“Solomon, though the wisest of mere men, did not act by his own wisdom in building the Temple, but he was guided therein by the perfect pattern,” wrote the 17th century minister John Davenport about the earliest plan for New Haven. Like the great King Solomon, Davenport knew that he was not alone in his task: He would build his city upon the sacred blueprint of the Israelites. New Haven would be a “New Heaven,” populated by God’s devout servants in a space of their own. In Davenport’s Jerusalem, unlike King Solomon’s, the communal center of gravity would not be the Temple, but the New Haven Green.
A product of Davenport’s divinely inspired urban vision, the Green stands out physically and symbolically as a central space that frames New Haven, down from the city’s original tracts of land up to the skyline along its perimeter. That centrality, at once a virtue of accessibility, also poses a “tragedy of the commons”: How can the Green be maintained when its maintenance and very identity depend on those who spend time on it?
The elusive, shape-shifting role of the 16-acre expanse is not something to be lamented, nor even to be celebrated, but instead something to be recognized — particularly by the temporary residents, Yale students, who dwell a stone’s throw from its rim, and a whole lot farther from its less perceptible history.
Local history maven Elizabeth “Betty” Mills Brown, the author of the 1976 handheld guide to New Haven’s architecture and urban design, praises the New Haven Green’s versatility. “[It] never became any one thing — never just downtown, never just a government center, never just a residential park, never just a grove of academe.”
Such flexibility, though, also represents one of its greatest vulnerabilities. A space as historical and well-recognized as the Green can have trouble claiming its own identity. Despite being the geographic center of the original city plan, the Green is not necessarily the heart of the downtown, nor the heart of government, nor a residential park. Nor is it at all a grove of academe. These varied uses seem to swirl around the historic space without ever penetrating the fringe of the elm-lined square.
Though the city’s first European settlers arrived in 1638, it was not until 1641 that John Brockett completed the first full-scale map of the planned city. The map is now housed in the New Haven Museum. Under the purview of Davenport — as described in “Building a New Jerusalem,” Francis Bremer’s 2012 biography of Davenport — the pioneering planners partitioned New Haven into nine squares in homage to the Israelite camps in the Book of Ezekiel, with the famous Green occupying the center spot of the tabernacle.
As a result, the Green has taken on particular significance as part of the city’s identity.
Since the 17th century, the Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven has legally owned the Green. This original structure of governance still acts in its capacity as caretaker of the Green to preserve its unique character.
“We don’t think of it as belonging to us really,” longtime New Haven resident and committee member Anne Calabresi said. “We think of ourselves as trustees… but trusteeships don’t work very well if they are elected because they begin to get partisan.” To this day, the Green sits in its original historical spot, the crown jewel — a metaphor the anti-Anglican Puritans would eschew — of New Haven’s public spaces. As the city waxed and waned through various phases of commercial, academic and cultural prominence, its nucleus remained a public gathering space unlike any other in New England. In addition to serving as a grazing pasture, a military training ground, a cemetery and the home to perennial political protests, the Green has hosted several churches, including three 200-year-old structures still standing today. While other town squares have shunned formalized religion, the Green has embraced its holy origins.
In 1910, planners Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Cass Gilbert arrived in town to usher New Haven into the 20th century. A letter addressed to the mayor of New Haven and published in the New Haven Register called for a proper city plan, preferably one that would transform New Haven into the “City Beautiful” of contemporary planning theory. To answer the call for an enlightened city, Olmsted and Gilbert produced a report with significant changes to the New Haven of old. The two left indelible marks on the city as the world has come to know it: the New Haven Public Library, situated on the Green, and New Haven’s Union Station, the terminus of one of Metro North’s east-of-the-Hudson lines.
Olmsted and Gilbert’s “Report of the New Haven Civic Improvement Commission” aimed to open up New Haven to its growing and diversifying population. The report begins with the “Heart of City,” the New Haven Green, a tract of land that Olmsted and Gilbert hoped to preserve. “The common interest of all citizens,” the two wrote, “requires that the city’s historic center should not be defaced.” Like their Puritan predecessors, Olmsted and Gilbert saw in the Green something sacrosanct, a public place worthy of protection.
By the second half of the 20th century, the planning bug struck New Haven once again. Mayor Richard Lee, who served the city from 1954 until 1969, introduced in 1957 an ambitious and ill-fated plan for the creation of “Chapel Square Mall,” a shopping center to be located in New Haven’s Downtown, just off of the Green. Yale professor of urban planning Alexander Garvin ’62 ARC ’67 summarized this development project in his 1996 book, “The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t.” Garvin wrote that “Chapel Square illustrates how the inept arrangement of the components of design can exacerbate already poor market conditions.” The shopping center that opened in 1967 suffered from a lack of customers and ultimately devolved into a destination for delinquents, unused by New Haven families. By the 1990s, the two department stores closed and Chapel Square was deemed a failure. Though Lee’s record on urban planning still shines in some respects — his Wooster Square renewal, which involved a refurbishing of the dilapidated housing to make the neighborhood more welcoming, serves as a model of how best to revitalize urban neighborhoods — Downtown New Haven never got the revival it hoped for.
