Bike Co-op Adds The Silver Screen

Thomas Breen photoHalfway through a presentation on the many ways that the Hill neighborhood has changed over the past 100 years, architect-in-training Jonathan Hopkins paused to ask the question that everyone in the audience had been considering for the past hour and a half.

“Why the city chose the site they ended up choosing for the new John C. Daniels School, I’m not quite sure,” he mused. “Because there were obviously people living there. We just watched a documentary about them.

“On the one hand, I can understand why the city wanted to remove vacant buildings from the neighborhood. But the school project simply didn’t accomplish that.”

A few dozen New Haveners gathered at the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op last Thursday night to consider this very question, as well as the history, consequences, and motivations of city-led construction projects. The catalyst for the conversation was an encore screening of The Hill, a 2013 documentary directed by Lisa Molomot about eminent domain and an extended fight between the city, the Board of Education, and neighborhood activists in the early 2000s.

The screening was the second in an impromptu series, hosted by co-op owner John Martin and local architect-in-training Hopkins, dedicated to documentaries about the Elm City.

Eager to use movies about New Haven as an entry point for discussions with friends and neighbors about the city’s history, Martin and Hopkins organized an encore presentation of The Hill after the first screening earlier that week played to a capacity crowd at the co-op of around 45 people.

“It’s great to be able to use this space for something completely different than what normally happens here,” Martin said before the screening, sitting beside shelves stacked to the ceiling with spare tools and parts for fixing up bicycles. “To use the co-op to foster a safe and respectful conversation about something I care so much about.”

On Thursday night, that topic of conversation was the relationship among urban planning, eminent domain, and the persistent fight for safe, affordable housing in New Haven.

As part of its 15-year, $1.6 billion school construction and rehabilitation program, the city identified an eight-acre parcel of land between Davenport Avenue and Congress Avenue as an appropriate location for a new K-8 school, which in turn would replace the Prince and Welch schools elsewhere in the neighborhood.

The one problem was that this parcel was not vacant. It was residential, and the city sought to exercise eminent domain to demolish over 100 houses and relocate 94 families (primarily African-American and Hispanic) to make way for the new school. The movie documents the struggle between the city and a select group of Hill residents who brought their case to federal court in an attempt to block the demolition of their homes and the scattering of their families.

After the closing credits rolled, Hopkins walked the audience through a PowerPoint presentation he had put together on the historical context in which this fight took place. Scrolling through slide after slide of maps, photographs, census statistics and city plans, Hopkins helped an audience mostly unfamiliar with the history of the neighborhood understand how and why the city and these activists had come to such an impasse.

As one of the people in the movie points out, “the Hill has traditionally been a neighborhood where people have lived because others in the city have not wanted to live with them,” Hopkins said. He stood in front of a map from the early 1910s that showed the Hill as the primary residence for many railroad employees and factory workers in New Haven.

“But I would more accurately describe the Hill, especially early on in its history, as an open neighborhood. Regardless of your income level or your ethnicity, you could find affordable housing in the Hill, whereas many other neighborhoods in the city were closed to most residents who didn’t make enough money. I wouldn’t say that the Hill was ever the dumping ground of the city, but that it was open to everyone, which is still true in many ways today.”

Hopkins then traced the many changes that have affected the Hill over the past century: its calamitous history with urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s; its variable demographics, from a place that was rapidly losing population in the 1990s to one that was slowly growing in the early 2000s; and the alternating paths of blight and restoration that have affected different buildings throughout the neighborhood depending on the negligence of the landlord or the willfulness of community groups.

Hopkins avoided indicting one party or another, focusing instead on the many questions that surround the history of this neighborhood. Why are property values in the Hill lower than property values in other neighborhoods? Why are some buildings designated as historic and others abandoned and demolished? Most important for Thursday night’s discussion, why did the city choose to build this new school in an area where so many people still lived?

The answer, somewhere between the city’s mandate to improve the quality of life for neighborhood residents and the Yale-New Haven hospital’s desire for a sanitized corridor around its facilities, remains opaque. But Hopkins managed to capture the general mood in the room with his initial response to the movie before he even began his presentation.

“Well, that was pretty devastating,” he said, looking out at the crowd after the final credits had rolled. The audience before him, eager to learn more about the story behind the story presented in the movie, certainly agreed.

Click on the audio player below to listen to an interview with The Hill director Lisa Molomot on WNHH’s Deep Focus radio program. Jonathan Hopkins and John Martin are planning on hosting two more screenings in this New Haven documentary series at the Bradley Street Bicylce Co-op in the upcoming weeks. The first screening will be of a movie about local artist Winfred Rembert; the second will be by Yale architecture professor Elihu Rubin. Find out more about upcoming screening dates on Facebook.


