New Haven doesn’t have mile-long abandoned elevated railway tracks to transform into a stunning art-filled public park. We do have a forbidding walking route from the train station that could become a light- and art-filled pedestrian gallery. We have an abandoned “Vision Trail” that could connect bikers and hikers from downtown to Long Wharf via the underbelly of a highway bridge.
Plus we have reclaimed the old Farmington Canal Line trail—a job that can be finished with a flourish.
Those are among the visions New Haveners have when they hear the words “high line.”
The Independent ran those two words by some of our more creative, urban-space-minded readers. The words refer to a triumph of urban reclamation 80 miles down the road from New Haven: A linear park that has gradually sprung up along an elevated former freight line on the west side of Manhattan. The High Line has attracted crowds of people as well as murals and volunteer-planted greenery along the way. It offers a fresh view of a constantly changing urban landscape, as well as a glimpse of how people with vision can recycle outdated, forbidding infrastructure into public gateways for art, commerce and community. New Haven already has grassroots experience with that kind of alchemy, the most recent example being the I-95 underpass photo project called Inside Out.
Come along on a walk on the High Line in the photos in this story. Along the way, check out what some New Haveners suggest for bringing some more of that spirit home.
Sheila deBretteville, the public artist behind that Ninth Square “Path of Stars”: “Yes! The high line gives everyone a new perspective on NYC, something we pedestrian citizens truly need here in New Haven as well. As a public artist, a citizen and pedestrian I have been dismayed at the way cars have being privileged, particularly as I walk from home or the [Yale] Art School to the Metro-North train. Talking with the young and older people in the projects across from the train station, I learned that they feel the same about how unwelcoming it is — the girls with babies in particular but also the guys who like to scare people as they use their bikes there. In the spirit of your query, l created a proposal in autumn 2012 and have been trying to find funding to make the improvements described in my proposal take place.” Read her $53,000 proposal here.
Mayor John DeStefano: “It’s what a hard rail transit line would do and has done in other cities.” He’s referring to this proposal, which advocates argue will spawn development and public use along its path much as the High Line does.
Helen Kauder of Artspace, which every year reclaims abandoned industrial spaces for the Open Studios exhibit: “The High Line was originally inspired by Paris’ Promenade Plantee and benefited from enormous public and private support. New Haven could draw many lessons but the real key is density. Not sure we have it around the old tracks on East Street though or on most parts of the Farmington Canal trail. An alternative might be reviving the Vision Trail path which goes from Long Wharf/IKEA, passing under the connector overpass and leading up State Street to spill into Ninth Square. This could be done with more modest means by animating the way with sculpture, plantings and night time illuminations that would draw residents and visitors and make the gateway to New Haven feel safe and enticing. These attached Artspace plans show where we see the opportunity nodes and we know it would be possible to find artists to work on these sites.”
Architect Rob Narracci: “The one thing I think is off of everyone’s radar is the Mill River conduit from the mouth of the Q river to the State Street ice rink. There is a large Saint Gobain plant bordering the river (Artspace once contemplated a Mass MOCA type thing there but at the time it seemed out of our league) and a lot of open space where Simkins once was. The mayor continues to hold onto the idea of industrial use returning to the area (given a ghostly hope by increasing shipping costs from China) but I kind of doubt it will happen unless there’s some seminal change in the economics of manufacturing. I think making it a purely recreational area would add to the already super high percentage of per-capita parkland in New Haven. I think development of the industrial area as medium-scaled mixed use would make a lot of sense. It could be tied into the East Rock park system along the Mill River with a pedestrian way. Coupled with the plans for the Q River redevelopment, it could really tie East Rock to Fair Haven. The trick is continuity (eyes on the path … no dead zones).”
Pete Stein, former director and strategic planner for the Regional Growth Partnership: “I have always been fond of the concrete walkway along the West River that runs from Whalley Avenue behind Thea [Buxbaum] and [artist] Gar [Waterman]‘s building all the way to Blake Street. The path is a neat right of way that borders a bunch of parking lots on one side and the river on the other. I’ve always thought that a lot more could be done with that area. It would probably require widening the path (maybe build a boardwalk?). But with the river there and a nice view of West Rock, it could be a delightful place to sit and have a drink or a meal or just go for a stroll. I have jogged on this path numerous times and but never seen many other people on it. Another underutilized area is the long string of parking lots on State Street bordering the railroad cut. They are odd parcels since they are not very deep. Although I’m sure the city would love to have tax-generating buildings on them, I wonder what kind of neat public space could be built on them that would be a draw. The view into the railroad tracks and of the Smoothie factory beyond is really unique and interesting. For that matter—how about the railroad cut itself? I wonder what could be built on top of it. How about a glass-bottomed jogging path? Imagine jogging from the KoC Museum to Trumbull Street watching trains go by beneath you? Maybe this is a bit unrealistic thinking, but it’s a really neat right of way. Why not do something with it?”
