Upper State Merchants Band Together

IMG_1422.jpgThey moved here from New York following the buzz about New Haven. A break-in and several flower thefts later, they decided they needed to light a spark.

Francesco d’Amuri and Alison DeRenzi, who run the L’Orcio restaurant at 806 State St., are among 20 members of a newly revived Upper State Street Association, a grassroots merchants’ association looking to turn their neighborhood around.

Living in New York City, DeRenzi said she heard “a lot of buzz” about New Haven being a great commuter city. So she and her husband picked up their bags five years ago and purchased a nice brick storefront on State Street. She had heard it was a “transitional neighborhood. We thought it would come around.”

They opened an elegant two-story restaurant, complete with a trellised garden in back. They put flowers in planters in front of the store, and set up a family in an apartment upstairs.

DeRenzi thought the location — on State Street, just past the Trumbull Street exit of I-91, not far from the new train station — would be knit into the fabric of New Haven’s burgeoning downtown, where high-end condos and restaurants have been popping up over the past few years. She ended up concluding her neighborhood needed an extra push.

“The city doesn’t do much for us down here,” DeRenzi said. Three of her seven employees have had their cars broken into. Patrons get panhandled in the street. About a month ago, the couple had to scare away a burglar who had tried to break into the restaurant. And those nice flowers they put outside kept getting clipped and stolen in the night.

“We just want a cleaner and safer place to live,” said DeRenzi. She realized the change would have to “start with the grassroots, from the bottom.”

A Grassroots Group

So DeRenzi was eager to sign up as one of the first merchants in a new association that got rolling about three months ago. Headed by graphic designer and State Street resident Ben Berkowitz, the group is open to area merchants, property owners and residents.

The purpose of the group is to make the commercial corridor a cleaner, safer and more beautiful place, Berkowitz said. They’re starting off with a focus on the “clean” aspect: Members are holding a neighborhood cleanup on April 19, at 9 a.m. at the corner of Humphrey and State Streets.

After the cleanup, the beautifying will be done on a regular basis by a new member of the downtown district’s Clean Team to be hired just for State Street. The worker, who’ll be decked out in a red jacket with a State Street logo, will clean for 12 hours per week, Berkowitz said. The job will be paid for in part by membership dues: Each of 20 members pays $400 per year to be part of the association.

The association has already gotten the city on board with its plans: The city has awarded the group a $3,000 grant plus up to $12,500 in matching funds for the group’s first year.

east%20rock%20mag%20010.JPGFormer Alderman Bob Frew (pictured), who owns six properties along State Street, welcomed the group’s revival. He was active in its predecessor, a merchants’ association that formed around 1979-1980 to clean up the corridor. The group helped 50 percent of merchants there renovate their storefronts, in keeping with the historic Goatville look. They also made improvements, like benches, trees, garbage cans and telephone booths — but sadly many of the improvements were vandalized and removed from the area, Frew said.

Frew said he hopes the new group can see about installing some pedestrian-level street lights to make the area nicer to walk through. He has also suggested that the association could lobby for neighborhood needs when developers come into town, for example on the Star Supply site. Frew, who’s been the caretaker of State Street’s aging wooden planters for 20 years, hoped the barrels might be in for an upgrade, too.

DeRenzi said she hopes the association will help the neighborhood achieve a more cohesive feel and connect it to downtown.

“This is a beautiful neighborhood,” she said. “We want to give people a reason to walk up and down the street.”

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posted by: DingDong on April 9, 2008  4:29pm

Hooray for them. I live on the other side of town but I always liked Upper State Street and thought it had a lot potential.

posted by: DowntownNewHaven on April 9, 2008  4:30pm

Kudos to the level of community involvement here.  As demonstrated by the experiences of countless downtown areas throughout the country, a BID type of organization is a major step in the right direction.

Improved walkability, calmer traffic and better cross-town bicycle routes throughout New Haven—particularly from Fair Haven into East Rock—would help this district tremendously, by allowing city residents to quickly get to State Street and shop locally, instead of relying on automobile transit to more far-flung destinations and chain stores. 

If you live a few blocks away, it’s currently a tough call between walking or bicycling to State Street and just hopping in a car to go to the local strip mall.  Changing the dynamics of the city’s street grid could completely tip the balance and make the former choice the preferred one.

Density along the State Street corridor should also be increased—through new construction in vacant parcels, better land use strategies, encouraging people to get there on foot or by bicycle, narrowing streets and reducing car dependency.  Surveys show that the physical experience of a city is less important than the diversity of experience on foot that can only come from higher densities.

posted by: robn on April 9, 2008  8:40pm

New Haven needs more good solid citizens like Francesco and Alison!

posted by: Ned on April 10, 2008  7:07am

“If you live a few blocks away, it’s currently a tough call between walking or bicycling to State Street and just hopping in a car to go to the local strip mall.”  Actually it’s not a tough of a call.  With the warm weather seasonal increase in muggings in East Rock (from Orange St., east to State St.) and the lack of parking on upper State St. - strip mall wins.

