Orchid House, Hanover Street, with founder Elijah Dixon

Oct 23, 2017

Guest:  Elijah Dixon, The Orchid House and the Orchid Group

Joe Teti called the meeting to order at 12:10.

Joe asked for a treasurer’s report, and George reported that we had $1190.49 in the bank.  Joe reminded everyone that annual dues are payable now.  The report was accepted by voice vote.

After lunch, Joe called upon Shan Holt to introduce our speaker Elijah Dixon.  Elijah and Shan are acquainted through their mutual presence at the Trenton Monthly Meeting of Friends.

Elijah ran through the story of how the Orchid House project came to be.  The Orchid Group, named for the Ghost Orchid, is a group of Trenton artists fabricators and craftspeople who all want to use their skills within efforts to improve life and the future for Trenton.

  They are doing what they can to bring back the E. Hanover St. neighborhood, which used to house a stable professional population in now-empty apartments and homes.  Their headquarters is the new Orchid House, which opened this fall at 134 East Hanover St.

Elijah himself was born and raised in Trenton, in a family of educators and entrepreneurs.  His parents now live in Georgia but he came back to Trenton after college to work for Isles.  Over his 2.5 years with Isles, he moved from part-time to full-time employment and worked as a liaison connecting community organizers with organizations and with city government.  He learned in that practice that Trenton needed more commerce and commercial activity to sustain a revival.  He remembered the neighborhood as a place to find small businesses, like a tuxedo shop and a camera shop, and exploring the empty buildings, he found many old architectural plans from the 1940s that testified to the willingness of local residents to invest in their historic properties.

At the same time, Elijah and his colleagues began to feel that some bottom-up commercial development was important, rather than waiting for top-down development that frequently came in at the expense of the neighborhoods historic fabric.  Top-down developers frequently saw the city’s historic architecture as a liability rather than as an asset.  The Orchid Group, a very diverse group of people of different ages, multiple racial identities, who share a social mission, intends to keep skill-development and bottom-up rebuilding as its focus, so that local residents in the neighborhood they represent will maintain ownership of their place and its future in the city.

Saving and rebuilding Orchid House itself is a saga of time, money, skill and raw courage.  Concerned that the neighborhood was so tightly packed with people facing poverty and despair, the group talked about living out a new path for several years before deciding just to plunge in and act.  Just before they closed on the purchase of the building, which was in rough shape but with assets intact, the site was vandalized.  Pipes, radiators, and appliances were stolen, walls broken through and defaced, and about $50,000 of the buildings already depressed value taken out in one night.  The sellers, a private investment bank, refused the group’s request to lower the price, and so in the end, rather than lose their deposit, they bought the building on a Federally-insured rehabilitation mortgage, but for its pre-vandalized price.

The upside of this ordeal is that group members learned many new skills bringing the building back.  The worst moment was the murder of Mr. James Wells in 2015, after he had spent a day working inside the building.  Wells was known around the neighborhood as a fierce opponent of drugs and an equally fierce advocate for local young people and the city, and also attended the Trenton Monthly Meeting of Friends.  His murder by thugs right on Hanover St. was a setback emotionally and practically, for the whole area.   But the group rallied to its mission. 

In the years since, they redid the floors, salvaged a conference table from the YWCA next door that was closing, salvaged wood and metal and used it to create a uniquely rustic, cozy, and creative interior space.  Out back and in areas nearby, they maintain community gardens from which members and local residents can get fresh produce. 

They work hard to be visible, to discourage the drug dealers who otherwise control the tightly-packed neighborhood, and to inspire other people to see the value of getting an education and gaining a skill.  They offer advice and guidance to others who come by, wanting to do similar projects themselves.  The Orchid Group wants  to inspire people in the neighborhood to take up their own gifts and develop a vision for themselves and the city.

Today, 134 E. Hanover is an art and craft gallery and a social hub for the neighborhood.  They showcase hand-made furniture, hand-crafted soaps, and other items for sale, which helps to support the organization’s work and its members.  They also partner with the high school across the street, one of the five temporary locations for Trenton Central kids during the building of the new high school.  They do workshops with the STEM and hospitality program, and offer the teens network access inside the Orchid House.  They recently hired a new gardener, which offers the kids and adults in the area more chances to get involved.

In response to questions about city permits, Elijah admitted ruefully that city inspectors gave them close going over several times, and they more or less learned by trial and error what the regulations are.  They also struggled to stay within the historic preservation codes with their small budget and innovative ideas.  He expressed very great gratitude to Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson for her help and support.

Elijah and his brother both live in apartments above the store, and they try to spend time on the street, creating a friendly and safe presence there.  Police have increased their presence in the neighborhood as other big development projects have begun nearby, but the Orchid Group group is happier with local residents taking charge of their streets, and they mean Orchid House to help with that work.

The meeting adjourned at 1:20, with the announcement that we will meet again on Monday, November 27.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary