Broadway’s commercial history examined in a film

Students and faculty gathered yesterday in the Davenport Auditorium to learn about the history of the Broadway shopping district from its earliest days to its latest redevelopment.

Elihu Rubin ’99, lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture, led a discussion about the changing urban landscape of the central retail street and screened his 2000 documentary, “On Broadway: a New Haven Streetscape.” The discussion was organized by Orly Freidman ’07 and Yonah Freemark ’08, student coordinators for Yale’s undergraduate urban studies program.

“The documentary comes to grips with a basic urban phenomenon — the draining of local family businesses and the onslaught of consumer-oriented chain stores,” Rubin said. “It’s a view of Broadway for people who don’t really take the time to walk it, about how places change — how the character of places change.”

The 35-minute documentary featured interviews with owners of local businesses, New Haven residents and Yale faculty members, aiming to investigate the history and implications of Broadway’s evolution.

Rubin said the film probes the ramifactions of the street’s redevelopment, which was spearheaded by Yale University Properties. Stores meant to target customers from all income ranges gradually disappeared in favor of stores catering to wealthier customers, he said.

“A lot of feathers were ruffled during Broadway’s redevelopment,” he said. “But, on the other side of the coin, Broadway was also hurting and Yale recognized that.”

Phil Cutler, the owner of Cutler’s Records, Tapes & Compact Discs, one of the oldest businesses on the street, said in the documentary that over time, he has seen his neighbors — a liquor store, a jeweler and a cookie shop, among others — replaced by national retailers such as Urban Outfitters, J. Crew and Origins.

“Broadway is much less personal than it used to be,” said Manson Whitlock, the former owner of Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop and the oldest merchant on the block at the time the movie was filmed. “You used to know every shopkeeper on the street.”

But Bruce Alexander, vice president and director of the University’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, explained in the film that Yale’s decision to redesign Broadway was rooted in consumer trends. The hope, he said, was that the presence of some national chain stores would draw in customers who would then patronize the smaller, independent shops. Despite criticism that the redesign changed the ambiance of the street, Alexander said he thinks the stores are a positive addition to the environment.

After the film, Rubin urged students to consider the nuances and complexities of the issue before making a decision as to whether or not the changes have been for the better.

“It’s hard to evaluate whether the changes have been for the better or worse — and who is being helped and who is being hurt,” he said. “There are multiple stories contained in any urban development project.”

Students who attended the talk said it provoked thought on issues that, though closely related to their lives, they have had little opportunity to learn about.

David Rudnick ’09 said although Broadway is a prominent feature of life at Yale, he never realized the controversies associated with its redevelopment.

“I’ve never understood the history of the area, in terms of the conflicts and personalities of the businesses here,” he said. “It was interesting to get an insight on that.”

Freemark said that he was encouraged by the success of the talk and hopes to work with Friedman to organize another, similar event later in the year.

“People want to — and should — know about where they’re living,” Friedman said.

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