Elm City attracts regional shoppers

Over a dozen customers peruse the racks at Wishlist on a Saturday afternoon, sorting through piles of So Low sweats, Michael Stars tanks and True Religion skinny jeans. But while the store is just yards from three residential colleges — and sells high-end Yale T-shirts at $48 apiece — many of the patrons are suburban high school girls accompanied by credit card-wielding mothers.

Despite what many describe as New Haven’s dramatic revitalization in recent years, most Yalies are used to the stereotyping of their temporary home as a rundown, dangerous, drug-infested dump. But that image of the city is fading fast, at least to high school students — mostly girls between the ages of 15 and 18. The minors have started to visit the downtown area every weekend in increasing numbers, coming from suburbs across Southern Connecticut to shop and hang out.

Evelyn Rodriquez, 19, and Carolina Prado, 17, shop at Wishlist. Downtown stores are a popular destination for high school students.
Kathleen Koch
Evelyn Rodriquez, 19, and Carolina Prado, 17, shop at Wishlist. Downtown stores are a popular destination for high school students.

Store and restaurant owners said they welcome the business, and New Haven development officials said the tax dollars these day-trippers bring in are a good source of income. But some people expressed concern that the proliferation of stores geared towards suburbanites in the downtown area is crowding out the locals, and some parents voiced anxieties about the safety of younger children.

Hope Kronman, a junior at the Hopkins School in New Haven who lives in nearby Orange, said she and her classmates drive into the Broadway district frequently during free periods, after school and on weekends. They come to shop at Wishlist and Urban Outfitters, eat at the Yankee Doodle, the Educated Burgher or Ashley’s Ice Cream, or just hang out and enjoy the atmosphere.

Kronman said New Haven’s central location makes it the ideal place for Hopkins students from small towns and suburbs all over the region to converge. The diversity of diversions available, from restaurants to concerts, makes it preferable to other nearby options — although Kronman’s friend Tyler Chukwu, also a junior at Hopkins, said the relatively few stores in New Haven mean that among her classmates, “every winter, people will end up with the same shirt.”

“Downtown New Haven, as compared to Westport, is more of a hangout zone, whereas with Westport you go and have to have plans,” Kronman said. “The other thing I like about it is that when we’re down here, people don’t necessarily label us as high school kids, because you have all the Yale kids here too.”

Many of the girls who come to New Haven from the surrounding suburbs said they see the city as a more mature alternative to the middle school scene at the Westfield Milford Connecticut Post Mall, which is about a 20-minute drive from the Yale campus.

A number of high school girls and their mothers alluded to class, another element of the choice to shop in New Haven. Although Allison Thomas ’09 said some of her classmates were afraid to come into New Haven when she was in high school at Amity Regional in nearby Woodbridge, many of the mothers and daughters shopping in New Haven on a recent Saturday afternoon said the city offers higher-end options than the mall. In Wishlist, one girl teasingly called her friend “ghetto” for expressing a preference for the variety of stores at the Connecticut Post Mall.

Many girls and their mothers said they had heard rumors or news reports about a fight that took place in the Post Mall’s food court in late November, which media reports said involved “hundreds” of teenagers. One mother said she had heard that gang-related issues were involved, but most people said the fight did not affect their decision about where to shop. Rose Cardone, whose daughter was at the mall when the fight broke out, said it showed “that sort of thing could happen anywhere.”

Cardone — who lives in Fairfield — said she would now hesitate to let her 14-year-old daughter go to the mall at night, though safety in New Haven also concerns her. Like many parents of teenage girls who spend time in the city, she said she does not necessarily think New Haven is more dangerous than anywhere else, and described it as a “nice place.” But Cardone said she would not allow her daughter to walk around alone until she gets older, and for now, when her daughter goes shopping without her, it is still to the mall.

“I’d probably let her walk around with friends, but she’s not that comfortable here, and at the mall she knows her way around,” she said. “I wouldn’t let her come here at night.”

Ev Ritt, who had come into the Elm City from Hamden to go shopping with her daughter, said the downtown has “really cleaned up” since she was a teenager in New Haven in the 1970s. She often comes into New Haven to eat herself, she said, and she would prefer that her daughter shop in the city than at the mall, which “brings in a different element of people.”

The boutiques and high-end chains that provide the bulk of Broadway-area shopping options attract customers who can afford to pay $200 for a pair of designer jeans. Thomas said when she was in high school, she saw New Haven’s downtown as a more exciting alternative to residential Woodbridge. But she has since noticed that it is “a little weird” that many of the shops in such an ethnically and financially diverse area cater to a “certain demographic” of wealthy suburbanites.

Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison, chair of New Haven’s Development Committee, said city administrators are “very aware” of the possibility that shopping and dining in New Haven could become too expensive for those who actually live in the city. There was once a time when the goal was to replace poorer patrons with wealthier ones, he explained. But planners have come to appreciate a mix of shoppers, he said, and the problem of expense will self-correct as stores with steep price tags go out of business.

“The people who bring in these expensive stores that nobody in New Haven would shop in, I think they have the demographics wrong,” Mattison said. “I don’t think that’s going to work. I don’t see New Haven as that kind of place. It should be a little rough around the edges, and it is.”

Scott Healy ’96, the executive director of New Haven’s Town Green Special Services District, which works to improve New Haven’s downtown areas, said everyday residents of the city are not at any risk of being crowded out. The Broadway district “pocket of downtown” does have a suburban appeal, Healy said, and the area between York Street and Park Street is often crowded with day-trippers on the weekends. But he also said there is more of a local presence throughout the rest of the week, and the diversity of businesses and restaurants in the greater downtown area keeps any one group from taking over.

Healy said the Elm City is particularly popular among parents spending the day with their teenage children, who want to take advantage of the variety of cultural activities New Haven offers, like concerts and museums, in addition to its shopping and food. People are increasingly seeing New Haven as a regional center, he said, which explains why teenagers choose the city as their meeting place. This helps the New Haven economy by creating an influx of revenue from sales tax, he said.

Tracy Houle, the manager at Wishlist, said many of her customers come in from surrounding suburbs specifically to shop at the store, and she estimated that about 20 percent of her customers are high school students. New Haven is becoming more and more of an attractive destination, she said, and the combination of specialty stores and cultural activities make coming into the city worth a 45-minute drive.

Sarah Ritt, a junior at Hamden High School, said at her school different social groups spend their time in different places around Southern Connecticut. Although some of her classmates complain that New Haven is too expensive and prefer the mall or hanging out at home, Ritt said her friends come into the city regularly to shop at the stores on Broadway and eat pizza or grab dim sum at Chow. The urban pace keeps her from getting bored, she said.

“There are so many things to do down here, and at the mall all there is to do is shop,” she said. “People who just want to hang out come here. I like shopping and music and good food. You can get almost anything you want.”

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