote intercultural solidarity and support.
They used the space to form and support labor unions; to help unemployed workers during the Great Depression; and to house the first racially integrated sports teams and theater groups. In the 1940s the People’s Center hosted evening classes for the fledgling New Haven State Teachers’ College, which would grow into the Southern Connecticut State University. And in 1963, it organized New Haveners to join Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights March on Washington. By the time Fishman arrived, the People’s Center had been at the center of almost every cause in New Haven.
“There was already a rich tradition of people organizing to fight for justice,” she says.
By 1968, Joelle was running a local bookstore called the Angela Davis bookstore on the Broadway strip, “before Yale gobbled it up,” she says. New Haven itself was on the brink of far more radical upheavals. With the end of the decade, the city saw student protests, race riots, and the arrest and trial of the New Haven Nine—in response to which members of the People’s Center gathered in the space to organize in support of a fair trial for the Black Panthers members. The space was still being used by Ukrainian and Jewish progressives.
In 1974, the social justice community faced the decision to either save the bookstore, also an important intellectual and social space, or accept the torch of the People’s Center, which the Eastern European community was passing.
Fishman knows they made the right decision. She now serves as the link between the People’s Center’s rich history and its present vibrant community.
“What I love about the New Haven People’s Center is that it’s served as a safe space throughout the decades for cutting-edge issues,” she says.
The building never transitioned from an immigrant space to a social justice space. “It has always been both,” says Fishman. This spirit is embodied by Unidad Latina en Accion, one of many activist groups that calls the People’s Center home. The grassroots organization brings together New Haven Latinos from all nationalities to address issues they all share: unjust deportations, police brutality, and wage theft principally.
Founder and coordinator John Lugo says they use the power of unity and direct action to challenge systemic injustices Latinos in the city face. The People’s Center serves as their administrative office, organizing space, and social gathering space, as they also foster interpersonal bonds between members. Alternative gathering spaces such as the People’s Center, Lugo says, are essential to building a strong community.
It’s a bit drafty inside the front entrance of the three-story red brick headquarters of the New Haven People’s Center. The white double doors are old, the insulation perhaps never fully there, and on a winter day there’s little to block cold air from seeping right into the building. It fits with the spirit of the structure: an open community space, with no exclusions or barriers to entry. Its upstairs rooms, each devoted to a different organization, are filled with ephemera and historic artifacts. Each room looks almost curated with posters, files, and picket signs.
Its first floor is a large open room, often packed with people at organizations’ meetings. At ULA’s weekly Monday night meetings, children run up and down the stairs while their parents go through a long agenda, supporting others’ cases and causes with the expectation that the favor will be reciprocated.
The People’s Center is truly an intergenerational space. Among the organizations that use the center are the New Elm City Dream, a group of teenage activists fighting for the wellbeing of their peers and neighborhoods, People’s World Connecticut, an older communist publication, the Greater New Haven Peace Council, and SEIU 32, a labor union working to raise the pay of fast food workers. The groups are constantly changing throughout the decades to meet the specific needs of the community, but the spirit of the Center and the inclusive, radical attitude has never changed since its founding almost 80 years ago.
The People’s Center is looking for volunteers for the facility itself, which needs improvement. Fishman says the center has been a good space for Yale students to become a part of the community. All of the organizations are completely open and welcoming to new members. ULA meets Monday evenings at 7 pm.
Timeline for the New Haven People’s Center:
Slideshow photography by Eino Sierpe.
Additional photography by Sarah Eckinger.
Timeline by the New Haven People’s Center.