Reggie Solomon, author of I Garden—Urban Style: “Most immediately my thoughts turn to an event held in the Yale Commons last fall by the New Haven Land Trust where MacArthur Genius award winner Will Allen spoke about urban food deserts and his work in building urban farms to provide urban communities with better access with notorious food. Perhaps New Haven’s unique & precious resource is our park land, and perhaps our unique opportunity is having a city filled with people and organizations with a strong interest in sustainable food. As with NYC’s High Line, New Haven’s High Line is likely sitting right in front of us without us even realizing.”
Frances “Bitsie” Clark, former Arts Council president and downtown alderwoman, current director of Home Haven: “Of course our Farmington Canal trail that Nancy Alderman worked so hard on all these years just needs to have its culminating piece below the Park of the Arts finished to make that a little jewel. We had always thought it would be terrific to have that Audubon part of the Canal made into an amphitheater so you could watch great plays. Jeff Burnett once directed (and Jamie Burnett lit) the Yale Theater Studies undergraduates in a production of Titus Andronicus in 1988 or ‘89 down in the canal right after the Grove Street Garage was completed, and it was extraordinary. We all watched it standing along the fence looking down into the canal. Recently of course Dean Sakamoto did a plan for [New Haven City Plan Director] Karyn Gilvarg but I do not know where all that is now. Another space that I have always been very interested in and did a little work on is the floor of the elliptical tower that provides access and egress for the Shubert garage. When I was running for my second term on the Board of Aldermen I had a party in the Temple Plaza. [Local writer] Chris Arnott came by with his little kids in a baby carriage and said what a shame it is that we did not have a playground downtown. I said, ‘Let’s go look under that ellipse,’ and we did and got all excited about it. Mothers and fathers could sit on the benches and in little outdoor cafes in that park and let the kids have fun on the playground equipment under that big tall tower. ... The problem was that the emissions of the cars going in and out of the garage might make it an unhealthy place to be. I tried for many months to get the city to at least do emissions tests under there, but they never did. I was once at a dance under there on Halloween or some celebration and it was FANTASTIC!!! ...”
Laura Clarke of Site Projects: “The excitement of the High Line and of the Farmington Canal is that pedestrians get a chance to experience a linear space that is situated such that it cuts through and across the city providing surprising short cuts and very different views of urban fabric. The wide views from the High Line are exhilarating but walking under Temple Streets and Whitney Avenues is also fascinating as one encounters many patterns of masonry representing very different times and old rail lines and spaces of very different shapes.”
Alan Sage: “We could take a cue from New York as far as encouraging development around the Farmington Canal trail. The High Line has led to the creation of all sorts of high-end apartment buildings, hotels, and retail. Even understanding that New Haven’s real estate market is a completely different beast, I think we still might try to encourage at least more retail development along the Canal Trail. Science Park can probably support a new lunch joint—why don’t we have it looking out over the trail? Or perhaps the city could provide incentives for one of the restaurants lining Dixwell to move its operations over to Shelton at its intersection with the trail? Maybe CitySeed might even consider setting up a farmer’s market location along the trail. The proximity of Chelsea Market in New York seemed to help in making the High Line a destination in its early days.”
Bob Solomon, former housing authority executive director and board chairman: “In successful cities, people walk, jog, ride bikes, mingle. There are places in New Haven where that occurs, like the Green, Wooster Street, Fair Haven, Westville Center, the farmer’s markets, the theaters and clubs. The waterfront in New Haven is underused, in large part because it is so disconnected from the rest of the city. The circle at Whalley, Dixwell, and Goffe is like an invisible electric fence, which few people cross. The challenge is to connect those pieces. The great success of the High Line is that it connected pieces of Manhattan, and then became a force for redevelopment along the way. It gave people a reason to walk and linger. The challenge for New Haven is to connect its disparate parts, so that people will want to walk where they haven’t gone before.”