Dixwell’s History Comes Alive On New Tour

Allan Appel PhotoWhen Diane Petaway visited her grandmother in the 1950s in the Dixwell neighborhood, she never knew about Curry’s Confectionery, a sweet shop whose chocolates were so delicious local white merchants sold them as their own. They carried the subterfuge as far as to require James and Ethel Curry to deliver their candies at night so customers would not know the original candy makers were African-American.

Petaway learned that tasty and revelatory fact by diving into Dixwell’s history — and helping to prepare a “walk” that everyone can now take down memory lane.

Petaway is a member of the Greater New Haven African-American Historical Society, which helped to develop the Lower Dixwell edition of the Walk New Haven: Cultural Heritage Tours, a series of neighborhood guides created by the Ethnic Heritage Center (EHC).

As they did with walking guides of Wooster Square and Downtown/Downtown North neighborhoods published previously, the project’s coordinator, retired city planner Rhoda Zahler, and a team of EHC volunteers have now created the third guide in Lower Dixwell, with more to come. All are now available online at walknewhaven.org

Each tour is designed to be self-guided and multimedia, said Zahler.

Within weeks brochures for all three tours will be available at libraries and stores throughout the city, Zahler added during a preview walk-through of Lower Dixwell Wednesday morning.

The brochures have QR codes that you can scan with your cell phone to access the tour as you proceed. The idea is not to enter the buildings, but to follow the route of closely grouped structures and sites of demolished ones, all in the guide’s easy-to-read map.

Just as in ancient times Christians built their early churches on the foundations of pagan temples, early Jewish immigrant synagogues sometimes occupied former churches in Dixwell. The aim of the guide is to show different cultural uses of the sites and the relationship between the city’s different immigrant ethnic groups, by neighborhood and over time.

Who knew, for example, that back in 1909 a small group of Jewish families founded Temple Keser Israel (now Congregation Beth El Keser Israel on Harrison Street in Westville) by buying an exquisite, now demolished church at 122 Foote St., near Goffe?

That church itself had been moved there in 1872 from East Pearl Street in Fair Haven to Dixwell to accommodate the expanding congregation of the Varick African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

In 1908, Varick moved to its current building nearby — probably a site of the Underground Railroad and most surely where Booker T. Washington made his final public address in 1915. That made the previous church building available for the new waves of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe coming to New Haven.

The Lower Dixwell guide features 18 structures or sites. Some, like the churches, still perform their original functions. Others are long gone but live on in memory (and recordings), like the fabled Monterey Club at 265-67 Dixwell, the post-World War II jazz mecca.

Whether you walk, bike, or drive, each tour should take on average a couple of hours.

At the first stop on our preview walk, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, at 111 Whalley Ave., longtime member Gloria Williams told us her parents were married there in 1919. She was baptized there in 1925. She herself married there in 1950. Established in 1844 because the Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green segregated its “colored members,” the congregation put up this building in 1905.

“I was hatched, matched, and hope to be dispatched from this church,” declared Williams, who is 91.

At Goffe and Sperry Streets, 90-year-old Ed Cherry, architect of the recently demolished Q House, pointed out the Goffe Street Special School for Colored Children. It was opened in 1866 because black kids were then still excluded from the city’s public schools. While there were educational opportunities for black children before, they were usually organized in private homes.

Which makes the Goffe Street Special School, now functioning as a Masonic lodge, a key building — one that is on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

At the corner of Webster and Dixwell you can take in the sturdy brick building that is now the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, but in 1893 was Police Station 4. The guide tells you St. Martin was “the patron saint of people of mixed ethnicity and of public health workers” and the church was originally founded in New Haven as a “confraternity for colored Catholics.”

The building, as a former police station, was also of interest to members of the EHC’s Irish-American Historical Society. The original modest house that had been Police Station 4 was replaced with this building, symbolic of the major role police service played in the assimilation of Irish immigrants to New Haven. The guide tells us that by 1906, four of the six police commissioners and the chief were all Irish.

Dixwell District Manger Sgt. Jackie Hoyte and Gloria Horbaty of the Ukrainian-American Historical Society posed in front of Dixwell Plaza. Now the home of the Stetson Branch Library, pizza shops, and other businesses, back in 1919 its centerpiece was the Lyric Theater, known by locals as the “Nicklet,” the guide tells us, because that was all it cost to get in.

An early movie house that held 460 people and was owned by Russian immigrants Selig and Abraham Fishman, the Lyric Theater benefited from fantastic timing: The great flu epidemic of 1918 had kept people inside their homes for fear of infection in public places. In 1919, when the health crisis had passed, you couldn’t keep the throngs away from the on-screen films and funnies.

At 265-267 Dixwell, Zahler and Joe “Postcard King” Taylor, a major contributor of images to the guides, tried out some moves in front of the building, now unoccupied and dilapidated. The building had been, beginning in 1934, the Monterey Club, a jazz hub that for 30 years was at the heart of Dixwell’s cultural life. Over the years it attracted performers including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane.

Facing it, to the left, is the building that housed Curry’s Confectionery, now a convenience store. On the other side, Taylor said, was a building that he guessed in the late 1960s and into the 1970s was one of the storefronts operated by the Black Panthers.

Taylor wasn’t sure, but Zahler, who obtained photographs and an oral history from the grandchildren of the founders of nearby Sosensky Hardware — now the Varick church’s community building — confirmed that indeed the Panthers were in the neighborhood and that everyone had gotten along.

Inside Varick, the Rev. Kelcy Steele gave the tour-istas both a break from the bitter wind and a tour of the sanctuary where Booker T. Washington last spoke.

Steele, who took over the pulpit of the Varick A.M.E. Zion Church in November last year, praised the walking tours. “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going,” he said.

He said sermonizing from the same podium where Booker T. Washington spoke, as he does to over a thousand parishioners every Sunday, is like “walking on sacred ground.”

He also had a warning: “History is being placed on a back burner. We lack storytellers. We’re losing the value of history because we don’t have storytellers.”

So he termed walknewhaven.org‘s guides “very beneficial.”

The guides in book form are available on Walk New Haven’s website, and specially led tours of Lower Dixwell, Wooster Square, and Downtown will be offered by EHC members on June 4 as part of this summer’s Arts and Ideas Festival.

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