“It was a mistake to do the redevelopment that was begun under Lee and continued afterward,” Garvin said of the Chapel Square project and the related Church Street development, another ill-fated urban planning effort. Garvin explained that the development initiative was a fundamental error and the reason, in part, for the decline of New Haven during the last half century.
As an undergraduate and later a graduate student at Yale, Garvin had the chance to witness macro changes in New Haven firsthand. Garvin noted two differences between the New Haven of his schooling years and the Elm City of present: First, in the mid-20th century New Haven still acted as a manufacturing industrial center. The decline and eventual flight of industry from New Haven, consistent with trends seen across the United States, marked a pivot toward services and retail trade. As of now, New Haven’s economy rests in large part on financial and health services. Yale New Haven Hospital, the city’s largest employer, is but one example of the shift from manufacturing to human capital.
Second, in the 1960s, the city’s population was significantly larger, diluting the influence of Yale and its expanding student population on the cityscape. But according to the Connecticut Secretary of the State’s Office, the population of New Haven has dropped from over 150,000 people in 1960 to just under 130,000 in 2010. As a result, the University’s expanding population and property portfolio play an enlarged role in New Haven’s economy.
“Having Yale right [in the center of the city] has been a boon to New Haven in keeping it a major city in Connecticut,” said Garvin. “Remove Yale and it would have declined similarly to Bridgeport.”
Unlike the so-called “Cultural Capital of Connecticut,” Bridgeport, though filled with parks, does not have a town center analogous to New Haven’s Green.
As the symbolic and geographic center of New Haven, one partially dependent upon public efforts for sustenance, the cityscape around the Green underwent changes in conjunction with the larger city. Through the 1980s and ’90s, various revitalization efforts aimed to turn around urban decline impacting the historic space. The city itself voted to establish a Town Green Special Services District. The district’s website tells its origin story: “More than 30 percent of storefronts were vacant, property values were at a standstill and graffiti and litter were sometimes more common than customers in stores and restaurants.”
In the years since, the district and other city-established programs have worked with privately owned corporations, such as the University, to jump-start Downtown’s economy and commercial scene.
“I think the initiatives started by the University under Bruce Alexander ’65 had an enormous effect in terms of Yale improving the edge of Cha-
pel Street,” Garvin said, referring to Yale’s Vice President and Director of New Haven and State Affairs. “Chapel Street was in terrible decline.”
Garvin also points out the effects of Yale’s commercial initiatives on Broadway. The shops, which form a perimeter around campus, provide a safe and thriving commercial space for commuters, students and visitors.
In this swirl of renewal and revitalization, however, the Green remains a constant in the city, its layout unchanged since the 19th century.
John Bradley ’81, associate head of Branford College and executive director of Liberty Community Services, works with colleagues at the nonprofit to provide services like long-term housing to those without permanent shelter. According to Bradley, since the 1980s the Green has been a temporary home to underserved populations.
Bradley identified a problem: How can the Green better work for everyone in the New Haven community, including those with nowhere else to go? To improve perceptions that the Green had become dangerous and unwelcoming, Bradley and his colleagues tackled the problem head-on, drawing people to the Green rather than pushing them away. In March of 2015, Bradley, Calabresi and a team of civic leaders first opened Sunrise Cafe, a place that would offer free breakfast and a warm setting to those with no place of their own in the morning. The group was initially unsure of the exact number of people out on the Green who would be interested in what the cafe had to offer and began informally collecting data. Bradley discovered something curious.
“It was a beautiful sunny day, and I went out to the Green to find that there were very few people eating their lunch or having a cup of coffee. I then walked up to Chapel Street, right across from Atticus [Bookstore and Cafe], and it was packed.” Bradley described the scene. “I had this disconnect because there is more activity and people-watching up on Chapel Street, but people are sitting on a cement sidewalk, and here is this lovely green just not being used. For whatever reason, people just aren’t naturally drawn to it at the moment.”
Beyond commercial efforts from the Special Services District and Liberty’s work to address homelessness in the city, other groups are attempting to bring life and culture to the Green. Among them is the New Haven Public Library, an organization housed in a building designed by Gilbert back in 1911.
The Ives Memorial Library, which stands at the corner of Temple and Elm streets, acts, in a way, as an extension of the Green. The barrier between the two is fluid, allowing patrons of the Library to interact with nature and visitors to the Green to take cover from the elements.
