New Haven’s Sense of Place

by Robert Israel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Nov 9, 2011

New Haven, the coastal Connecticut city made famous by being the home of Yale University, is emerging as a culinary and artistic destination. Yes, there are pockets of its downtown streets that remain gloomy, streets haunted by rows of abandoned stores and an overarching sense of abandonment.

But there is also visible evidence that the efforts the city is putting into reinventing and rejuvenating itself are succeeding.

I returned to New Haven after a long hiatus. Some years ago, I'd drive from Rhode Island on assignment from a newspaper in Providence to review plays at Long Wharf and Yale Rep (as I did this time around), breezing in to see the shows and breezing out that same night. The newspaper never encouraged overnight stays, but they contributed to the cost of the pizza I'd order from one of New Haven's famous brick oven pizzerias that kept me company while I drove home.

In those days, I'd report on early productions of the plays by August Wilson, who went from tryouts in New Haven to achieve stardom on Broadway and beyond, or Athol Fugard, the South African who starred in, as well as wrote and directed, plays that exposed audiences to the horrors of apartheid.

During my recent visit, I was invited to spend the night, dine at local eateries, and tour the city.

Immediate impressions: many more buildings formerly remembered as being drab and derelict now house upscale restaurants, hip hotels, and trendy shops. At night, especially near the Shubert, Yale Rep and the adjacent streets, there's a buzz in the air as people take to the streets, and flit from nightspot to nightspot.

Same sex unions are legal in Connecticut, and New Haven has packaged itself as a wedding destination. I'm not one who hangs out at bars, but during this visit I stopped in at Partners Café, a gay-owned and operated bar, and noticed a mixed crowd, indicating that the barriers that once kept imbibers apart is now a bit more porous and integrated, and with a noticeable absence of tension.

A sense of place

New Haven is 153 miles from Boston and 80 miles from New York. That distance has allowed it to escape from becoming suburban bedrooms for Manhattan like Greenwich or Darien. There is still a discernable New York City affect which may never be lost entirely, even after New Haven ultimately achieves its desired transformation. New York casts a long shadow, but, put simply, New Haven knows where it wants to be and is hell bent to make progress to get to its destination.

I traveled to New Haven via Amtrak from Boston, avoiding the congestion of routes 90, 91 and especially route 95 where travel lanes are often blocked due to road construction or auto accidents.

The train hugs the Atlantic shoreline once it leaves Westerly, Rhode Island, and enters Connecticut at Stonington, where a traveler, gazing out the windows, sees salt marshes and estuaries and, off shore, vistas of Block Island, Montauk and Long Island (reachable via ferry boat from New London). The train’s windows offer a peek into backyards and tool sheds, clotheslines and scrap heaps and towns like Noank and Guilford that retain their hardscrabble New England character. There are marinas, lobster boats and yachts, and stretches of wet sandy beaches where clam diggers ply their rakes, shovels and wire buckets, scooping through the muck for shellfish at low tide. I saw a blue heron stand on one leg while piping plovers raced along the water’s edge.

It doesn’t get populous until one reaches the New Haven outskirts, where brick warehouses, some abandoned while others await renovation as condominiums, are lined like sentries as the train pulls into the yard at Union Station.

Reclaiming New Haven for the Arts

After checking in at the comfortable and spacious Omni New Haven at Yale, I was joined at dinner by a number of folks from Market New Haven and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, two organizations devoted to the city’s renewal.

I learned about Project Storefronts that has, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, transformed several of those gloomy downtown storefronts into habitable places of interest. The project has successfully sparked downtown renewal, and, according to the New Haven Register, "... transforms vacant storefronts into more inviting places that could boost foot traffic and economic growth downtown."

And there’s a yearly festival to the arts, headed up by Mary Lou Aleskie, the executive director of Arts and Ideas, who tells me that she and her staff are planning the 17th annual festival, earmarked next year for June 16-30, 2012.

"It’s a vibrant, week-long event that brings lots of people into New Haven to attend concerts and performances, many of them held in outdoor venues, and many of them free," Aleskie says, and points to last year’s exciting events, a jam-packed week that included concerts by Yo Yo Ma, Natalie MacMaster and others.

I visited two art museums, both owned and operated by Yale University: the Yale Art Gallery, and the Yale Center for British Art . Both museums are free and open to the public. There are startling images to be found in both museums: life sized portraits of wild beasts painted in vivid colors in at the British Art museum, and African sculpture and masks at the Yale Art Gallery that seem to jump off their pedestals. Schoolchildren from New Haven were parading through the corridors the rainy day I was visiting, their eyes wide and impressionable, soaking in the sculptures and marble statuary; they high-fived me as they made their way downstairs to the main viewing areas.

Where to Dine:

At Barcelona, the food is prepared in an open kitchen and served by an attentive and enthusiastic wait staff. I nibbled on fresh baked bread, oven roasted cauliflower, cheese dishes warmed in the oversized ovens, venison sausage, thinly sliced steak, Berkshire pork belly, and monkfish, to name just a few of the tapas offerings served fresh, hot and tasty at a long chef’s table.

There is an adjacent bar that serves up homemade sangria and other house specialties, and the atmosphere is abuzz with conversation and conviviality.

For vegetarian delights, I recommend visiting a New Haven landmark, Claires Corner Copia , on Chapel Street. The food is homemade (Claire Criscuolo founded the restaurant in 1975), and atmosphere is homey and welcoming. Fresh baked bakes, breads, soups and sandwiches are available, and Claire has stories of some of the fabled New Haven customers she’s attended, including Jody Foster and James Franco (alums of Yale’s drama department).

And then there’s Heirloom, located in a hip hotel called The Study At Yale, a renovated building whose back windows overlook the brick labyrinth of Yale College, with the main entrance across the street from Yale’s School of the Arts. The restaurant and adjacent hotel lobby are bright, cheerful and visually pleasing, with exhibits by local artists and photographers lining the hallways.

Recapturing a City Center

New Haven is impressively recapturing its city center, and the waterfront cannot be far behind. Soon, I suspect those derelict warehouses that greet travelers at Union Station will undergo transformation, as will the wharves and rundown sections of its marina district.

This is what makes New Haven a city worth weekending in, to rediscover its unique flavors and to relax in a city that is small enough to navigate safely and enjoyably, yet one that embraces the world around it.


Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.


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