Photographer Jim Goldberg left New Haven as a young man, disillusioned with the failures of urban renewal. Forty years later he has returned to look at the “Model City”—and its denizens—with a fresh eye.
Since September, Goldberg has been photographing portraits of New Haveners like “Charles,” pictured. Goldberg has been working in his trademark style—collaborating with subjects who write their stories on his photos. He’s also been trying a new technique, taking pictures from the roof of an RV rolling around town.
Goldberg (pictured) grew up here, the son of a candy distributor. He went on to become an acclaimed documentary photographer known for long-term immersive projects. He’s back in town now as a Yale University Art Gallery artist-in-residence.
For nearly a year, Goldberg, who now lives in San Francisco, has been intermittently visiting New Haven to take photographs. He’s working on a book about the city, looking at the legacy of urban renewal, five decades after its heyday.
Goldberg, now 61, grew up in the era of Mayor Dick Lee, when New Haven received record amounts of federal and foundation funding to become a “Model City” for urban renewal and anti-poverty programs. As a kid, Goldberg believed in the city planning philosophy that was remaking the city. By the time he left town, after high school, the city was growing poorer and race riots broke out—shaking Goldberg’s faith in Lee’s vision of a new New Haven.
The photographer’s current project is to take a fresh look at the city, to see the ongoing ripples of choices made in the Model City years. He wants to capture the new promise of New Haven, with less naive eyes this time.
Goldberg has been making portraits, taking pictures on the street, and making landscape photos. He’s been working with film and digital cameras in several formats, and recording video and audio. And he’s been making use of a new piece of creative equipment: a rented R.V.
On several of his visits to town, Goldberg has toured the city on the roof of an R.V., taking pictures of people and sights he passes by. It’s a way for him to interact with New Haveners in a new way, guided by the streets that connect —and divide—the city.
“When I grew up here, it was Dick Lee’s time, and Model City time,” Goldberg said.
Lee was the architect of New Haven’s embrace of urban renewal. The liberal city-planning philosophy called for the overhaul of municipal landscapes through eminent domain seizures, uprooting whole neighborhoods and constructing brutalist-style public buildings.
The lasting legacy of the period is perhaps most obvious in the Route 34 corridor, where an entire neighborhood was razed to make way for a highway to nowhere. At the time, people believed the city’s future lay in building new ways for cars to get in and out of the city quickly, so that people could commute from the suburbs easily.
As a young “Connecticut Yankee” with a sense of American Exceptionalism, Goldberg embraced the Urban Renewal vision.
“I believed all the freeways would bring prosperity ... and help dying industries” and improve race relations. “And then the dream kind of fell apart.”
Goldberg grew up in Westville. He attended Edgewood elementary school, one of the first schools to undergo integration. He went to high school at Lee High, but his parents pulled him out because of the race riots in 1970. He finished out his high school education at Hamden Hall and left town.
Goldberg became a renowned photographer, known for immersive projects documenting overlooked places and people. His first book, Rich and Poor, recently reissued, was an exploration of class divides. It features portraits of both the wealthy and the down-and-out. Each image is paired with text handwritten by his subjects.
That work was influenced by his childhood, by his realization that Urban Renewal wasn’t going to solve problems of poverty and division in society. “It’s based on my experience growing up in New Haven, and the disappointment of the Model City.”
Goldberg’s return to town is a return to that theme. “I come back thinking about Model City and wanting to do work about that.”
He’s working with photographer Donovan Wylie, a fellow member of the famed Magnum photo agency. Together, but for different reasons, they’re focused on the highways of New Haven, erected during the era of Urban Renewal.
“I’m interested in the walls between these people,” Goldberg said.
“In some ways, nothing and everything has changed,” Goldberg said of New Haven today. As he drives through Westville, he can still see his childhood there clearly, remembers running through yards and between houses.
But when he looks at Whalley Avenue, he’s shocked by some changes, like the boarded-up Chuck’s Lunchette. That was where the cool high school kids would congregate.
Goldberg said he remembers strong Irish and Italian communities. “I don’t remember anyone speaking Spanish when I grew up.”
Downtown has seen gentrification since his day, Goldberg noted.
He said he’d like to capture “a slice of what the city has become.”
“If I could, I would photograph everyone in New Haven.”
Failing that, Goldberg is taking to an RV, an idea he got while traveling cross-country in a camper with photographer Alec Soth, for a project called Postcards from America.
“I’m riding on top, mapping the streets in a Google fashion,” Goldberg said. He’s not simply neutral observer, however. Mounting the RV is a way for him to move easily in and out of neighborhoods, and to form a novel relationship with his subjects.
He’s been waving and greeting people as he drives around taking pictures. “It’s performative,” he said.
Goldberg traditionally works in a very long-form fashion, taking years to complete a book or project. He said he’s hoping to complete his work in New Haven faster than usual.
“I’m planning one more trip,” he said. Look for him on the roof of an RV, cruising the streets of his hometown with a camera in his hand.