“The library’s programs and services also spill out onto New Haven’s public square often through community partnerships throughout the seasons,” New Haven City Librarian and Director Martha Brogan said. “[We have everything] ranging from the Readmobile at the annual lighting of the holiday tree on the Green to a library microbranch at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.”
In fact, the Library is currently piloting its public-library bicycle, which circulates books and library activities on the Green. Though not all of Gilbert’s original plan came to fruition — there is no grand plaza in front of Union Station — the library, a key component, serves exactly the role New Haven’s 20th-century framers imagined.
Maintenance of the Green can be complicated, largely due to the nature of the Green’s unique ownership structure. Though the city and the parks department bear most of the responsibility for maintaining the Green, the committee of proprietors uses their relatively small set of funds to preserve the famous elm trees and fence.
Apart from a committee-led fundraising effort in the late 1980s, a recent grant approval from the state of Connecticut is the most important development in the financial status of the Green. The $1 million dollar grant from the state is to be matched by a $500,000 effort from the city. The funding, mostly designated to fixing the lighting on the Green’s network of pathways, marks a welcome face-lift at a time when the proprietors and community activists are seeking to explore a diversity of uses.
“We are exploring various ways of being more interactive,” Calabresi said of the committee’s current efforts, which involve balancing the all-important relationship between conservation and enjoyment. Calabresi emphasized how the Green is meant to be a hub for people to spend time and convene, but frequent use of the space can cause problems.
“When we have masses of people tromping around on the turf it is very hard to keep it growing and it is very bad for the trees to have things sitting down on their roots,” Calabresi said. “The elm trees have been suffering terribly.”
When prompted on what might rejuvenate the Downtown area, Calabresi pointed to Chapel Street as the linchpin. Her own dream for Downtown imagines it as a center for culture, one that rivals other midsize cities in New England. Unlike comparable regional cities, New Haven has a rich culture on par with Providence and Boston. Though increasingly recognized, New Haven’s burgeoning arts scene is not widely appreciated by its residents and neighboring towns, let alone by personnel at the University.
“If you made me head of city plan,” imagined Calabresi, “I would have had a trolley run all the way down Chapel Street from Howe Street, past the museums, theaters and shops all the way down to the Mill River.”
Calabresi’s dream takes advantage of a unique asset that no other city shares: Yale. The University brings with its abundant intellectual giants a slew of cultural gems: art galleries, historic museums, numerous orchestras, music collectives, outside speakers, sundry theaters and more.
Elijah Anderson, a Yale professor of sociology and African American Studies, has done his own work on how urban centers such as New Haven’s Green can act as a “cosmopolitan canopy,” a space that allows diverse populations to come together and engage in their day-to-day activities without discomfort or fear.
“Under the cosmopolitan canopy, whether quasi-public or intimate, people seem to have some special need to observe the social setting closely,” Anderson wrote in a paper for the journal The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. “For many, people-watching is a common pastime, and for some, it has risen to an art.”
The New Haven Green, as both a public area and an enclosed space serving diverse population strata of the city, is an ideal place for people-watching or anonymous crowd observations. At the heart of downtown, the Green could be a place for those engaged in government work, commerce, academics and culture to all come together in the spirit of civic engagement.
Yalies, though an occasional presence in the culture of New Haven’s Downtown, often esteem themselves a people apart, temporary residents unwilling to sit beneath the canopy and take in the city they share.
A handful of students, however, have committed themselves to integrating Yale’s campus and New Haven through sustained action.
One such program is Dwight Hall’s Urban Fellows, an academic-year program whereby Yale undergraduates work with community professionals in nonprofits, companies, government agencies and startups to address New Haven’s unique urban challenges.
Hedy Gutfreund ’18, a co-coordinator of the Urban Fellows program, fulfills her six-to eight-hour weekly obligation at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, where she interacts with a wide range of New Haven residents.
“I perceive the Yale-New Haven divide as pervasive,” Gutfreund said. “At the end of the day, New Haven and Yale have a lot to offer each other, and I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to see so much of that partnership with Urban Fellows.”
Though just one program in an array of Yale initiatives that work to connect the University with New Haven, the Urban Fellows program is striving to bridge the gap in the town-school relationship. Calabresi recognized the gap, especially as it impacts the Green: “I wish Yale felt [the Green] was a little more special, because after all [Yale is] around it.”
Indeed, the University surrounds the Green in more ways than the casual onlooker might realize. As crime rates fall and economic growth picks up, the years ahead are at once fragile and full of potential. We may not know exactly what purpose the Green serves or will serve, but we know that, through it all, the Green will remain a constant for city dwellers to enjoy.