Highway 34 Revisited

Aliyya Swaby PhotoFew 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.

Postwar Demolition

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.”

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posted by: Peter99 on May 13, 2016  7:35am

I grew up on the hill and went to school at Horace Day on Rosette St. I have fond memories of walking to the Jewish bakeries on Sunday (Olmers and Tykowski) on Oak Street. There also was an Italian baker on Oak Street near Sherman. Dick Lee, I95 and I91 ripped the heart and soul out of the City of New Haven. He drove the Irish, Italian, Germans and other ethnic groups into the suburbs. He renewed the face of the city by destroying the fabric of the city. A lot of the problems of today were caused by destroying the neighborhoods of the past.

posted by: Adelaide on May 13, 2016  8:46am

Oh where do I begin? Number 1 - why were the pamphlets put on Chapel St.? Why not given to the Management team of the cmnty.? Given to the people who actually yanno LIVE HERE! If they had all this shiny money why not include the residents?
2- “superblocks” would prioritize developers’ needs over those of the community” this is exactly what is happening and this plan is endorsed yet again by City Hall. This is called RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION.  The developers involved in this area are just rubbing their greedy little Stamford hands together fangs dripping as they sit and wait for the Hill to be devoured! They will however be surprised when they are met with little success and worsening PR.
3- Large sidewalks?? How about ANY sidewalks? The infrastructure in this area is disgusting. Westville and Wooster Sq. dont look like this. We can’t even get garbage pails!
4- It amazes me how everybody and their brother is going for the Hill. We get no respect from City Hall, from Unions, from local Politicians or from so-called local “leadership”. The perception is we are all on public assistance and live like animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is that element, people who live on the fringes, who are not capable of leading basic decent lives. However, there are also long time homeowners. College educated, high income residents. Even apartment dwellers who are NOT transient.
Recently, Nemerson in City Hall called affordable work force housing low income…This statement shows the extent to which City Hall is clueless!  THe Mayor was shocked that Hill residents were not in favor of 2 bed rm. apts. that start at $2700. a month! Are u kidding me??

posted by: Walt on May 13, 2016  9:04am

Memory differs from this article,  but memory is often wrong

The article claims area   was heavily Black,  Memory says the area was known as very heavily Jewish

Cant remember details,
  but the area was widely known as a slum centered by several trouble-source bars off limits for all service men during World War 2

No one to my recollection   thought it was a neighborhood worth saving and few objected to its razing.

Good riddance said most of us

Homosexuality was hidden in those days.  Why it is now injected into this story   from 60 years ago as if it were pertinent is a mystery

These folk may be correct but the story looks twisted to me

Dick Lee must be turning in his grave as almost all of his -many successful projects have, or will soon be gone,  demolished by his successors,

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 13, 2016  9:33am

When the Gentrification Vampires and Vampire Bicycle Lobby finish with New Haven this will be a lot of you.

Priced Out of My Childhood Home


In interviews with about a dozen young native New Yorkers, all from areas where real estate prices have soared and new residents have poured in, mixed emotions surfaced about the consequences of gentrification. Some of those interviewed were members of minority groups, some were white; all were between the ages of 23 and 34. For some, new restaurants, shops and services were welcome, especially if amenities had once been sparse, but to others, they seemed like a hostile takeover. Some said the old sense of community had disappeared in construction dust. None had been able to afford an apartment of their own in their childhood neighborhoods.


posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 13, 2016  11:43am

Great article, and I look forward to checking out Ammon’s book, Bulldozer, as soon as NHFPL gets a copy!

Where does the article state that Oak Street was “heavily black”? I agree that Oak Street was predominantly Jewish prior to the highway project, but there was certainly a black presence in the neighborhood dating back to the early 19th century. See this reference map of New Haven 1810-1850 at the link below:
The African Methodist Episcopal Zio Church was located right at the intersection of Congress Avenue and Oak Street. A few blocks away on Park Street near the corner of Oak Street was St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (now located on Whalley Avenue).
Here is a map of the black population in New Haven in 1930:
While primarily concentrated in Dixwell, the black population in former Wards 2 and 5 (which encompassed Oak Street) were between 6 and 10%. Keep in mind that 1) Oak Street was the densest area in the City, 2) New Haven’s overall black population was only around 3% at that time, and 3) 1930 predates the Great Migration, which saw huge numbers of blacks from the rural south migrate to northeastern and midwestern industrial city neighborhoods, including Dixwell, Wooster Square, and Oak Street.
Here is another map from 1930:

Oak Street was widely considered a slum in the business community, City Hall, and elite academic institutions, but many residents of the area were fond of their living quarters, neighbors, sense of community, and neighborhood institutions.
Were you also dismayed that only half of Wooster Square was demolished and not the whole neighborhood? Oak Street and the City as a whole would have benefited more from housing rehabilitation and perhaps some surgical demolition rather than wholesale destruction.

posted by: Nathan on May 13, 2016  12:27pm

This article combines a fanciful imagining of history with actual history.  The cognitive dissonance is well represented by someone who actually lived in the area telling his memories vs. the young urbanist (Mr. Hopkins) arguing from books.  Look at the information about Mr. Saulino in the article: “He lived there until about 1950, until, like many in the neighborhood, he accumulated more money and began looking towards the suburbs.”  Exactly correct: as the immigrant generation passed on to their children education, income improved and a massive exodus from the old neighborhoods to the new suburbs took place - westward to Westville, Woodbridge, West Haven, and Orange, northward to Hamden and North Haven, eastward to East Haven and Branford.  This was true for the Irish, Italian, and Jewish communities and is well-represented in the latter by the progression of new synagogues built outward from New Haven starting in the 1950’s.  The Golden Days had long past the area that Dick Lee had bulldozed: it was not imagined to be a slum, it was a slum in many parts.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Rt 34 connector highway idea, it doesn’t change the historical reality of the area - except, apparently in the minds of a well-intentioned young generation or urbanists that never actually saw it.

posted by: Walt on May 13, 2016  1:26pm

Jonathan Hopkins

” Heavily Black”—bad choice of words.  Sorry.