posted by: Thanks to all! on April 10, 2008  7:54am

I love this neighborhood, have lived in it for the past 20 years and I’m excited by what I see!  A big thank you to all those involved in getting this up in running - Allison, Ben Berkowitz, Bob Frew, Roland Lemar, Alex Marathas, Mike Pinto, the TGSSD, the City, but MOST importantly ALL the wonderful merchants who are so committed to this neighborhood! - I’ve heard Ben, Alex and Roland each talk about getting this going for the last 6 months - glad to see you couild pull it together so quickly - Great work everyone!

posted by: William Doriss on April 10, 2008  8:17am

I feel sorry for the DeRenzi’s. Many aspiring merchants and small business people have made the same mistake in hoping for a turnaround on Upper State St. I was one of those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimists when I opened an “antiques” business at the corner State and Bishop, in ‘92. Sadly, I and many other aspiring merchants who have come and gone, experienced many of the same difficulties the DeRenzi’s are experiencing now.

It seems nothing ever changes on Upper State St., or New Haven for that matter. The “Goatsville” section should not be viewed outside the overall context of a longterm decline in the economy and quality of life in the city as a whole. It is simpley too much to ask for in a city which has fallen so far over such a long period of time.

In 1960, New Haven was deemed the “most liveable” city in America. Then came the “urban renewal” policies and the “pioneering” projects of the sixties under Mayor Richard Lee. New Haven was in the vanguard of these new urban renewal fantasies. These newly implemented policies fractured an existing multiethnic, organic community of small businesses and merchants (many of them newly arrived immigrants), forced relocation, and otherwise implemented socially destructive welfare policies we have come to rue.

Misguided concepts of “eminent domain” were freely and loosely utilized by the city and state. New Haven in particular has a long history of abuse in this area as it gobbles up neighborhood blocks for a higher purpose.

Meanwhile, Yale University acquiesced in the top-down, governmentally dictated destruction of a vibrant urban center, conveniently located between New York City and Boston. As the university gobbled up run-down and abandoned properties at fire-sale prices, it became an entrenched fortress, with its own armed police force, and expanded its facilities into a decaying downtown. Paul Bass has studied and written extensively about these very issues.

How sad. The current political structure will have to roll over, and the university will have to start playing a less selfish and less insular role in the affairs of the city before anything changes. The city has essentially been divvied up between the municipality and the all-powerful, all-knowing university which is Yale, with no room for the individual artist, entrepreneur or small business owner.

These situations will not improve in my life time. Things get worse before they get better, I predict. Can you say Hartford? Can you say Bridgeport? We have seen the enemy, and we know who you are. The handwriting is on the wall, literally. Thanks for trying Francesco and Alison. It’s not your fault. Good luck!

posted by: Margaret on April 10, 2008  10:40am

Goatville?  Would someone please educate me?

posted by: Ex-Stater on April 10, 2008  11:28am

One breakthrough for the new association of ‘merchants’ would be to recognize the reality that some of them are an enormous part of the quality of life problem on State Street.

Maybe they can do something about the moronic bikers who congregate outside JP Dempsey’s every night all summer long, and insist on revving their hogs in unison for fifteen full minutes at closing time before they finally roar away.

Dempsey’s also has a few outdoor tables on the sidewalk.  This is usually a pleasant feature in an urban restaurant.  People can sit outside and have dinner and watch the foot traffic.  Fine.  Dempsey’s though, seems to reserve the outside area not so much for people having dinner but for the most spectacularly drunk among their many patrons. The imbibing Olympians. Often there’s no solid food in sight.  And they don’t close the outside area at a reasonable hour. It’s open all night for about eight months of the year. Try listening to the same blitzed girl cackling at the same stupid guy’s drunken jokes from 8PM to closing time on a Tuesday night in July.  If you have an apartment in a 300 yard radius, you may as well be living in a college dorm.

When the bars close, the local residents are typically treated to the usual ritual: another hour or so of yelling in the streets, fights, police situations, arguments with tow truck drivers, etc.

Next morning, be sure to dodge the puddles of puke, half-eaten cheese fries and cigarette butts outside CO Jones.

And people leave these places completely, paralytically drunk on a regular basis.

Once I witnessed a JP’s patron try to leave a parking lot and drive directly into a pole, detaching his front bumper.  He staggered out of the vehicle, picked up the bumper, nonchalantly threw it in his trunk, and sped off into the night.  Hopefully the cops were able to intercept him after I called it in.  Sort of doubt it though.

And I’m not even going to talk about the drug situation, the crime, or the non-merchant abetted issues.

I only lived in the area for a few years, but I am positively jubilant to be out of there.

State Street: It’s a great place to go and party yourself unconscious, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Disclaimer: Before anyone comments: 1) Yeah, I know what it’s like to live near bars and in urban areas.  In fact, I regularly patronize bars myself. Some people know how to properly run bars. 2) No, I am not a fastidious or censorious old bastard.

