Walking the Walk

As director of West End Neighborhood House for the past 15 years, Paul Calistro has met community needs by building coalitions among groups that don’t normally interact

Unless he’s cornered for a meeting, Paul Calistro isn’t likely to be sitting at his desk.

Meetings may sometimes be necessary, but Calistro believes he spends his time best when he’s out in the neighborhood that has become his outdoor office for the last quarter-century.

“I always tell people, ‘let’s walk the neighborhood.’ It’s one of the keys to our success,” says Calistro, executive director of the West End Neighborhood House, the 130-year-old community center that serves residents of Wilmington’s Little Italy and many surrounding neighborhoods.

Walking the neighborhood constitutes what Calistro calls “forced engagement”—a practice that’s essential to finding out what’s on residents’ minds, what they need, what they care about.

“If we want to build communities, if we want to revitalize communities, if we want communities to stay intact, we have to find new mechanisms to keep people attached,” he says, even while using an old mechanism—walking the neighborhood—as an effective tool in building a more cohesive west side of the city.

“Some of the greatest things we’ve done here have come from listening to the people,” he says.

“Paul is an innovative guy, a progressive thinker, with great skills in identifying unmet needs and working to find solutions,” says Monica Alvarez, who started as a grant writer at West End while she was in graduate school and worked on and off with Calistro for 13 years. She is now director of development and marketing for Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware.

While his walks have helped Calistro identify needs, his greatest strength is his ability to build coalitions that have the resources to meet those needs. His “secret formula,” he says, is connecting “groups that don’t normally interact but have a common concern, a common need, a common interest.”

In Delaware, and especially in Wilmington, he finds that “you can connect ordinary people to the leaders of the hospitals and the big institutions.”

A Chicago Guy

The guy who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, living with his parents and two brothers “in the unlicensed, retrofitted basement of a bungalow” before they moved into a blue-collar Italian-Irish-Jewish neighborhood, quickly learned that “there aren’t great ivory towers in Delaware. You can pick up the telephone and talk to almost anyone.”

Calistro’s direct approach has yielded significant results at West End.

Since 2001, the community center has established numerous programs to serve youths who leave foster care when they turn 18. Its initiatives have created transitional and permanent housing, employment training and mentoring—all designed to promote self-sufficiency.

In 2005, West End developed a short-term loan program, Loans Plus, to provide consumers with an alternative to predatory payday loans.

In 2011, West End led the creation of West Side Grows Together, a community revitalization project that covers the area from Interstate 95, between Lancaster and Pennsylvania avenues, west to the B&O Railroad line just beyond Union Street. The 10-year, $35 million plan has brought together individuals and major institutions, including St. Francis Hospital, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, the Latin American Community Center, Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center, Westside Family Healthcare and the Woodlawn Trustees. “We’ve got 27 organizations, all listening to the people, trying to figure out how to do this correctly,” he says.

Two years ago, in collaboration with Sir Speedy Print and Marketing Services, West End launched Popdot, a sign-printing and installation business that employs disadvantaged youth and individuals aging out of foster care.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation enabling cities to create entities called “land banks” that could acquire vacant and deteriorating properties and package them for redevelopment. Calistro and his team at West End were advocating for the concept three years before the legislation was introduced. “It looked like it was somebody else’s idea, but we won,” he says.

“Go Talk to Paul”

“He likes to see communities that are well taken care of,” says Maria Matos, executive director of the Latin American Community Center and, like Calistro, a member of the West Side Grows Together steering committee. “This is one of his pet projects. He understands that children need a good home, and a neighborhood that is safe.”

When she moved to the West Side, Christian Willauer immediately recognized the area’s potential. As her interest in community development grew, she started talking with her neighbors and, when she wanted to learn more, “they all told me to go talk to Paul.”

Those talks led to employment, part-time at first and now as director of the Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, West End’s community development arm.

“Paul is an ideas man,” Willauer says. “He has a lot of understanding of what needs to be done, and how to do it. We get to be part of making it happen.”

But, she adds, the 60-year-old Calistro isn’t one to sit behind his desk and let others do the work. “Paul likes to roll up his sleeves and get involved. He knows all the details,” she says.

Calistro’s recognition of the importance of knowing the details began when he graduated from high school, and kept a promise to his father to work for a year at the printing plant where his father was the superintendent. He learned a bit about the business as he watched magazines like National Geographic and Playboy roll off the high-speed presses, along with the bulky color catalogs from Sears and other major retailers of the era. “I learned. I did all the things he asked me to do, and after a year, I told him I had kept my word and it was time to leave,” he says.