  .  I was reacting to the repeated emphasis by Mr Ammons re people of color and homosexuals who in my memory were not significantly involved in the Connector redevelopment

Do not say they were not truly involved,  but the article is the first I heard of it I think.

I thought of it as an effort to build better connections from Downtown to Ansonia /Derby which was expected via   further extension from the end of Oak Street   at the Boulevard to the then existing highway to the north existing.

I organized a few busloads of business   folk for a trip to Hartford ( We visited with legislators and State officials),  and we really expected more clearance and more roads to be built in the then next few years

The trip was financed by major retailers and banks interested in the future of Downtown New Haven,  probably gentrification vampires   if they were described by 3/5. 

Factors such as color ,ethnicity or sexual   orientation were not involved as is implied by this article Almost everyone I knew admired Dick Lee and supported his plans at that time

Eventually the idea of continuing   the road to Ansonia/Derby was lost in the shuffle of priorities,

The quote from former Police Chief Frank McManus re the Oak ST area seems accurate.  Most people at the time were very happy to see it demolished and replaced with the road.,

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 13, 2016  3:54pm

Thanks for the shout out!
Generally speaking, descendants of Irish immigrants to New Haven moved first from “shantytowns” near Wooster Square and in the Hill to Fair Haven beginning in the 1870s, and later to towns further eastward in the early 20th century. Later Italian immigrants and their descendants followed a similar pattern in the 20th century. Second and Third generation German immigrants tended to move westward towards Edgewood, Westville, and town beyond beginning in the late 19th century. Descendants of Eastern European Jewish immigrants followed a similar pattern in the 20th century. Those with Yankee ancestry migrated northward from the Nine Squares to Whitney Avenue and its environs in the 19th century. In recent decades many black residents have also moved northward into Newhallville, Beaver Hills, and lower Hamden from Dixwell. Many descendants of hispanic immigrants have moved eastward to East Haven and westward to West Haven from Fair Haven and the Hill. What’s that have to do with the article? People move around, so therefore some neighborhoods should be wiped off the map? What?

What were the “golden days” of Oak Street, as you put it? In the 18th century when there were tanneries there? In the 19th century when the West Creek was filled in? In the early 20th century when cold water tenements were built next to factories? The question isn’t about whether or not Oak Street was a “slum” or a paradise - it’s about how best to revitalize a neighborhood and its surrounding city. I suspect that rehabilitation and surgical demolition, like what was accomplished in the area around Wooster Square, would have been a better approach rather than wholesale destruction.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 13, 2016  4:11pm

The article quoted Ammon’s book Bulldozer with the following:
“In New Haven, as across the country, the burden of displacement fell unequally along lines of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.”

This is not saying that Urban Redevelopment projects were targeted based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. It is merely pointing out that the people most negatively impacted by urban redevelopment projects were people of color or with immigrant backgrounds. This is because the most affordable housing stock was located in “slum” areas like Dixwell, Wooster Square, Oak Street, and the Hill. The most recent arrivals from the Southern US, and from abroad hadn’t established several generations of economic stability yet so they settled in areas with a low cost of living, which were then targeted for redevelopment and highway construction.

Generally, if you were white or from an earlier (pre-20th century) immigrant family that enjoyed several consecutive generations of economic stability, you either 1) likely lived in an area that was not targeted for redevelopment, or 2) did live in a redevelopment zone but because of your economic and racial status were more easily able to find adequate housing elsewhere. Alternatively, if you were a recent arrival, you were more like an ethnic minority without a solid economic foundation yet and were more likely to live in a redevelopment zone and had a more difficult time finding adequate housing in the city and region due to cost considerations and racist housing policies that prevents certain groups from attaining housing of their choice.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on May 13, 2016  7:08pm

The City has already blown the goal of reconnecting the neighborhoods cut off by Route 34. The anonymous blocks of bland buildings now in place effectively work better than a moat.
Just how does a drive to CVS repair the damage?
Dwight and the Hill and West River need their Wooster Sq. Park. to ameliorate the hideous decisions we can count on city officials to continue making.
New Haven should return the federal monies and admit they have a different plan.

posted by: 1644 on May 13, 2016  7:47pm

The area was Jewish.  New Haven Hebrew Day was on Dwight Street.  Because the Orthodox cannot drive on the Sabbath, they need to cluster near their Temple.  When the Temple moved to Orange, it was a mass migration.  Prior to the destruction of Legion Avenue, one could shop in the Jewish stores on Sunday, as Blue Laws required stores to shut on either Sunday or Saturday for the sabbath, and all the non-Jewish stores were closed on Sunday for the Christian sabbath. As far as gays, well, those Jewish families were/are pretty big, so their was a lot of heterosexual procreation.