Monday, August 03, 2009

A Tour of Newhallville

A Tour of Newhallville

The following is adapted from a letter to the president of the New Haven Preservation Trust in response to an invitation to join his organization.

Dear Mr. S_______,

The receipt of your letter of July 13 reminds me of my intention to write to you about one of your walking tours, conducted during the Festival of Arts and Ideas in June.

I went on the Newhallville tour. I was very curious about this part of the town, because I live in East Rock, which is part of the Newhallville Police District. East Rock has had problems with crime in recent years, but they pale when compared to those of Newhallville.

Our tour guide was a white man, somewhat older, or at least more wrinkled, than I (I am almost 60), who had the misfortune of having to conduct the tour in the rain. I had been wondering if I would be the whitest person there, given the ancestry of much of the population of Newhallville, but in fact there was only one person with obvious African ancestors. All us curious whitish people stood under the overhang of an office building attending to our guide. We were blocking the entrance to the building, so, soon after I arrived, the guide shepherded us down Munson Street. Given the rain, the gas-powered edgers mowing a very wet park lawn, and the traffic on Munson, which increased in volume as the afternoon progressed, it was hard to hear the man. But I caught most of what he said.

All he wanted to talk about was the rise and fall of the industrial base. Having gotten us a block from our starting point, he waved in the direction of the actual residential area of Newhallville and told us those were the houses built for the workers who worked in the factories that were later boarded up. Then he trundled us right back the way we had come, back under the office-building porch, where we stayed for the rest of the "tour," oblivious thereafter to the rush-hour traffic noise and the people entering and exiting the building. We looked out over the edge of the abandoned industrial area. There was a construction site directly in front of us, and diagonally to our right a block of factory-and-warehouse space now partly converted to apartments, all part of the "Science Park" project, an attempt to revive the economy of the abandoned area. (I don't know if the label "Science Park" is technically correct when applied to all the redevelopment projects, but it seems to be the name in general use.) Our hose rambled on about Yale's attempt to invest in the area, its constant changing of course, the constant shifting of who owned what, and who cared about what. The bottom line is that, in spite of the construction activity in front of us, and the bustling traffic we were blocking going in and out of the office building sheltering us, Science Park was barely limping along.

I had not come to hear any of this. Most of it I already knew, but when he dropped references to the current companies invested in the area, he assumed we knew who they were and what nefarious motives they might have. This stuff was lost on me.

My daughter used to come for drum lessons at the home of a famous musician who lived just about a block beyond the houses the guide had waved at. I would have liked to have known more about that area, if there was anything to know — anything written down in places available to us old white people. I also would have liked, in spite of the rain, to have actually walked somewhere. Many of the people in the crowd had umbrellas, and had come to do some walking. It would also be useful to have the tour conducted by someone who lives in the Whalley Avenue area, which was easily reachable on foot from where we stood. I shop there, but the tour made it seem like faraway, alien territory, which may be the impression some suburbanites in our group came away with.

The only thing I learned was where the name "Newhallville" comes from. Oh, and the fact that the failure of the Farmington Canal to make it through the district was the historical and symbolic beginning of its bad luck. Other than that, it seems that Science Park was the only important thing that ever happened there.


Airlie Foyle

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