Zachary Suri, Contributing Photographer

Two new banners honoring notable New Haveners were recently installed on Chapel Street across from the School of Architecture, joining 29 other banners scattered around the Chapel West Special Services District.

The new banners feature Karen Carpenter, a world-famous 1970s pop musician, and Robert Moses, a New York official whose controversial infrastructure projects shaped mid-century urban planning nationwide. The images are part of a decade-long public art installation sponsored by Chapel West. Honorees range from actor Paul Giamatti to Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. Several New Haven sports legends are also featured.

According to Tom Strong ART ’67, a designer and Chapel West Special Services District president, the project is designed to encourage residents to contribute to the city and think of Chapel West as an important part of their community. 

“You’re in a section of New Haven which isn’t going to allow people to put up commercial ads for cigarettes or underwear but will tell you some of the people who made good in New Haven, through education or through what they did,” Strong told the News. “Maybe you’ll be as good. Maybe that’ll challenge you.”

Chapel West Special Services District, or Chapel West SSD, was created by the city and the state in 1986 to distribute state funds to help offset lost tax revenue from Yale’s tax-exempt properties as a part of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. 

The banners were designed by Strong, Liz Garvey and Margaret Watkins of Strong Cohen, whose offices are located in the building where the latest banners were installed. 

The Payment in Lieu of Taxes program distributes funds allocated by the legislature to Connecticut cities with a large amount of tax-exempt state or non-profit-owned property. Today, Chapel West SSD is responsible for street-cleaning services and assisting new business owners with city permitting, according to Strong. 

The banner project was the brainchild of former Chapel West SSD President Vin Romei in the early 2010s, Strong said. Honorees were sourced from newspaper obituaries and online lists of famous New Haveners, with Romei warning the banner designers not to “touch politics.” Over the years, Chapel West SSD has turned down a number of local political families who have asked for their relatives to be honored.

Robert Moses banner features influential, “bigoted” urban designer

Despite Romei’s urgings to avoid politics, some of the figures honored — including Robert Moses and Eli Whitney — are embroiled in political controversy. Moses, an unelected New York City official, spearheaded infrastructure projects that destroyed historic neighborhoods and disproportionately displaced people of color.

“No figure in U.S. history wielded more power over a city,” architect and urban planner Thomas J. Campanella wrote in a 2017 Bloomberg article, adding that he “held patently bigoted views.” 

Moses was described as “the most racist person I ever met” by Robert Caro, author of “The Power Broker,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses.

The latest banner quotes Paul Goldberger ’72 who wrote Moses’ obituary in The New York Times, saying that Moses was “New York’s master builder” and added that many of his projects “were discredited by some planners in later years.” 

Strong said Moses was a civil servant who had as many enemies as he had friends — but, according to Strong, there were no objections to honoring the New Haven native with a banner. 

Banners highlight little-known pioneers

“Public art has been used, often by those in power, to tell stories about ostensibly shared memories and civic or national identity,” professor Alan Plattus, an expert on public art and urban design at the School of Architecture, wrote the News. 

Public art can also provide a space to question dominant historical narratives, he added.

Over the years, the “New Haven Notables” project has honored a number of lesser-known figures from the city’s past. These include Simeon Jocelyn, who advocated for abolition and education for Black Americans, and Augusto Rodríguez, Puerto Rico’s first known U.S. military veteran.  

Chapel West SSD was forbidden from hanging banners on Yale buildings. 

“Yale said, ‘Please don’t put any on our buildings,’” Strong told the News.

Instead, Chapel West asked local businesses and property owners to host banners on their exterior walls. Dozens have stepped up. The banners must be replaced every few years due to wear and tear.

Chapel West SSD’s offices are located at 1205 Chapel St. beside a banner honoring Walter Camp, the “father of American football.”