Ninth Square Goes Back on the Grid

The Brooklyn of New Haven?
The Brooklyn of New Haven? // Kamaria Greenfield

Nearly three years ago, Adele Ricciardi MED ’18 GRD ’18 moved to New Haven after having been a New Yorker for just under a year. After searching for housing in East Rock — an area popular among Yale graduate students — she settled in a neighborhood that reminded her of both her Big Apple home and her Albany, NY. roots.

From the beginning, New Haven’s Ninth Square Historic District struck her as surprisingly Brooklynesque: a “charming, small” locale with galleries and a diversity of restaurants — a place with few chain stores.

“I was really happy when I found [the Ninth Square], because it was familiar.” she said. “I started looking in East Rock, but the Ninth Square definitely felt more like home.”

As one of the first five tenants in her apartment building near the intersection of Crown and South Orange Streets, Ricciardi has witnessed the neighborhood develop steadily in the last few years. The district’s location conveniently situates her between her two workplaces at Yale Medical School and the University laboratories on Science Hill. Located in the downtown’s southeast section, its proximity to commercial areas and relatively low cost make it attractive to graduate students.

The Ninth Square also offers encouraging proof that New Haven can thrive on its own, despite a much smaller investment from Yale and University Properties (UP), which oversees the school’s commercial real estate assets in the city. In contrast, the company holds a virtual monopoly over the downtown area, where it owns enough property on Broadway, as well as Chapel, York and Howe streets to pay over $4 million in taxes annually.

“I think it’s New Haven without Yale, which we don’t really see a lot of,” Ricciardi observed. “The local community hasn’t been completely overrun yet.”

But it is a community on the edge of change, fueled by expansive commercial and real estate developments in recent years.

“In the time I’ve been there I can tell that we’re on the verge of a transformation,” she said.

* * *

Inside the Adae Fine Art Academy, the notes of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” filled a large, sunlit room where house plants sit under painted portraits.

“I read the news today oh, boy/About a lucky man who made the grade/And though the news was rather sad/Well I just had to laugh and/ I saw the photograph.”

The school’s director and founder, Kwadwo Adae, wore a navy-blue bowtie with a matching blue suit. His demeanor — kind, soft-spoken — reflected the nurturing environment he strove to create.

Adae explained that the music functions as far more than a mere affect.

“You have to have the mind occupied with music while you paint,” he said. “I learned that way, so I teach that way, too.”

An artist once described as “a mix of early Jackson Pollock, Keith Herring and Thomas Hart Benson,” Adae arrived in New Haven in 2005 after receiving a master’s in fine arts from New York University. In search of higher education teaching jobs, he received “no answers, no calls, no nothing.” So when an art store went out of business in his current space on 817 Chapel Street, he decided it was time to open a school of his own.

Eight years ago, the district was a different place. Rob Greenberg, owner of ACME Furniture and a third-generation New Haven resident, recounted how the popularization of the automobile precipitated the prevailing “urban renewal” philosophy of urban planning at the time, favoring large roads like Route 34 and modernism over some cities’ perceived “ancient” downtowns. However, then-New Haven mayor Richard C. Lee’s championing of these policies led to the destruction of some 20,000 buildings, and the Ninth Square, along with New Haven, “dropped off.”

“The problem that they had not accounted for was that when they tore out the city’s mom and pop stores and all these little shops — it was hundreds of years of evolution,” he said. “What they didn’t account for was that when they knocked out all the evolutionary forward motion, if it didn’t work, there was no backup plan.”

Thirty-five years after Lee left office in 1970, Adae was still feeling the effects of the mayor’s policies, as he dealt with “squatters” in his building and various other aspects of a depressed neighborhood that were decidedly unhelpful for “creating a nurturing environment.”

“The neighborhood was a lot rougher on the edges when I first started out,” he said. “A couple of my adult students were concerned with taking class, getting out at 8 p.m. and walking to their cars.”

But while residents were fearing for their safety in Ninth Square, city officials were already sowing the seeds of the neighborhood’s revival. Long before the arrival of district mainstays such as 360 State Street, Elm City Market or New Haven State Street Station, former New Haven mayor Biagio “Ben” DiLieto pushed a plan originally designed by Economic Administrator Will Ginsburg to reverse the march of urban renewal.

