Few people can be seen these days walking around the last remaining vestige of the Oak Street Connector mini-highway separating the Hill neighborhood from downtown. Sixty years ago, the area was home to a thriving immigrant neighborhood full of local shops and multi-family homes.
The story of how that neighborhood disappeared during mid-20th century urban renewal and became a limited-access thoroughfare has been told many times. As New Haven fills in the old highway back in as part of the “Downtown Crossing” project, with the hope of returning an active street life there, the story of the community-killing mini-highway to nowhere is being revisited in multiple quarters through fresh eyes..
Few people who actually walked the Oak Street neighborhood remain. One of them spoke on the most recent edition of WNHH radio’s “In Transit” program, along with John Martin and Jonathan Hopkins, two urban-planning aficionados who took a new look at how government has come full circle in its view of how to develop cities.
Meanwhile, a new book on the evolving role of the bulldozer features New Haven’s leading role in urban renewal.
And the urban renewal era’s history came to life this week on signs Yale architecture students posted at intersections around the Connector—with facts and quotations harking to a period of major demolition in the city. Photos of the signs are included throughout the article.
In the book, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of The Postwar Landscape, Francesca Russello Ammon paints a fuller picture of the process of urban renewal’s demolition projects across the country — focusing one chapter specifically on postwar New Haven.
Title I of the federal Housing Act of 1949 covered most of the cost of clearing certain neighborhoods for urban renewal and redevelopment. The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act provided subsidies for construction of highway projects such as the Oak Street Connector.
Now a lot of work is going toward undoing a mistake from 60 years ago, when federal money encouraged local officials to build a mini-highway through downtown and the Hill by razing the Oak Street neighborhood.
“One of the things that made Oak Street perhaps not a great place to live was that all the traffic going from New York and Boston and other cities in between had to go right through the Oak Street neighborhood,” Hopkins said, on WNHH radio. Before World War II, in the 1920s, as cars became more common among those with money, the streets of the neighborhood were congested and filled with traffic.
“That was a functional issue that planners at the time wanted to address” and the federal government subsidized those plans, he said. “Since there were traffic issues within the Oak Street neighborhood and because it was viewed as a slum ...it was targeted for a highway right in the middle of it.”
After World War II, bulldozers transformed from weapons to urban-planning tools, Ammon argues in the book. New Haven received more urban renewal grants per capita than anything other city in the country. Then-Mayor Richard Lee used the grants to demolish more than 3,000 buildings between 1957 and 1960, relocating about 30,000 individuals.
Razing the Oak Street neighborhood was the first major project, which displaced about 3,000 people — 886 families—during the construction of the Oak Street Connector, according to Ammon. People of color and ethnic minorities were likely to have a harder time finding new places to live.
Almost half of the families from Oak Street were eligible for public housing, but most chose to move to private rentals in neighborhoods such as the Hill and Dixwell. Many of the displaced individuals had lived alone — single men, some of whom, Ammon posits, were probably gay.
“Not only did renewal destroy housing types well suited to this population’s economy and lifestyle; it also offered them no official assistance with relocation,” Ammon wrote. “The group did not fit traditional perceptions of family-centered domesticity and received no aid as urban renewal destroyed their homes. In New Haven, as across the country, the burden of displacement fell unequally along lines of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.”
Oral History Of Displacement
Displacement also broke up connected neighborhoods of schools, churches and local businesses.
Mike Saulino, who’s 90 years old, grew up on Carlisle Street in the Hill neighborhood before World War II. Parts of the Hill neighborhood were demolished during a local redevelopment project parallel to Oak Street’s demolition. He lived in a six-family coldwater flat, with running water but no heat. Saulino is Italian-American. Many in his neighborhood were also Italian-American, as well as Irish-American and Jewish. His father was a bartender; his mother worked in a small dress shop in the neighborhood.
“Today you have 911. In my day, we had the neighborhood,” Saulino said on WNHH’s “In Transit,” describing the tight-knit community. Neighbors would lend each other money to buy groceries and take care of each other’s children.
He lived there until about 1950, until, like many in the neighborhood, he accumulated more money and began looking towards the suburbs. He bought a house in Hamden and moved in with his mother. The movement of people out of the area was slow, he said. “I was the first, believe it or not.”