Then it was on to Minnesota, where his older brother lived, on what he thought would be the first stop on a hitchhiking journey through the western states. He stayed a while longer, picking up some credits at the University of Minnesota while becoming a grant writer for the owner of a small residential treatment center for adolescents and taking on other jobs to pay his tuition. And he fell in love with a girl from The First State.

“She got a job offer in Delaware and she said, ‘if you want to marry me, you’ll come to Delaware with me,’” he recalls. (They subsequently divorced. Calistro has three children from that marriage, two of them living in Delaware and the third in Philadelphia. He married Kim Martin, a ballet instructor, in 2009.)

It was 1979, jobs were scarce and interest rates were soaring, but there was an opening for a federally funded position at the Salvation Army in Wilmington. Calistro knew a little about bookkeeping, just enough to get the job. “I got a book about accounting,” he says, “and a year later I was the business administrator.”

He stayed there for 12 years, gradually taking on more significant roles in management.

In the mid-1980s, he developed a taste for politics, taking on the old guard in Newport, where he was living at the time. He started questioning the city council—about financial statements that didn’t make sense, about roads that weren’t being repaired—and decided that he could do better. “To run for mayor,” he says, “all you needed was a pair of good shoes and a copying machine.”

Four-Term Mayor

He won the election in 1987 and served four two-year terms. During his tenure, two Superfund sites in the town were cleaned up and the Ciba Geigy plant on its outskirts was annexed, bringing in enough additional property tax income to nearly double the town’s revenue. “We fixed the streets, the water and sewer systems, and stabilized the revenue stream,” he says.

After eight years, he told the town council he wouldn’t run again. “I held up this sheet of paper and said these were the things I said we were going to fix, and they’re all done,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, in 1991, the job at West End opened up, drawing more than 100 applicants. Calistro didn’t have a college degree, one of the credentials listed in the job posting, but he did his homework —researching the organization’s history, studying its tax returns and annual reports, talking to its employees, even drawing up a five-year plan.

He landed the job, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work. “Wilmington, it was a little town to me, a hamlet,” he says. “You could meet people in Wilmington pretty quickly, but there was a hierarchy in the city—the DuPont folks, the Wilmington Trust folks, Delmarva Power, and The News Journal. You had to learn the hierarchy,” he says.

He learned it well, building connections with bankers, DuPont executives and members of the du Pont family, and he listened to mentors who served on the West End board of directors, including construction executive Paul DiSabatino, academic and businessman Paul Andrisani, Wilmington Trust communications director Charlie King, and Kate Wilhere, managing partner at Cover & Rossiter, an accounting firm.

“I had all these mentors at the start, and the list has grown,” he says. “When I’m working on a project, they call me ‘Mr. Rolodex.’”

Having an extensive network is more important than ever now, with tight government budgets, the departure or declining influence of corporate donors like MBNA and DuPont, and the decentralization of du Pont family wealth with each succeeding generation. “Corporations have not only downsized, but they used to give grants to support a broad range of organizations in the arts, the environment and social services,” Calistro says. “Now, their giving is aligned with their business models.”

Those changes have forced community organizations not only to change the way they look at their own operations but also to work together more.

The West Side Grows Together effort is an example, with West End, the Latin American Community Center and Hilltop Lutheran Community Center joining forces to strengthen neighborhoods like Hilltop, Cool Spring and Little Italy. “It’s one of Paul’s pet projects, a super-duper plan for many community organizations,” Matos says.

Developing such coalitions isn’t easy, and Matos admits that she and Calistro don’t always see eye to eye. “He’s opinionated, and I’m opinionated,” she says, “but we both have the same goal in mind—a perfect community.”

That quest for perfection nearly propelled Calistro into the Wilmington mayoral race four years ago. He tested the waters for about six weeks, then did the math and concluded he couldn’t come out on top in what likely would have been a four-man Democratic primary. “It wasn’t worth it—to me, to West End, to my family,” he says, so he returned every campaign contribution he received.

By the time the 2016 campaign season rolled around, Calistro had moved out of the city, so he couldn’t be tempted to run. He threw his support behind Eugene Young, who finished second to Mike Purzycki in the Democratic primary in September. It was only natural for Calistro to back Young, who spent parts of his youth participating in programs at West End.

Calistro isn’t saying how much longer he’ll stay at West Side, but he still relishes the challenges.
“He works very hard, but he also likes to joke around,” Willauer says. “His expectations are very high, but working with him can be a lot of fun.”

“Community development is his life’s work,” Matos says. “It takes a lot to stay with it for as long as he has.”

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