At the end of Poplar Street in New Haven, next to the banks of the Quinnipiac River, is a small waterfront enclave known to the residents of the Fair Haven neighborhood as Shantytown. Walk through the entrance –– a small, fenced archway –– and the bleak and industrial Poplar Street roundabout transforms into a waterfront oasis or a tropical playground comprised of whimsical recycled goods. A faded pink armchair sits next to a wooden rocking horse, old car tires are repurposed as plant pots, a toy microwave rests atop a barbecue grill. Long, thin poles stick out of the ground and bear on their ends a Spiderman mask, plastic airplanes, a wooden carving of an angel, and a colorful collection of world flags. Two shanties stand by the water, constructed of tin sheets and thick plastic blue tarps, thrown across the top, one of which has the words FRESH SEAFOOD painted on its walls. Hanging from the branches of two young pear trees are an assortment of decorations that bear no relation to each other: Barbie dolls and troll heads, embellished rhinestone Christmas ornaments, Power Ranger figurines, and a plastic baby swing.
The ground by the banks of Shantytown is fertile. Decomposing oyster shells funnel nutrients into the soil, and beefsteak tomato plants grow all along the side of the river. Next to the strip of impromptu garden, an embroidered Persian carpet paves a thin path to the dock overlooking the water. At the center of the dock, painted on a block of cement in bright white letters, is one name: Curtis.
I spent half a year looking for Curtis. I started in January, when I mentioned that I was interested in biking around to interesting spaces in New Haven, and somebody suggested that I check out this place in Fair Haven called Shantytown. A quick Google search led me to an article in the New Haven Independent titled “’Shantytown’ Sparkles By The Q,” which described the space as a “waterfront wonderland,” “community garden” and “working man’s social club” rolled into one. I was intrigued by the place, but even more by its creator –– Curtis Libert, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who worked in New Haven as a roofer, spoke with a West Indies lilt, and dressed in faded Carhartt workwear, a white hardhat and dark sunglasses.
Seventeen years ago, the article explained, Curtis stumbled upon a riverside dump next to an abandoned gravel lot littered with dead dogs and old mattresses. Something about the view of the water and the sound of the waves against the shoreline transported him to the beaches back home in Trinidad. He found some wooden boards and built a three-wall shanty, furnished it with a heater, a lamp, a SONY boom box, a gas stove and a grill, and hung beads at its entrance. He began to spend so much time in the shanty that he decided to make a bed out of a discarded Little Tykes car so he could sleep there on warm nights.
Curtis invited his friends to come join him. Soon, a group of regulars began to hang out at Shantytown every afternoon to drink beer, relax on the scrap-wood furniture, and watch the river go by. Sometimes, they would fish; Curtis brought plastic baskets to store their bait and a portable sink so that people could prepare, cook, and eat their catch on site. During the weekends, whole families from Fair Haven would come together for impromptu weekend barbecues and cookouts. By the end of the year, all corners of the Fair Haven community knew about Shantytown, and on a nice day, the line of visitors’ parked cars would extend all the way down Poplar Street, like a line to an amusement park.
“The entire state knows about Shantytown,” claimed Yani Pap, an ex-bass player who had been hanging out in the area since its early days. “People would come on kayaks and stuff just to see it. They’d come over and dock and everything.” Six years ago, when Yani was still working as a roadie, he brought the DJ from the band Slipknot to the Shantytown. “The guy is like from Ottumwa, Iowa,” said Yani, “and when he saw this place, he was like, this is heaven!”
It seemed like Shantytown functioned as an alternative home –– one that was more flexible, more open and more available on an ad-hoc basis. When he first arrived in the United States, in 2000, Curtis was homesick for Trinidad, but instead of waiting around to be welcomed somewhere, he created a home for himself. As a recent arrival from Hong Kong, I was intent on meeting Curtis, the enigmatic creator and custodian of Shantytown; I wanted to be welcomed into the space and tutored by its architect. So I started biking to Shantytown.
The first time I visited, on an icy day in January, I was shocked at what I found. Shantytown was desolate and dilapidated, sucked of all the color and life that I saw in the photos from the Independent article. The once clean white fence that encircled it was falling apart and the multi-colored national flags hung on poles were ragged and torn by the elements. Garbage was strewn across an uneven layer of dirty snow. Nobody — no visitors, no Curtis Libert — was there to greet me.
I thought that I had caught Shantytown on a bad day. I decided that I would keep coming back until I met Curtis. Once a week, I would put on a pair of thick gloves, a heat-tech shirt under a sweater and down coat, hop onto my bike, and ride to Shantytown. Every week, I would arrive hoping to catch a glimpse of Curtis, and every week I would leave disappointed. At times, visitors — almost always working-class middle-aged men, who had lived in Fair Haven for most of their lives — would trickle through to take a break after work and hang out. Every person I asked knew exactly who Curtis was, but not a single person was able to tell me how I could find him, or when he would return.