To Margaret above, Goatville is the historic name of the neighborhood, in that mist enshrouded long ago time when it had a somewhat rural character and there was occasional peace and quiet.

posted by: DowntownNewHaven on April 10, 2008  3:21pm

This is what the area looked like when it was Goatville:
http://aradergalleries.com/paintings/images/136_America/ao_DurrieviewofeastrockNewH.jpg

posted by: Ned on April 11, 2008  9:33am

“We just want a cleaner and safer place to live,”  Why did they come to New Haven?  Upper State St. is most definitely not “knit” into downtown New Haven.  Would anyone walk the deserted stretch from the State St. train station, past the surface parking lots, the I91 entrance ramp, the faceless office building, under the Trumbull St. overpass (littered with broken glass, garbage and road grime) to upper State St?
In addition, to the East, on the other side of the eight lane, embanked highway, is a housing project - not a likely source of restaurant patrons, to the North a wasteland of highway overpasses and abandoned industrial buildings, and to the West a graduate student ghetto.

posted by: Clark Pearlman on April 11, 2008  3:17pm

Margaret,

Here is the story of Goatville. In the late 1880’s the whole residential area extending from State St. to Orange St. between Edwards St. was dubbed “Goatville” because many of the Irish immigrants kept goats, which, not knowing much about deeds and property lines, tended to wander around the neighborhood. Used by outsiders, the nickname carried a slightly contemptuous tone at first, but the natives soon adopted it as a term of affection.

posted by: East Rockette on April 12, 2008  12:40pm

Hooray for L’Orcio. You guys add a touch of class to our end of State St, and we appreciate it!

So after the clean-up day, can we talk about *how* to knit Upper State St into downtown? Because, Ned’s scepticism aside, it’s not impossible or unthinkable. Once the Shartenberg building is up, with its promised grocery store at ground level (OK, I’m a dreamer, but it could happen), then State St becomes more of an urban-residential thoroughfare, and if we can get foot-traffic and—who knows! - maybe one of those green trolleys to run a State-Wooster-Downtown-Orange loop, then we are indeed knit back into the downtown scene.

Along the way, we reclaim the AT & T parking lot as a greenspace (again, dreaming, but it could happen).

But first we give that Trumbull St offramp overpass a makeover and turn it into a gateway. I agree, it’s a disgrace, a skanky and horrible space right now that I hurry through when I have to walk or bike that way. But it’s not beyond salvaging, and it’s a crucial gateway to Upper State St, so why not take advantage of that proscenium arch effect?

Give the bridge a retro facade - trompe l’oeil painting, or real trim of some sort, like the beautiful Art Deco bridges on the Merritt Parkway. Hang a big sign over the underpass as you enter from Lower State St, saying “Welcome to Goatville”. Obviously we need better lighting inside the underpass itself, and something happening there to make it feel alive. If this were Tokyo, a bunch of busy little yakitori stands would be a natural fit and a great destination on a summer night! But maybe a better bet for New Haven would be a sort of art-historical gallery—some murals, or gorgeous blown-up historic photographs of the area, suitably protected from graffiti, say with plexiglass. 

(This great article offers other ideas that wouldn’t work for State St but might help other similar spots in New Haven http://www.gapersblock.com/detour/bringing_life_to_the_underpasses/ )

Then as you enter Upper State itself, line the street both sides with those faux gas-lamps (like they have down in Ninth Square these days) leading the eye all the way up State St to where the restaurants are. It’s all about the visual effect. Yeah, you’ve got the highway, and the Dunkin’ Donuts and the youth courthouse etc, but you’ve also got gracious old St Stan’s, and the big brick schoolhouse (to become condos when Big Hooker moves out?) and Marjolaine and Modern and L’Orcio and all, and enough variety and continuity to constitute a distinctive pocket neighbourhood worth visiting for its own sake.

By the way, there is also talk around here of reclaiming the triangle of dumpster-space at the State end of Bradley as a pocket park, too - this would obviously help create a gateway to the neighbourhood. And if we could get some business to actually WORK in that corner spot on Bradley, even better.

And can we get some kind of historical neighbourhood designation while we’re at it? Like these guys: http://www.sachem.org/newhistory.html

What do you reckon? Let’s do it!

posted by: Ben Berkowitz on April 14, 2008  3:47pm

East Rockette,
All great thoughts.  Many of these we have discussed
within the association, but would need help pushing through.  If you are not in fact already a member of the association, contact me: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

posted by: Bob Frew on April 30, 2008  6:40am

It is great to see the street activity again. When we formed the first Upper State Street Assoc. State Street was known as Lower State. A bad image that we changed. We had a small book with an article by Tom Farnam. It was about the old Goatville section of the city. I remember a row of about 6 houses on a hill. We concluded that it was Cedarhill not State Street. With regard to historic status, State Street is a federal historic district. Historic tax credits are available for anyone who wants to restore their building. Many of the buildings that I developed got the tax credits. The State historic district is very different and require any alteration to buildings to be approved by a committee. My experience has been that these committees tend to establish a higher stylistic standard than the State standard which states that the alterations should be appropriate. I was great to read all the different opinions on what is happening. Thanks