Historian Takes Construction Protest To New Level

With the help of some stepladders, local historian Rob Greenberg stepped up his efforts to bring attention to the danger of losing colonial artifacts that might be unearthed at a downtown construction site. 

Greenberg and some supporters descended on the construction site at the corner of College and George Thursday afternoon armed with brightly colored stepladders. Perched atop the ladders, they held up letters forming a three-word sentence: “SAVE OUR HISTORY.”

Greenberg has made that plea for weeks. Greenberg believes that the construction site—the $50 million future of home of new luxury apartments—is also the place where historic homes once stood, and their outhouses. Those ancient privies and garbage dumps are likely a motherlode of colonial artifacts, Greenberg said.

His efforts to bring attention to the site led to the intervention of state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, who has been on-site to inspect the work and salvage any relics of bygone New Haven. Bob Landino, the site’s developer, declined to let Greenberg himself on the site, citing safety and legal risks.

Greenberg has complained that the construction site still doesn’t have enough archaeological supervision. Bellantoni isn’t able to be there every day, so important artifacts are being lost, Greenberg said. His “human sculpture” Thursday was part of an effort to bring more supervision to the site.

The event kicked off shortly after 1 p.m. Greenberg mustered with supporters and ladders at a parking lot across from BAR on Crown Street. Several of his helpers are members of the ironworkers union.

“Who else would have ladders?” Greenberg said. He said he called an ironworker buddy looking for ladders and got some manpower, too.

Greenberg led the group to College Street.

There, the group spaced out the ladders along the fenced-off construction site.

Greenberg hung signs he’d made on the ladders, warning of the dangers of destroying New Haven history.

Greenberg’s crew peeked over the fence to see the work in progress.

Greenberg handed out letters to his volunteers, spelling out “SAVE OUR HISTORY.”

The message was aimed at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, across College Street. “This is all about the students of that school,” said Greenberg. “I want kids to see!”

Greenberg said his goal all along has been educational. He wants to salvage artifacts from the site and make an education exhibit.

“I feel like this is my last big action,” he said. “To let the students know.”

Greenberg’s “human sculpture” served as a conversation starter for passersby.

“It’s very interesting way to grab attention,” said Yuri Lazebnik (at bottom in photo), a cancer researcher at Yale.

On the other side of the fence, workers were busy digging up the very area where Greenberg says ancient privies lie.

Down the block, David Maiden, the project manager for the construction site, snapped pictures with a point-and-shoot camera.

“We had Nick [Bellantoni] here all morning today,” Maiden said. The archaeologist and his assistants have spent “multiple days” on the site, Maiden said.

Of people on the ladder, Maiden said, “They’re not misguided in their intent. Their heart is in the right place.” The construction company, Centerplan, is just as concerned about preserving history, Maiden said. That’s why the company is working with Bellantoni, he said.

Asked if any relics may have been lost, Maiden said, “Everything we’ve seen and he’s seen, we’ve recovered.” Maiden said his workers are on the look out for any kind of artifacts and always recover them, catalog them, and record where they were found, information that’s given to Bellantoni.

“We’ve gone out of our way to save even shards of glass,” Maiden said.

“We think along the same lines as these guys,” Maiden said, gesturing to Greenberg and his supporters.

“I’ve never had 12 ladders along my construction site,” Maiden said. That’s why he had been taking pictures, to preserve the scene—for history.

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posted by: wendy1 on May 8, 2014  5:32pm

I believe in street theatre and I use it for the Bernie Madoff $chool.  The colored ladders are great but my people would fall off and then I’d have to pay them more $$.  It’s hard to get demonstrators for any reason.  I use bribes but sometimes people can be shamed into it.

At the Cherry Blossom Festival the only one I could depend on was myself.  No senator should have 86 million (NYTimes). We need to demonstrate more to get people to pull their heads out of the sand.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 8, 2014  5:35pm

Keep it up, Rob!  Sorry I couldn’t join you today.  The deaf, arrogance of power knows no shame.

As side note, my housemate recently dug up an old 7-up bottle while landscaping.  It says ‘bottled in New Haven’ on it. 

Now, take that fun historical fact, and go down history’s path with it…....and see what you find.  It is the banned Bathing Beauty Bottle.

Ironically, the way the paint has faded, it now says, “Do Not Drink”....

Who knows the extent of the past being annihilated before our eyes?

posted by: Susie144 on May 8, 2014  5:46pm

Is this a hard hat area?  Hope they don’t fall into the street..

posted by: Atwater on May 8, 2014  8:23pm

I’m a student of history and I have always had a special place in my heart for the history of the New Haven Colony. However, I do not think a few more shards of colonial pottery, glassware, cooking utensils, etc., will add anything of great value to our understanding and experience of colonial New Haven. As I have said before, everything that is old is not historic. All in all New Haven (and most of Connecticut) does a really good job at preserving sites of actual historic significance.

posted by: Elihu on May 8, 2014  9:02pm

Great project.

Every major development site like this one should also be considered an archaeological site.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 9, 2014  3:07am

Blah Blah… let the contractor and state archeologist catalog and file stuff away on maps, with maybe a pithy exhibit in the lobby of the Landino’s New Development.

Why not just give Rob a “Scoop” of that prime historic earth, rent out that shack outside of the construction site, and do a live, interactive sorting, cataloging, and displaying of the artifacts, for all to see.

Educational and easy.

Seems pretty simple.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on May 9, 2014  7:46am

While there’s never a street protest that I don’t love, I’ve got to say I’m with Atwater on this one.

In reality, what is actually being lost here?

posted by: meta on May 9, 2014  9:56am

@Atwater & AS:  I think Greenberg’s point is that we don’t know what we’re missing if we don’t look. It seems like he’s raised attention and they are in fact watching out for artifacts that could be of little or great value. The balance is in treading carefully while digging a $50 million hole. The balance in life is in the ripe and ruin.

posted by: Sagimore on May 9, 2014  3:41pm

Ok, I understand the need to protect history, but anywhere you dig in a city you are going to be digging through history. I live in an 1860s home and find stuff all the time. But unless your telling me this is where Benedict Arnold lived etc its not really a huge deal. It possible something could be there, but that goes for every inch of the city.

posted by: robn on May 10, 2014  8:08am

I’m not a huge fan of this project because it’s been considerably dumbed down since the city signed off on it but I must ask, is it merely a coincidence that the iron workers union is protesting about archeology at a construction site?