The McCormack/Behring Project, named for the design firms who pursued it, focused first on redeveloping residential areas — occupancy reached a passable level around 1994-1995 according to Stefano — and then moved to help businesses occupy available retail space. The first business to occupy these spaces was the now New Haven favorite Benatra, which opened in the Ninth Square in 1997.

“The values of property went down and they lent themselves to redevelopment,” DeStefano said. “That came at the end; after every downtown building was vacant, the market liked the older stuff.”

DeStefano said the sort of urban lifestyle to which Ricciardi and her fellow grad students aspired was a sign that times had changed since he and his wife were of that age. The pair married when DeStefano was 24 years old, when “cheap fields and cheap land” led many of their generation to the suburbs.

Today, he noted, young people in their twenties are less likely to be settled in their career and life direction. As a result, “You tend to live in cities,” he said.

* * *

Just a block away from the New Haven Green stands the state’s largest residental building, a looming glass skyscraper constructed on what was once the site of Shartenberg’s, the one-time largest department store in Connecticut. Designed by Bruce Becker ARC ’85 SOM ’85, 360 State Street houses a large number of Yale affiliates, many of whom study or work at the medical school.

According to Becker, retail vacancies have been “dramatically reduced” since Yale students began migrating to the area after the opening of Elm City Market and the State Street Station in 2005.

The 360 State Street Project opened in 2010, along with the Elm City Market in 2011 — a co-op founded in the midst of the recession and collectively owned by approximately 200 New Haven residents, according to Becker. Both the 360 State Street and Ninth Square have a significant percentage of Section 8 housing, a type of public housing that authorizes payment of rents with help of the federal government — a little over half of the Ninth Square is composed of this affordable housing.

But the neighborhood is not without its pricier establishments. Residents of 360 State Streets are within walking distance of some of the city’s most popular bars and eateries, including the gourmet food store Skappo Merkato and Bentara, a Malaysian fusion restaurant.

Chris Ortwein, economic prosperity manager for the Town Green Special Services District, has been involved with revitalization efforts since the 90’s, beginning in the Commonwealth of Pennsylania’s Main Street Program. As a resident of the Ninth Square herself, she understood better than anyone how far the neighborhood has come — when she first arrived, the Ninth Square had the highest vacancy rate of any neighborhood in New Haven. She said that the Ninth Square had been able to thrive as a “business district” despite its enclosed nature, a reason for which she now “goes carless”.

Despite the district’s burgeoning success, its mixture of one-way streets and hip restaurants is something of a concern for former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., who noted that they create the atmosphere of a “dead end” with very little street traffic. Through streets, he added, are more conducive to economic and human development.

Ortwein agreed with the former mayor’s transportation assessment, saying the district would be better off with a more comprehensive and convenient public transit system.

“I think one of the things that would really help us is if we provided a better user experience for people who use the bus system,” she said.

And while DeStefano agreed that the Ninth Square district has been undergoing a revitalization, he pointed out that Yale students almost single-handedly sustained the housing market with what he termed  “Med School East Rock.”

* * *

It was around noon at Adae Fine Arts Academy, and a miniature Maltese dog named Bird had wandered in from next door to join Adae for lunch. Bird belonged to Margot Broom, the owner of the neighboring Breathing Room Yoga Store.

Bird, despite her lack of opposable thumbs, seemed an apt representation of the ethos of the Ninth Square’s businesses — collaboration, coexistence and a friendly neighborhood feel.

“I’m there to support them and support the businesses in this community that engage the public,” Adae said. “All the business owners — no matter what they’re doing — have a vested interest in having a community that is aware.”

Neville Wisdom, the manager of a nearby dress shop, said he has similarly formed partnerships with other stores. He often includes their merchandise in his store as a form of advertising, and others do the same for him. At the moment, ACME’s Furniture and Adae’s paintings forge this “spirit of collaboration.”

The road to revitalizing a neighborhood is famously paved with adversity, the adversity that comes with revitalizing a neighborhood needs no mention. But, Neville Wisdom said a culture of community has made it possible for these business transplants to sustain themselves — he estimates he sells 300 percent more dresses in the Ninth Square than he did at his business’ previous home in Westville.

“The boutiques also bring us good clientele — even the yoga studios,” Wisdom said. “I think the combination of having businesses that bring a lot of people around has also made [our success] possible.”

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