One man told me Curtis had an ear infection and that he was living with his mother in Dixwell. Another told me that he hadn’t seen Curtis in at least six months. I scoured the Internet, hoping to find contact details on whitepages.com, but instead found a YouTube video of Shantytown created a little less than a year ago by a user named TitoBandito. When I messaged Tito (who turned out to be a friendly local journalist named Derek Torrelas), he said that activity at Shantytown tends to die down in the winter and suggested that I try to call Curtis directly. He told me to look for Curtis’ phone number painted on one of the cement blocks near Shantytown’s entrance. I was thrilled at the possibility of contact. But when I called the number, all I heard was an automated voice: Sorry, this number has been discontinued.
As I persisted in my rides to Shantytown, I started to ask the occasional visitors what they knew about Curtis, in attempt to weave together a portrait of him. “He’s eccentric,” explained Victor, a builder who worked on the construction of several of Yale’s residential colleges. “Everything he did had to be so detailed and so precise.” Curtis was ceaseless in his maintenance and construction of Shantytown; he would always be bringing in something new — be it an ornament to hang on the tree, or a new chair to put in the living area — always fixing and furnishing, decorating and redecorating in a kind of obsessive frenzy.
“I remember he would spend hours just rearranging colorful stones such that they would be in perfect order,” said Michael, another Shantytown regular, who works as a cashier at the Stop n’ Shop in East Haven. “Once, he gathered a mound of stones of identical size, painted each one individually, then arranged them carefully by color — a little ring of blue stones, a little ring of red ones, then green ones.” He paused. “You have to be a talented but weird dude to do that.” He pointed to a white fan stuck on top of a metal poll spinning softly in the breeze like a windmill, glowing in the sunlight like a pair of angel’s wings. “Only someone weirdly talented like Curtis will be able to take a piece of trash like that and make it look beautiful,” he said. “I guess you could call him an artist.”
“Curtis is a real, stand-up guy,” Yani Pap, the ex-bass player, told me. “He cares about the community, invites people into his home with a humble heart. He’s a pioneer, building something like this.” Curtis had created an open site of exploration and escape for the Fair Haven community, where they could let their guard down and relax outside the normal rules of social interaction, without fear of anyone judging or supervising their actions. It’s somewhere that Michael said he can think freely, a “getaway zone” or a “secret oasis of relaxation.” “It’s the closest thing Fair Haven has to a beach,” he explained. “Like if you were rich enough and you had a pool. Or like a club with open membership and everyone is welcome.”
Although Shantytown is an unauthorized space, unrecognized by the city of New Haven, it operates on a code of respect. “If you can’t show respect, then you leave, because we do not want the police to chase us out,” Curtis told the reporter from the Independent. “That’s why for thirteen years, we ain’t got no trouble.” His rules are simple: Keep the space clean. If you have beef with somebody, don’t take it down here. (Michael described Shantytown as a “neutral spot.”) If you want to do drugs, no problem, but take it to the surrounding woods. Most importantly, look out for each other.
Once, a woman nearly died from overdosing on heroin in Shantytown in the middle of the night. Curtis just happened to be there in time to save her life, call the ambulance and have her taken to the hospital. One unusually warm afternoon in February, during one of my visits, I met her. She was standing by the river, in faded jeans and a navy Aeropostale sweatshirt, washing her cropped auburn hair in the river water. We exchanged names—I gave her the name my family calls me, Ling, and she gave me her real name and a pseudonym, Katie. Born and raised in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Katie moved to New Haven more than a decade ago and ran a successful small business — East Rock Pet Care. “You can search me up on Facebook. I have a college degree, I used to be really nice and sweet and go out of my way to be friendly to people. But I had to learn the hard way that you can’t do that,” she said. “You have to stay one step ahead, or you’ll get eaten alive.”
For the last ten years of her life, Katie had been addicted to heroin, caught in an endless cycle of eviction and relocation. When she has nowhere to stay, she explained, Curtis lets her stay at Shantytown and sleep on the mattress in his shanty. After she overdosed, she promised him that she would go back into rehab, but after being clean for six months, she found herself addicted again. I asked if I could take photos of her and the shanty. “Sure thing, honey,” she said. “But I was just about to shoot some heroin, if that’s okay. Is it okay if I just do my thing?”
When she finished, she offered to show me around. (“I’ll show you the kitchen and living area,” she said, pointing to the farther end of the bank, like a proud hostess.) She towel-dried her hair, brushed her teeth and began to pack away her paraphernalia—needles and creams and forty dollars worth of heroin in a small plastic bag that she held up in the sunlight for me to see. “Sorry Ling, I just gotta pick up all this stuff and make sure everything is clean and tidy. I don’t want to disrespect Curtis.”
Curtis had been gone for six months, however, and despite Katie’s efforts to keep the space clean, everything was already falling apart. Shantytown is in a constant state of entropy — the shanties need to be mended, the floors swept, the trash thrown out. With Curtis gone, all the effort he had put into building Shantytown was being undone. The once thriving community was fraying; the once flourishing garden was withering.