Plans for a highway and changes to the neighborhood after the war contributed to the death of many local businesses, including local taverns and delis, Saulino said. “Nothing is left now,” he said. “I used to walk to go to the deli to get cream cheese. Now I had to go to the supermarket.”
Eventually, as neighborhoods began to suffer from the environmental damage and physical wreckage urban renewal brought to their streets, local policy makers began designing more community mechanisms for urban redevelopment, instead of federally sponsored demolition. Neighbors began to stand up and resist urban demolition, Ammon writes in her book. And decades later, federal funds became available to promote cycling and walking, instead of just driving.
Planning Downtown Crossing
City officials both then and now were worried about how to keep locals and suburban visitors alike within New Haven’s boundaries. But now, argued urbanologist Hopkins, who discussed the project with Martin on the WNHH “In Transit” episode, planners are concerned about facilitating various modes of transit within the city — instead of just building highways for people to move through it. Due in part to pushback from critics, they are working on making the former highway more usable for vehicles other than cars.
The city won a $16 million federal Tiger II grant to start undoing the Oak Street Connector and reconnecting the Hill neighborhood with its downtown neighbors — a project called “Downtown Crossing.” That grant cleared the way for the redevelopment of 100 College St. for pharmaceutical company Alexion, which moved in earlier this year.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised New Haven $21.5 million in state bond money to get rid of the last portions of the mini highway as part of the planned rebuilding of the former New Haven Coliseum site.
Martin said he sees the plan to reconnect the Hill to downtown as a “strengthening” of the New Haven community as a whole. Developing a former highway for pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation-users means creating a more “porous” infrastructure so people don’t view the highway as a “wall” to transit between neighborhoods, he said.
Hopkins suggested a few modern additions to the corridor, including wider sidewalks, ground-level retail, on-street parking, street trees, and parking facilities hidden from view “in order to make the pedestrian experience as pleasant as possible.” Putting retail or other desired destinations on both side of the Downtown Crossing will help entice pedestrians to walk from one side to the other, and build a lively and active environment, he said.
Urban Renewal’s Ghosts
A group of Yale master’s students in the School of Architecture this week worked to bring the past back to the current Oak Street Connector site, by putting signs up with quotations from major players in the neighborhood’s demolition in the 1950s. They put a stack of pamphlets in the Chapel Street Visitor’s Center with a short written history of the renewal process and a map of their 16 signs along the Connector.
“It’s a potent place to invoke the role of history,” said student Matthew Zuckerman, one of five who worked on the project. The former Oak Street neighborhood leaves no sign that it used to be home to a complex network of immigrant communities, he said. The students created a “wayfinding system that gives the story back to the neighborhood,” he said.
They put the signs up between 8 and 10 a.m. Wednesday between Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and State Street, with no indicator that the project was part of a class. At the bottom of each sign is the tag “#OakStreetHistoricalSociety” so passersby can interact with the project on social media.
Some of the language in the current plan for the corridor is “eerily similar to urban renewal in the ‘60s,” argued student Jeremy Leonard.
The city is currently in the process of considering whether to change the zoning in the area to allow developers to construct major blocks of housing, retail, offices and labs.
Student Maddy Sembler said she worries those “superblocks” would prioritize developers’ needs over those of the community—just as the development of the Oak Street Connector was once seen as a “lifeline” to get suburban residents into the city.
A couple of the signs have disappeared, including one near Alexion Pharmaceutical’s new headquarters at 100 College St. with a quotation from former New Haven Chief of Police Francis McManus that read, “Here was the place which attracted the worst elements of New Haven. The bad eggs—the dope pushers, the vice rings, the numbers racket operators, the prostitutes—all gravitated to Oak Street.”
Zuckerman said the students intended to be subversive in putting that sign up, by showcasing the “language used to marshal the renewal process through public approval” right next to “what is a fancy, shiny new building” heralded as a sign of growth and development in the same area.
Click on or download the above sound file to listen to the full interviews with Martin, Hopkins and Saulino on WNHH radio’s “In Transit.”