7.01.2016

Rambling Reflections on New Haven

Lately, I've had New Haven on my mind. Discovery of the Elm City Diary Facebook page coupled with a slow and boring week at work was all it took to set me off on a Google search. When I stumbled upon Eva Geertz's blog post in New Haven Review, my curiosity about New Haven turned into full-fledged nostalgia. As I read the post, the names of local institutions, the sights and sounds of the Elm City, its people, its vibe, and whole slew of thoughts, feelings and images came flooding into my mind.
Downtown New Haven, Connecticut, the New Haven Green
New Haven Green
"New Haven is, I suspect, no different from any other small city, or even town, in this regard: any business establishment that opens and then lasts longer than three to five years becomes, simply out of its survival, an institution....New Haven is filled with sentimental chumps like me who remember every club, every restaurant they ever ate at, every store where they ever bought shoes, and lament their closings. If you don't believe me, there is proof on Facebook."
New Haven is where I spent four years as an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State University and the two years that followed, so it will always hold fond memories for me.  As I continued with my Google search and this trip down memory-lane, I began to realize that New Haven has a strong sense of character that is hard to shake from one's mind. It became apparent that many people have a nostalgia for New Haven but what makes it that way? What sets it apart? Whatever it is, it's hard to identify. New Haven is a city steeped in history and contradictions and it is a large part of what gives it this character and makes it a memorable location.
Broaday, Gateway to New Haven
Broadway
New Haven was founded in 1638 and is home to a number of universities both prestigious and ordinary. It's first university, Yale University, was founded in 1701. Occupying a big swath of downtown, Yale's stately Gothic buildings give the area an old-world, European feeling not found in many places in the United States. But New Haven is more than just historic charm and the mystique that comes from being home to a well-regarded institution. It's the way this charm and old-world feel collides against an urban grittiness that makes New Haven unique.

Very similar to our place on Elm Street, New Haven
New Haven, same as it ever was
Walk down almost any city street and within just a few blocks you'll watch New Haven change- from an old college town to a down-and-out second-tier city to a hip and contemporary urban center to a park-filled city with tree filled and leafy residential neighborhoods. History, decay, prosperity, youth, promise, individuality, nature, and so much more are all right there sitting side-by-side. It's what makes New Haven memorable and sets it apart from other similarly sized cities. With a population of around 125-130K people, New Haven isn't a large city by any means, but it has  unmistakable sense of history, urbanness and vibrancy that give it a personality that is much bigger than it's population.

Perhaps nostalgia for New Haven is strong because it is an old city and that has given it confidence in its character. As a college student, I remember knowing that many of the places we frequented - Rudy's, Cutler's, Pepe's, Group W Bench and so many others - were considered local institutions. They had been around "forever" and this wasn't just the way we viewed it in our youthful eyes. Some of these places were old, at least in an American sense. Pepe's was home to the first pizza in New Haven in 1925 and Rudy's, our favorite dive bar, was established in 1934. Louis' Lunch, a place I still have yet to visit, opened in 1895 and claims to have invented the hamburger.

Recently at a party here in Bozeman, a few of us were talking about long-standing local businesses.  Individuals in this group have lived in the area for between 10 and 30+ years so we have a long history here. As we went up and down Main Street and thought about storefronts, it was shocking to realize how few businesses are even ten years old. Ace Hardware and Miller Jewelry have been around for decades. Cactus Records (1970-present) still manages to hold on despite the changing way we consume music, but most of the other businesses seem to came and go such as Leaf & Bean (1977-2015), which was long thought of as a local institution.

As we contemplated the life of a business in Bozeman, I thought about New Haven and was further impressed with its longstanding establishments. Of course, Bozeman and New Haven are vastly different places so perhaps that is an unfair comparison, but there is something to be said about a city in which many businesses with personality can thrive. What is it? Again, hard to say exactly, but history, contradictions and character are part of it.
Richter's New Haven RIP. Great place for a pint

It has been over 20 years since I lived in New Haven, but I am lucky to get to visit this small and fascinating city every few years. During each trip I marvel at the ebb and flow of New  Haven. Sometimes it feels like the blight is spreading and other times it feels more put-together and prospering. During one visit, the mall had closed leaving that end of Chapel Street feeling run down and on a subsequent visit that area was filled with boutiques. At one point, the house I rented on Elm Street was boarded up and the ghetto feeling on Whaley Avenue was creeping closer to the charming Westville neighborhood near the SCSU campus, but during another visit, SCSU had undergone a facelift and felt totally different than when I was a student there. And through it all, many spots are the same as they ever were; Claire's, Atticus Books, Group W Bench and many other businesses still prosper.

Dynamic and ever changing yet comfortable and familiar. That's New Haven.
~

I'll leave you with this list of memorable places from the Elm City.  Some are still around, others may they rest in peace.
  • Archie Moore's
  • Claire's Corner Copia
  • Cutler's
  • Group W Bench
  • Jazz on the Green 
  • Mamoun's
  • Miya Sushi 
  • New Haven Advocate
  • Pepe's, Sally's and all of the other famous pizza places
  • Richter's
  • Rudy's
  • Third World Cafe
  • Toad's Place
Update: here's the latest with a bit about these establishments and more.