I stopped to chat one afternoon with a Puerto Rican man named Francisco and his friend Gabriel, who were standing by the entrance gate, wearily surveying their surroundings. “We’ve been here since Curtis started, since that tree was still a baby,” said Francisco, pointing to a large pear tree by the banks. “We came every day! Seven days a week! It used to be a nice place, always clean and everything. Now, it’s just going to hell.”
When I asked Francisco if he thought Curtis might return, he shook his head sadly. “I don’t think so,” he said, with his eyes closed. “I think he just got tired and said, ‘I ain’t doing it no more.’” A garden takes work and labor to construct, cultivate, and maintain. But it seemed that the Adam of this imperfect, ever-changing Fair Haven garden had dropped ill with an ear infection, gotten tired and decided to take a break.
I thanked Francisco for his time and went to unlock my bike. The sun was beginning to set, and the horizon was turning a shade of deep pink. A broken television sat on the pavement, its screen glowing the tragic and ethereal green of dilapidated technology. All was silent but for the plastic fans whirring in the wind.
By the end of March, I had the fastest route to Shantytown embedded in my memory: cut across the New Haven Green, accelerate down Chapel Street, cross the Mill River Bridge, and then make a right at Poplar Street. I always paused at the bridge, struck by the sparse, industrial beauty of the Fair Haven landscape — pale clouds, thin branches of the bare trees, silver glint of the English Station under the golden hour sun.
One weekday, I arrived in Shantytown and saw that the snow had melted. Flocks of white geese and ducks were gathered by the banks. For the first time, there was a whole row of cars parked outside. A group of middle-aged men were leaning on the fence at the entrance, drinking beer and listening to festive Peruvian music on a pair of small speakers. Yani and two friends from out of town were sitting on the armchairs, laughing and enjoying the view of the water. I was not sure what to do with myself. I had become something of a Shantytown regular during these cold, winter months. Now that the sun was out and people were here, I was not sure where I belonged. I nodded a shy greeting to each person I walked past, found a sunny spot on the concrete by the dock, and sat down with my backpack like an eager fifth-grader on her first day of middle-school, hopeful and waiting.
Five minutes later, somebody tapped me on the shoulder. “Hi, Ling!”
It was Francisco, but this time with a wide smile on his face. He held out a can of orange soda. “I thought you might want something to drink,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if you drank beer.” We had a more substantive conversation than we had before. He told me that he immigrated to the United States when he was twelve, went to high school in New York City, and had lived in Fair Haven ever since. “I guess I got stuck here,” he said, chuckling. He’d only been back to Puerto Rico twice since he left, even though some of his siblings still live there. “Do you miss them?” I asked him. “Everybody misses everybody,” he replied. “That’s life, I guess.”
“Where are you from?” he asked. After four years as a student in the United States, I didn’t know how to respond to this question. I’ve been told, in particular by my friends of color, and from what I’ve learned reading Maxine Hong Kingston for a seminar I am taking on the modern American novel, that the question is inherently offensive when leveled at me. I realized that I say pasta incorrectly, with a short “a,” when my description of dinner sent my suitemates into peals of laughter. Other than that pronunciation, however, nothing about my speech indicates that I’m not American. But Francisco’s phrasing of the question feels innocent — an outsider seeking solace from another recognizably foreign face, in a nation that he still associates with the white man. To Francisco, there is still a “from” out in the world that is not the United States, that I belong to and must return to. “Hong Kong,” I tell him.
“Trump’s not gonna take you back?” He laughed. “He’s trying to take these guys back,” he said, nodding at the group standing by the entrance. “What wrong with him? Wants to build a fucking wall?” A small, gray cat ran past us. Francisco told me his name is Two Socks, because his paws are all white. They all love Two Socks so much that he’s gotten overweight. “Where’s the steak for the cat? Where’s the steak?” Francisco hollered at his friends sitting by the armchairs. “You better call Trump and ask him to get you some steaks for the cat!” He chuckled, and turned back to face the water.
I asked him again if he thought Curtis would come back. I had so badly wanted to meet the architect of this idyllic community, this home borne out of the inner workings of his imagination and constructed with his own two hands. I thought that if I kept coming back, Curtis would return and restore Shantytown to his imagined ideal. I wanted to see the fruits of all his labor.
Francisco sighed. He did not seem hung up on the possibility of Curtis’ return in the same way I was. “Who knows?” he said, “Maybe he’ll come back in the summertime.”
But perhaps Curtis would not come back, and I could not sit around waiting to be welcomed into a home. By the time he returns, if he does, I will have graduated, left behind New Haven and the community that I have dedicated thousands of hours to cultivating. When the pear trees of Shantytown are in full bloom, I will have already sold my bike and packed my belongings in a U-Haul truck. I will have hopped onto a shuttle and boarded a plane, with nothing but the two suitcases with which I first arrived, a diploma in a manila folder, and the blueprint of a work in constant progress: a home that I will build and continue to build wherever I go.
Yi-Ling Liu is from Hong Kong, China, a 16+ hour flight away from most states in the United States of America. She grew up navigating dense forests of steel skyscrapers, but still prefers trees. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.