Both the old and the new Wooster Square were on display at this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, where octogenarian ladies from the Amalfi Coast chatted with old friends they hadn’t seen in years, couples danced to salsa music, women in saris made paper flowers, and families lined up for La Carreta’s tacos.
In 1973, admiring the annual bloom in Washington, D.C., the New Haven Historic Commission, the parks department and neighbors planted 72 Yoshino Japanese cherry blossom trees around Wooster Square’s perimeter. Every April since, as petals cover the sidewalks like a thawing, pink frost, the neighborhood has celebrated spring’s arrival with a festival in the trees’ honor.
Earlier years’ version of the festival predominantly featured pizza and a performance by a Frank Sinatra impersonator. As Wooster Square has diversified over the years, the annual festival — now in its 44th incarnation — has,too.
“Now, we look like New Haven, we sound like New Haven, and we eat like New Haven,” said Peter Webster, a theater and opera director who was producing his last Cherry Blossom Festival before he moves to Hanover, N.H.
As captain of the local block watch, head of the community management team, and board member on several historical associations, Webster looked around in admiration as thousands of visitors from neighboring towns descended upon the square on Sunday afternoon to eat Pakistani, Ethiopian and Indian food and dance to steel drums and swing.
“This is the kind of event that I really think is emblematic of the kind of city we want. We can have jazz and salsa and steel drums, and not one seems out of place,” said Errol Saunders, a history teacher at Hopkins School, after twirling to the sounds of Carlos Santiago y Su Momentuo Musical. “Ages, ethnic groups, people from all over — not just from different city neighborhoods but also coming from out of town — are like, ‘This is a thing we’re supposed to see.’”
Even before festivities officially kicked off with a procession by the Italian societies at noon, folks flooded the square to take pictures of the blooms and bask in the sunshine. Dogs sniffed each other, as kids chased after bubbles.
Over in the family area, children decorated paper flowers to hang on the still-bare trees, and volunteers wrapped pink filter paper around branches in a take-home souvenir. Aisha Thra, a 7-year-old attending the festival for the first time, nodded that she was having fun, in answer to a reporter’s question. Then she interjected, “I have a question: Do you know where the face painting is?”
This being Wooster Square, the historic first destination of immigrants from Italy, Little Italy still occupied a central corridor near the concerts on the main stage. Andiamo Tours tried to entice would-be tourists to Italy, Consiglio’s dished out plates of penne and meatballs, and the Olive Oil Factory sent customers home ready to make their own pastas. At the St. Trofimena Society table, Julia Nicefaro (who wouldn’t let us publish her age) recalled the days when her family lived nearby, before many Italian-Americans moved to Hamden and Branford. Sunday’s festival was a kind of reunion, she said.
And it works, because the community is so tight-knit, said Bill Iovanne, Jr., director of the Wooster Street Business Improvement Association. “It’s one of the last solid neighborhoods around, you know?” he said. “The people change, but the neighborhood is still very close.”
The area’s history — and the ways it has changed — were not lost on attendees.
“While I was looking forward to being here this afternoon, I stopped to think about the time that has transpired since these cherry trees were planted more than 40 years ago. … The city we share has changed quite a bit in those 40 years,” Mayor Toni Harp told the crowd. “One of the things I enjoy each year at this event is the way it highlights both the old and the new in our city: how tradition is honored and celebrated, [and] how new artists, new chefs, new ideas and new businesses emerge.”