At Corner, Walkers Encounter Box Of Memories

Attorney David Leff was walking down Church Street when he unexpectedly merged onto Memory Lane.

He wound up on an impromptu architectural scavenger hunt, recalling a long-gone building, and remembering the nice lady who used to run the elevator.

All that happened because of a traffic signal box. The city recently wrapped three of the large metal boxes on Church Street with old photographs of New Haven, prompting passersby to wonder and reminisce.

Rather than continually clean graffiti off the plain green signal boxes, officials decided to try out some street art themselves—by turning the boxes into an historical art exhibit.

Three photo-adornment have gone up on boxes at Church at Chapel, Court and Elm streets.

“This is an experiment,” said Jim Travers, head of the department of traffic, transportation and parking. (Travers has been on a tear lately introducing new ideas to town; see a list of links to recent examples at the bottom of this story.)

The hypothesis of the new experiment is that people will be less likely to tag the boxes if they’re not “blank canvas” but are “a work of art” instead. “We think people will respect them more.”

The wrapped boxes also serve to increase “visual interest” on the street, which makes New Haven more friendly to pedestrians, Travers said.

Leff, who’s 50 and was born in New Haven, walked by the one in front of the federal courthouse, between Chapel and Elm streets, on Thursday morning. Click the play arrow to see his encounter, and others’.

“I think it’s great. I think it’s beautiful,” he said. “It gets you thinking about what was here before.”

Leff scrutinized the photo on the front of the box, noting the old cars, and even some horses on the street. He guessed the photo was taking in the 1920s or ‘30s. “It’s about the era of the Little Rascals.”

He circled the box, spotting City Hall before the annex was added to it. He pointed out the old Court Street, where he said the police station used to be.

Leff couldn’t place the building depicted on the front of the box (pictured), however. He thought it was the one near the corner of Church and Chapel, at 129 Church St., then started to doubt himself.

“Let me go look,” he said, and wandered down the block to get a better perspective. He didn’t find the columns he expected to see on the facade at 129 Church. Turning back toward City Hall, a memory came to mind.

“There was a building—It was a municipal building that had one of those manual elevators. It had an elevator operator,” Leff said. “I remember the elevator operator. She was a nice lady.”

“It was right over here,” Leff said, pointing back at the financial center, next to City Hall.

Johnnie Hardy, who’s 62, pointed at the same building when he paused to peruse the traffic box. He said the building was there when he moved to town in 1968.

“It sure look like it, though,” Hardy said.

Travers said the building depicted in the photo once stood at the corner of Elm and Church streets, where the First Niagara Bank building now stands. The box is wrapped with a single photograph showing City Hall and surrounding buildings.

Hardy said he approves of putting old photos up on the boxes. “It’s like keeping your memories,” he said.

“It’s better than the normal ones,” said Tasha Orozco, another passerby.

“I love the photograph,” said Larry Cillo, a City Hall employee walking by. “Terrific picture.”

Travers said he hopes to expand the number of wrapped boxes in town, by teaming up with special service districts.

Other stories about traffic tsar Travers’ recent initiatives:

Cupcakes, Cornhole Invade Parking Spots
“Bike Corral” Debuts Downtown
Al Fresco Dining Meets Downtown Parking
Mixed-Vegetable Bike Rack Debuts
Bump-Outs! Sidewalk Seating! Trees! Lights!
9th Square Merchants Relieved By New Fence
Bike-Share Headed To New Haven?
Bikes Getting Their Own “Track” Across Town
Coming Soon: Feed Your Meter By Cell Phone

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posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on October 4, 2013  8:41am

Another pretty interesting idea from Travers, although I fear this may end up like the faces of New Haven under the underpass—defaced and graffiti’d into oblivion.  But I’m hoping otherwise and it’s always worth a shot.

posted by: robn on October 4, 2013  8:48am

Pretty Cool.

Rather than expect taggers to leave the boxes alone though, wheat pasting photos periodically over the boxes could be a cheaper way to manage their appearance.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on October 4, 2013  9:19am

It looks great. Thank You

posted by: HewNaven on October 4, 2013  9:49am

This is good. It seems like city officials are finally coming around to the fact that you cant just plunk down eyesores, like utility boxes, in our public landscape, without expecting retaliation (albeit immature) in the form of graffiti. Whats next, commissioned murals by local artists? Sure would look better than a brick wall with tags scrawled all over.

posted by: parejkoj on October 4, 2013  10:33am

These look really neat. I’ll have to go check them out.

posted by: cityres on October 5, 2013  11:35am

Kudos to Jim Travers. A city official who cares & works. What a great idea. Refreshing to see, in a city that generally looks dirty and broken. Unfortunately they will soon be covered with stickers, posters, advertising & graffiti. Now if we can get someone like Mr. Travers to head the D.P.W. that would go along way towards improving the quality of life in New Haven.