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posted by: wendy1 on September 19, 2016  5:20pm

Bravo…bravo!!!!  I like Mr. Martin.  I’m glad to see people interested in the past misery, mind-blowing mistakes, and mishaps of physical New Haven.  I’m still mourning Legion Ave.  I am not impressed with Yale’s Schoolof architecture , the so-called cityplanners, or the zany zoning board.  In a town full of architects, why are we so full of ugly???

posted by: Renewhavener on September 19, 2016  8:36pm

Good article. 

The title is a bit confusing.  Is it a piece about the gathering to watch the film or is it a piece about the topical matter covered by the film?  Tried to read it both ways, but keep coming back to the first.  Always find it fascinating when the young discover value in history.

@Wendy1, “In a town full of architects, why are we so full of ugly???” Does this not go hand in hand with In a town full of doctors and nurses, why are we so full of health problems?

posted by: wendy1 on September 19, 2016  9:42pm

@Renewhavener—-Most of the docs and nurses dont live in New Haven.  We have serious air and ground pollution here in a state with multiple power plants including a nuclear one…which leaks into the Sound.  Yale is also part of the health problem and the architecture problem.  I believe CT has the highest rate of breast cancer and 25% or so of NH folks have asthma.  Our urban homeless and poor have bad health and get minimal treatment without money.  Even middle class folks put off physicals these days and that includes nurses.

posted by: Renewhavener on September 20, 2016  9:45am


Most of the architects do not live here either, I assure you.  Not sure how the health or build environment would be remarkably different if they did.

Assume most of the folks in attendance at the screening of the film did live in town.  Most of those involved in the process that saw JCD built did also, or at least the key players like John D did.  That’s an important point.  Both in the case of ‘The Hill’, and with Urban Renewal a half century ago, these “wounds”, so called, were self inflicted.  The relative strength of the CMT’s and a raised awareness surrounding these projects and approvals makes an outcome like ‘The Hill’, less likely in the present.  But it is still permissible, and allowable.

Am aware of the pollution issues you raise and they are important.  That does not however excuse over simplification and exaggeration.  Completely agree that CT’s incidences rates of all cancers is much too high.  We are fifth highest rate of that form of cancer, not first:

In terms of asthema, most of the current research points to indoor air quality as the primary causal factor, not outdoor.  In contrast to your assertion, many architects and engineers are working extremely hard on IAQ and environmental aspects of buildings.  The manifest evidence of this can be seen in the emergence of the USGBC and other certification groups. 

Not sure why all roads of woe ought to lead back to Yale.  Again, am aware they take their environmental impact quite seriously and have made public their energy consumption figures, even if they don’t advertise that they have.  This is a very high level of transparency one might agree:

So, is it Yale’s or an architect’s fault when someone chooses not to get a physical, too?  Or does personal responsibility play any role in this? 

Did it play any role in the slow reaction of the neighbors in the Hill to the JCD project?

posted by: Bradley on September 20, 2016  7:43pm

Thanks to John Martin for hosting and Jonathan Hopkins for his thoughtful commentary (BTW, I believe Jonathan is a full- fledged architect.)

Renewhavener, I largely agree with your comments. But I think it is more accurate to say that indoor air quality is the largest single factor associated with the rise of asthma, rather than the primary factor. It is not so much that IAQ has declined markedly as much as kids are spending much more time indoors.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 21, 2016  8:43am

While the City officials that oversaw Urban Renewal at mid-century were New Haven residents, the people influencing those City officials and the projects they proposed largely did not:

Just like Urban Renewal, the Daniels School was imposed down onto the neighborhood from the top by relatively privileged people that didn’t live in the affected area. Even in the “successful” case of the Wooster Square Redevelopment project, only those voices that were agreeable to the city’s plans and had property on the western side of the neighborhood around the park were heard, while the eastern half was entirely demolished and removed of housing.

As far as I can tell, the Save the Upper Hill Now (SUHN) group formed around 2001 and focused its efforts on changing public opinion, trying to influence the city to change their plans, and proposing new alternatives through press releases, city meetings, and various advocacy initiatives. After continuously running into an immovable wall for two years, the group finally came to the realization that suing the City would be the only course of action to be heard. The court’s ruling was favorable to the plaintiffs - only siding with the defense due to a technicality. If the plaintiffs had sued as a first response rather than as a last resort, they likely would have won the case.

If a government is functioning properly, should lawsuits be the only way for affected residents to be heard? My feeling is that the group had the right approach - advocate for better planning with alternatives. It was the city officials that were stubborn, misguided, and unwilling to listen. Any naiveté from the residents is outweighed by the city officials’ hubris and obfuscation during that project.