As jackhammers pounded the ground and a John Deere grapple lifted buckets full of dirt, Rob Greenberg peered through a fence—but wasn’t allowed past it—in search of early New Haven Colonial history.
Greenberg (pictured), New Haven’s leading amateur archeologist, has been trying to get past the fence into the “holy grail” or early downtown historical sites to sift dirt for treasures before the heavy machinery destroys them. The developer who commissioned the machinery, Robert Landino of Centerplan, won’t let him in.
The standoff is taking place at the corner of College and George, arguably the site of the first settlers’ landing in 1638 and the earliest structures of the settlement. Landino’s company is building a $50 million set of five-story buildings there to house 160 luxury studio and one- and two-bedroom rental apartments as well as 20,000 square feet of street-level retail, across from Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School.
“I applaud the development,” said Greenberg, the scion of the 100-year-old Acme Moving Company business on Crown and a major collector of New Haveniana.
Greenberg has followed some good hunches lately. He helped lead the way, for instance, in finding the time capsule unearthed in fall 2012 when a wind storm knocked down the Lincoln Oak on the Green.
His latest hunch concerns the College and George site. He has studied it for years. He confirmed via an overlay of maps that rich deposits of potentially undisturbed stuff thrown in wells and privies over the centuries might be there. He made a presentation about that to Landino.
That was about two months before serious excavation—and a potential major disturbance of those rich deposits.
“When I presented the facts to Landino, I thought he’d say, ‘No problem,’ said Greenberg.
Landino (pictured) found a problem. He told the Independent that he checked with his lawyers. He found that he couldn’t avoid liability if Greenberg entered the site, started scavenging and salvaging, and got hurt.
“We’d be violating OSHA by having him on the site. Assuming he walks on site, we’d have to be watching him all the time,” Landino said.
Even if Greenberg arranged a more formal dig, and even if he obtained insurance (which Greenberg said he has), Centerplan would still be liable for injuries, Landino’s lawyers advised.
State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni said in a telephone interview that his office likes to review these situations as early as possible, when they are still going through planning.
He hadn’t heard about this poject, he said. “After they start, the only obligation by law for them is to stop is if they hit human remains. If they hit pottery, they don’t have to stop, unless the city has an ordinance. In Connecticut human remains are done at the state level; pottery and artifacts are at the local level.”
If all the old maps and Greenberg are correct, there will be “amazing artifacts” when the crew digs 20 feet down, Bellantoni said. “What will be provided here is a snapshot of the very earliest inhabitants. It’s got to be saved.”
In the meantime, Greenberg said, he as spotted pottery shards and oyster shells near locations where the excavators removed gas tanks from below a 1930s service station that had stood on the spot.
Those are like clues in a detective story that Greenberg was, and is, pursuing. If that kind of stuff was already being unearthed ten feet down, what might 20 feet yield? Greenberg felt stymied.
Landino did give Greenberg permission to sift the dirt after it was removed, but only at the dump site, the old tire pond off State Street on the Hamden border.
Greenberg said he fears that that would be too late. Material or local and national historical significance would by then be shattered or destroyed beyond recognition, he argued.
“This is very exciting for me and should be for the city of New Haven. In New York City they have a process” for archeological intervention, Greenberg said. He said New Haven should have one too.
“New Haven is behind the times. Every site dug should have someone there analyzing whether the dirt has historically rich site,” he suggested
From the fence with binoculars he has spotted pottery shards and clam and oyster shells in holes made by the equipment, he said. That’s always the trail to the privies which were the garbage dumps of the colonials—and treasure troves for people like Greenberg.
Standing by the fence Monday morning, Greenberg pointed to a large mound of concrete recently excavated. Using maps over the centuries that neatly lay over the original Nine Squares, Greenberg had determined that houses along College as well as those along George by and large remained wooden structures, non-industrial sites, through at least the late 19th century.
That means that big equipment was not brought in to gut or basin out the ground beneath until now, as the Centerplan crews out 20 feet down to make a subterranean parking lot.
To Greenberg, that means that the privies and wells at that level could produce intact pipes, toys, bottles, buckles, buttons of the kinds he has found on many other locations in New Haven, where builders gave him information permission to poke around.
Chuck Gagne, a foreman with Earth Technologies on the work site, approached Greenberg as he spoke. As if he had read Greenberg’s mind, he reported: “We found a lot of burned bottles. And dug up a dry well.”
“What I say!” said Greenberg.
Greenberg knows that time is running out and so are options, even if he went to the aldermen about passing an ordinance to guard the city’s rich archeological history. He said his next step is to call State Archeologist Bellantoni to throw around some ideas for getting someone onto the site.