Less than half a century ago, Oak Street was the heart of a dense urban neighborhood. Today, what stands in place of that neighborhood — which some called a slum and others called home — is a six-lane swath of pavement that cuts into the heart of New Haven.
Both longtime New Haven residents and more recent arrivals now have an opportunity to relive the leveling of the neighborhood and the construction of the Oak Street Connector through a series of photographs on display at the New Haven Colony Historical Society. The Oak Street photos are just a few in an exhibit of 100 pictures taken during the period of redevelopment in New Haven.
The exhibit, “Reshaping New Haven: The Urban Renewal Era, 1950-1980,” opened this summer in conjunction with the annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas. It is designed to stimulate discussion about one of New Haven’s most controversial periods, said Peter Lamothe, the executive director of the historical society.
“We wanted to take visual evidence and provoke thought,” Lamothe said.
Redevelopment, which began during the tenure of former New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee, led to the demolition and reconstruction of four key New Haven areas — Oak Street, Church Street, Wooster Square and Long Wharf — as well as other smaller projects.
In his upcoming book, “The End of Urbanism,” School of Management professor Douglas Rae describes Lee’s undertaking as one of the most ambitious redevelopment attempts taken by any mayor.
“No 20th century mayor of New Haven — and few in America — comes close to Lee in personal vision,” Rae writes in his book. “Few if any dared to dream of attempting as much as Lee actually accomplished.”
Both Lee’s successes and his failures were documented in photos by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency. The agency hired photographers to capture Lee’s efforts so that the pictures could be used as evidence to support federal grant applications and reports.
In 1980, the agency turned over to the historical society its entire archive of 12,000 photographs from the renewal period: pictures of demolition crews, former slums, relocated families, new office buildings, redesigned streets, new highways and residential areas. Lamothe said he and the society’s curator, Amy Trout, recently decided to make prints of a select number of photographs from the collection that would show New Haven’s progression through the renewal period.
Originally taken to support redevelopment, the photographs have generated a different reaction among visitors to the exhibit. The shots of 1960s New Haven eateries, convenience stores and residential areas now arouse feelings of nostalgia.
“We created this exhibit to bring this period of New Haven’s history back into today’s dialogue,” Lamothe said. “Photography is an easy medium to attract a wide audience.”
Michele Polan, a resident of New Haven since 1977, said she went to the exhibit to get a sense of what New Haven was like before she arrived. She said she never saw the local corner stores and did not know what used to be in the place of the Chapel Square Mall.
“I asked my friend if there were more movie theaters before the redevelopment,” Polan said. “He told me that there used to be many one-screen theaters throughout the city.”
Other visitors have taken advantage of a sign-in book to leave their own opinions about the exhibit. While many repeat Polan’s nostalgia, some have taken more extreme opinions about New Haven’s redevelopment.
“Let us call this process what it is: urban demolition, the beginning of the destruction of the city of New Haven,” one visitor wrote. “When the buildings are gone, all the history of New Haven that they embody is gone forever.”
But among the photos of demolition crews and empty construction lots, there is also evidence that some of the New Haven of the 1950s and 1960s survived redevelopment. In one frame is a print of the Yalie favorite, Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, from 1961.
The photographs will remain on display until Dec. 20, after which the prints will either be auctioned off or added to the society’s permanent exhibit on New Haven’s history. Lamothe said he has been pleased with how the exhibit has been received.
“The exhibit has helped to reintroduce people to New Haven’s history,” he said. “It’s something we all share and contribute to.”
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