There is something desolate and industrial about the walk up State Street to Interstate 91. Fallen leaves — thin, auburn, curled like fists — are left unraked and scattered messily on the pavement. The park by the intersection of Humphrey and State is empty but for a small playground with a tired pair of swings and accompanying metal slide. The same sunlight that caresses the collegiate Gothic structures and throngs of college students on Old Campus feels harsher and starker here. I can see the top of the underpass and just make out its rusting surface, burnt umber scars on the ash grey concrete. Pulled out of the warm, Disneyland-esque cocoon of Silliman College, I find the area run-down barren and impersonal. As I turn right on Humphrey Street to face the underpass, however, everything changes.
An explosion of color: The underpass is lit up by ecstatic strokes of azure, bright cerulean, magenta and chartreuse. Two large murals cover every inch of the inner walls. This is the Under 91 Project, a quest to transform the grim concrete canyon of the underpass that divides East Rock and Upper State Street from Fair Haven. According to Aicha Woods ARC ’97, one of the lead organizers of the Under 91 Project, “the differences are pretty stark between the more economically diverse East Rock side and the Fair Haven side, which has anecdotally always been a pretty rough area.”
The statistics tell the same story: violent crime rates in the Wooster Square, Mill River and Fair Haven area are higher than the citywide average. On a map of income distribution in New Haven, presented by the Data Haven Community Index, the left area of Interstate 91 is shown to have significantly lower income levels and a higher concentration of public housing than the right.
Walking into the passageway, I first see Alberto Colon, one of the commissioned artists, atop a tall ladder, putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece adorning the passage’s right wall. He’s going over with a spray can what seems to be a series of purple, bubble-like, hexagonal shapes, which he later explains to me are human cells. They are supposed to correspond to the large colorful gummy worm strings on the far end of the wall, which he says are DNA strands. The cells and strands flow from one end of the wall to the next without any border or breakage, fluid and continuous. This feeling of continuity is precisely what Colon was trying to communicate.
“I like organic shapes, I try to avoid having any straight squares or rectangles in my artwork,” he says, pointing out the smoothness of each stroke, a drastic contrast to the stiff lines of the actual architecture of the underpass. The diverse, vibrant colors of the DNA strands, coupled with their fluid, borderless presentation, fit neatly into the mission of the Under 91 Project, as explained by the project’s website: to reclaim the passageway as a connector rather than a rigid concrete divider. In doing so, the project aims to bring together the vibrant and diverse Jocelyn Square and East Rock communities.
The very process of putting together this mural was centered on the idea of bringing together a community. Not only was the selection process for the artists based on a door-to-door survey of the Jocelyn Square neighborhood, but the final murals were decided upon through community vote. When the artists were at the tail end of finishing their pieces, people from all corners of New Haven — inhabitants of the immediate area, college students, little children, their grand parents — were invited to leave their own physical mark on the walls of the underpass. Paintbrushes were handed out, and participants were asked to do whatever they wanted.
“We didn’t do a lot of advertising but turnout was much larger than we anticipated,” says Woods. “People were told to write initially within the set boundaries, but it totally exploded all over the walls.”
The evidence of that explosion sprawls before me. Underneath Alberto’s DNA strands, I find a chaotic medley of names (Romeo Yoniel, Shanda, Jay Vory), song lyrics (“Birds flying highhhh, you know how I feel”) love declarations (“Theo Loves Us,” “Xander Loves Bacon”) and thoughts (“I think Yale business students should have to do people’s taxes for free”). The words are anarchic and spontaneous, sentences and phrases snaking over and underneath each other.Illustrations are crammed into small spaces and scattered across the wall: bunny heads, flowers, Arabic characters, phrases in Spanish. I instantly recognize a collection of self-portraits as the work of a first grade artist, thanks to the two-dimensional, blocky style: opaque circle eyes, upright vertical lines as strands of hair, and wide, u-shaped mouths.
Stepping back to take everything in, I find a certain rhythm and harmony in the disarray and discord. I feel a sense of comfort knowing that so many people once stood where I now stand and baptized the wall with their exuberant, uninhibited self-expression.
“The public kind of went overboard last Saturday,” Colon says, laughing. “But that’s OK.”
I imagine that before the project, this was a place through which pedestrians would quickly shuffle, anxious to reach the other side. The underpass of Interstate 91 now seems to produce the opposite effect. It makes us amble, pause and appreciate. A car slows down as it drives through, the driver whipping out his phone to snap a picture. A man in sagging jeans and a bright red hoodie and his girlfriend in a rose-patterned skirt stop to admire the expansive mural on the left wall. As I follow their gaze from one end of the wall to the other, I realize that the mural contains an entire storybook narrative.
It begins with a depiction of outer space — three spheres that appear to be Earth, Mercury and Jupiter, orbiting each other. The dominant color of this mural is the electric crimson that one finds in Manga comics, Yugio cards and East Asian computer games. Then this outer-space world seamlessly morphs into an underwater one: Neil Armstrong, a motif transposed from the earlier mural, clutches his American flag as he stands next to a miniature space rover atop the rim of a large bathtub, as if about to dive in. In the center of the bathtub, sitting next to the chubby hand of a child, is a canary yellow rubber duck, imposing in its brightness.
To the right, the powder blue bath water suddenly swirls into a violent, onyx tide that has caught a container ship in its stormy wrath. Towards the far right of the mural, we enter the depths of the bath water sea, a rich, azure, Jules Verne-esque world of caverns, stalagmites and a large reclining octopus. At the final section of the wall, the sea transitions into a grass field of strong, vermilion stalks and a large butterfly, drawn with the meticulous, anatomical detail of an entomology textbook or a diagram at a natural history museum. A week ago, Woods tells me, a woman stood in front of this section of the wall, in tears. Her grandmother had told her before passing away that she would come back as a butterfly.
This continuous series of imaginary, child-like realms seem to suggest that the world around us — its grandeur, terror and danger — are simply projections of our own mind and consciousness. Just as a bathtub can be transformed into a mythological underwater world, a cold and dingy underpass can be wholly reinvented by sheer force of the imagination. Perhaps, as Woods believes, the stark division between the neighborhoods was “as much in our heads, as in the data of disparity or the barriers of urban infrastructure.”
However, despite its seemingly idealistic, Wordsworthian message, the art of Under 91 remains grounded and realist in its aims. As I turn around to leave, I notice, for the first time, the small patch of wall space at the entrance of the passageway. There are no underwater kingdoms or DNA strands here, but a painted portrayal of Interstate 91 itself: pale blue sky, wisps of cirrus clouds, the rusting grey asphalt of the underpass and two iron poles holding up an industrial metal sign, bearing the words “New Haven” in plain white letters.
The artists of Under 91 do not overstate the transformative power of their artwork: I-91 is still an interstate. But take a stroll through the underpass of Interstate 91 — maybe you’ll start to see it a little differently