Spend just a few minutes with Lee Cruz and you can feel his enthusiasm for New Haven – the city as a whole, but especially his beloved neighborhood of Fair Haven.
By day, Cruz is director of community outreach at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, a philanthropic institution established in 1928 as the community’s permanent charitable endowment. His other passion, though, is Fair Haven, where he lives with his wife Sarah Miller and their two sons, eight-year-old Pablo and five-year-old Mateo.
While he’s highly visible and active throughout Greater New Haven, he is deeply engrained in the fabric of this particular waterfront community. He loves Fair Haven and is eager to share that passion. Ask him for a restaurant recommendation, for instance, and he quickly lists eight must-try places.
Cruz is a founding member of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association, which started in 2009 as an effort to connect neighbors and identify the community’s assets, so those assets can be used to address the area’s challenges.
He also leads walking tours of the neighborhood and has a comprehensive knowledge of the region’s history. Sitting on the back deck of Anastasio’s Boat House Café on Front Street, his favorite local breakfast spot, one recent morning, he points to a church steeple across the Quinnipiac River, atop Pilgrim Congregational Church, and enthusiastically notes that at one time, the steeple was the tallest structure in Connecticut – until a hurricane knocked it down in 1868; it was later rebuilt.
Over toast, home fries, and over-easy eggs at the café, he’s excited to share what he loves about his neighborhood.
“I can go in a zillion directions,” he says.
Q: What does your job at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven entail?
A: I connect people, nonprofits and businesses to create social and economic capital for Greater New Haven. That’s important because there are a lot of really interesting, fascinating people in New Haven doing phenomenal things, and I’ve found that there is a role and a space for connecting those people and also facilitating their success. And that’s the base of philanthropy; you don’t give out of your poverty, you give out of your wealth.
Q: What’s your favorite way to spend a day in New Haven – or Greater New Haven?
A: Either biking or walking around, whether it’s in Fair Haven or downtown New Haven, or in one of several other great neighborhoods we have. We love the parks and downtown.
Q: What hidden gem in the city do you wish more people knew about?
A: The Mill River is really beautiful and it’s a hidden gem. There are people in New Haven who don’t realize people come from other parts of the world to look at birds along the Mill River. It’s a destination people come to.
Q: As a native New Yorker, how did you land in New Haven?
A: What brought me to New Haven is a job after graduate school, to direct a dropout prevention program for Hispanic youth in 1983. I’d just finished a graduate program at Brandeis University in Massachusetts [earning a master’s degree in Management in Human Services]. I had initially started as an undergraduate, thinking I wanted to be a social worker, but then I realized what I really enjoyed was not the direct service, but helping the people who ran the organizations that made [those services] possible.
After three years here, I moved to Nicaragua to do international development work. I went for a year and stayed for 12. Most of the challenges I was trying to address by doing international work had their roots in the United States – our economy, our foreign policy – so I decided to come back in 1998. [I’ve stayed here] because of its diversity. I think of New Haven as diverse, I think of it as historic, and there are roots and a history here that is also diverse. And the absolutely beautiful waterfront that we have.
Q: Where are your favorite local places to grab a bite?
A: Without a doubt, breakfast here [Boat House Café], any day but particularly on the weekend. For lunch and dinner, there are several great options: Salsa’s Authentic Mexican restaurant has the best mole; there’s La Molienda Café, with the best ceviche; J&J Restaurant [Dominican] is really good; El Coqui has great Puerto Rican food; Grand Apizza; and Buen Gusto, that’s also Puerto Rican food. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Cositas Deliciosas. You go in and pick three fresh fruits and, on the spot, they make you a fresh fruit smoothie and it’s absolutely delicious.
Q: What inspired you to become such a strong advocate for Fair Haven?
A: Within New Haven, Fair Haven is the most diverse neighborhood. The people who live around my house include families from Ecuador, Puerto Rico, India, Italy, Poland, Israel, Honduras, Canada – that’s all within two blocks of my house. My kids walk around the block, they know almost everybody and everybody knows them. They’re hearing all these languages, experiencing all these cultures. Socioeconomically speaking, the diversity is there as well. We have a high poverty rate and we also have a tremendous amount of wealth.
Photography by STAN GODLEWSKI