If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you have walked down Hillhouse Avenue. And if you have walked down Hillhouse, you have probably passed over a green pathway that runs beneath the avenue, right alongside the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and up next to Grove Street Cemetery. Maybe you have noticed the foliage that flanks the path in early fall or the wrought-iron street lamps lining one side. Maybe you have even strolled down it for a block or two.
The Farmington Canal Greenway stretches from New Haven’s Long Wharf to Northampton, Massachusetts — in all, 80 miles of paved, multi-use trail. Elihu Rubin ’99, a professor in the Yale School of Architecture, credits the New Haven leg with being “way ahead of the curve in terms of converting old transport structures into linear parks,” a trend that can be seen across country, from New York’s Highline to the Atlanta BeltLine, from Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to Chicago’s 606. Like any public urban space, large or small, the Farmington Canal Greenway is a microcosm of much of the inequity that plagues the city at large. No more than 10 or 15 feet wide, it is a green space and a political one, both conduit and destination.
Once, it was farmland. In the early 1820s, the age of the canal, rivers all over the country witnessed heavy traffic as the easiest way to transport goods and, often, to get from place to place. James Hillhouse, class of 1773, a noted Yale benefactor, noticed the success of trade along the Connecticut River and sought to make water transport viable in New Haven. Hillhouse formed a consortium and raised funds to build the canal, with plans to extend it up to Canada in the future. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the NRHP, inventory, the Farmington Canal Company was officially incorporated in 1822. By 1829, the Farmington Canal — also called the New Haven and Northampton Canal — was up and running. At the time, it spanned 56 miles.
The Farmington Canal was not a successful business venture. While there were some boons — for example, dramatically reduced travel times to the inland communities it ran through — it was completely unprofitable; in the words of the NRHP, “Its overall economic effect was not great.” And as more and more railroads cropped up across the country, the canal became obsolete, lasting less than 20 years before a rail bed was laid over its former route. In 1846, the New Haven and Northampton Railroad Company was chartered, and the “Canal Line” was born. But that too began to flounder in the 1980s as trucking became the preferred means of transporting goods in the United States. Sections of the railroad were abandoned. It would, in all likelihood, have been sold off piece by piece, according to the late landscape architect Diana Balmori, whose firm created the plans for the Farmington Canal Greenway in New Haven.
The trail itself came into existence in a somewhat happenstance way, according to Lisa Fernandez SOM ’94, president of the Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association, also known as the FCRTTA. The land sat unused until its rediscovery by a small group of citizens in Hamden. At the time, this group was protesting the construction of a mall on Dixwell Avenue. While protesting, they discovered that the abandoned railroad, part of which ran through the mall’s future lot, was in the public domain. Even though the railroad was privately owned, the underlying land belongs to the state. The group of mall protesters petitioned to keep the land in the hands of the people.
The FCRTTA formed around this time on the heels of the National Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, established in 1986. “There was a lot of need for advocacy, both to conserve these increasingly long pieces of the railroad corridor in the public domain and then to reserve funds for rebuilding it as a trail,” Fernandez said. The FCRTTA was successful in filling this need: Today, more than three-fourths of the former railroad in Connecticut has been rebuilt as a trail.
As Balmori put it in an interview with the American Society of Landscape Architects, “Bringing [the canal] back was totally a community effort.” She was brought in to work on converting the abandoned railroad into a public space in New Haven. In 1995, her firm completed a master plan for the New Haven section, what ASLA calls one of the first linear parks ever of its kind. Linear parks, longer than they are wide, were popularized by the rails-to-trails movement and can be found today in urban and suburban settings alike. As Balmori puts it, “This thing is like a centipede with many, many legs.”
These days, the FCRTTA is drumming up momentum to construct the last remaining section in New Haven, a 1.7-mile stretch from Hillhouse Avenue to Orange Street that Fernandez calls New Haven’s “Lowline.” This design, the work of New Haven’s Dean Sakamoto Architects LLC, would have the below-grade tunnel converted into an “interpretive timeline display” showcasing the history of the canal, railway and greenway. When built, it will connect Yale to the Audubon Arts District. The design has been approved by the state with funding set aside by Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. However, in order to get construction underway, the city is required to get easements from all of the property owners along the prospectively designed section. Fernandez says that three of the nine property owners have yet to sign for construction and public access. This phase has been stalled for more than three years.
Fernandez says that, once constructed, the “Lowline” will be a “really nice synergizing connection” for the city. But even now, there is work being done to engage the communities that abut the Greenway. From Yale’s campus, the Farmington Canal Greenway passes through New Haven’s Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods. Once home to the prosperous Winchester Arms factory, this area is now one of the poorest in the city. Doreen Abubakar, founder of the Learning Corridor, a community engagement organization based in Newhallville, says the neighborhood, although it is the largest community in New Haven, has few resources and community spaces. As Fernandez points out, New Haven overall has the highest amount of open space per capita of any city in Connecticut, but Newhallville’s only park is the Farmington Canal Greenway.
Abubakar and Goode are working with their respective organizations to bring resources to this section of the trail and to engage the surrounding community. Goode says New Haven Friends of the Farmington Canal Greenway was founded in 2012 to provide a “ground-level, grassroots support network in New Haven [and] make sure that public safety and stewardship issues are being addressed” on these portions of the trail. Especially since the New Haven Department of Parks and Recreation has seen its staffing reduced by 50 percent in the last 15 years, Goode stresses the importance of the existence of volunteer park friends groups. “The Parks Department is not going to plant flowers and bulbs along the canal, organize spring clean ups or bag up leaves,” he says. And while the Yale Police Department takes care of the Greenway up to Division Street — patrolling it and, in wintertime, plowing snow — there is no one doing the same in the likes of Newhallville.
Goode credits the work of the New Haven Friends of the Farmington Canal Greenway, alongside community policing, for addressing many of the public safety and maintenance issues along the trail. There has been concern that the Greenway creates a corridor, an escape route even, in one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city. Fernandez, when asked, is quick to assert that public parks are closed from dusk until dawn, so those who are concerned about safety “shouldn’t go there at night, anyway.” (When I mentioned to Fernandez that I run along the greenway, she told me she hoped I was not going alone.) Although there are blue phones along the path, an easy way to place a call to the local police, in Goode’s experience many of them do not actually work. Nonetheless, he remarks, “I don’t think there have been any criminal incidents on the trail in the last year.”
Goode and the New Haven Friends work hard to maintain the trail, organizing workdays and placing an emphasis on beautification. Goode, together with Abubakar, received a grant from the Connecticut Audubon Society to establish the trail as a place for native plants, to restore a natural corridor for pollinator species. This summer they planted 160 plants. Meanwhile, Abubakar, a self-described “visionary,” has plans to use the Learning Corridor to create community in Newhallville and foster feelings of connection between residents and their environment. She arranges events on or around the Greenway centered on fitness or environmental education as well as celebrations like a Christmas Sing-Along and Tree Lighting or the fall Harvest Festival. This past September, they, along with the Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, rejoiced in the unveiling of a mural painted by the local artist Kwadwo Adae along the Greenway in Newhallville.
In Goode’s experience, the Farmington Canal Greenway is most frequently visited in the afternoons and on nice days. Cyclists, runners, pedestrians and commuters in New Haven all make use of the space. At each intersection of the Greenway and city street, pillars stand with plaques fixed to the front. “Farmington Canal Company — incorporated 1822.” Every time you enter the Greenway there is a reminder that this space has travelled a long way: from farmland to waterway to railway, and back to green.