New Haven reflects the US's disparity and multiculturalism with unabashed honesty
by Hirsh Sawhney
Financial Times Weekend, August 4, 2007
On a summer morning in New Haven, I stand outside the now defunct factory where the legendary Winchester rifle was manufactured. The place has been part of the city's economy since the mid-19th century, and workers are gathered to protest its recent closing, a final blow to the city's industrial heritage. "Our jobs are going overseas," lamented Donald, a dreadlocked, redundant employee who has spent his entire life here. His parents migrated here along with many southern black Americans and Puerto Ricans in the early 20th century.
My parents emigrated from India to New Haven in the 1960s, when industrial decline and the move to the suburbs had already begun to take their toll. In the years that followed, the city was abandoned by its remainingmiddle-class residents, like my family, who headed for adjacent towns. Despite the constant presence of poverty, New Haven has experienced a renaissance since the 1990s, which is evident in its burgeoning downtown.
Today, the third largest city in Connecticut is defined by jarring contrasts. Superb specimens of Gothic architecture sit some distance from a mammoth Ikea. Neighbourhoods burdened by drug abuse coincide with a foremost centre of scholarship, Yale University. Indeed, the small city reflects the US's disparity and multiculturalism with unabashed honesty.
The historic Grove Street Cemetery is an unexpected urban sanctuary. Its cantankerous caretaker warns that the site is about to close. Rushing through, I admire the faded graves of revolutionary war veterans and a memorial to the Amistad slave ship. There is a grandiose memorial to Eli Whitney, who is credited with creating the cotton gin. Inspired by his innovations, industrialists like Oliver Winchester flocked to the area and produced the firearms that would facilitate the US's violent westward expansion. Consequently, New Haven became a 19th-century economic hub and a destination for immigrants from Europe, mainly Italy.
The legacy of the city's Italian-American population is still alive on Wooster Street, where restaurateur Frank Pepe gave birth to the city's trademark brick oven pizza in 1925. Salivating for a hometown slice, I head to Sally's Apizza, a rival joint founded by Pepe's nephew Salvatore Consiglio in 1938. I'm not surprised by the long queue outside but an old school friend has helped me procure a normally unattainable reservation. A gruff waiter takes my order and, after an interminable wait, two pies are plunked down, dotted with brown bubbles of cheese. I devour the succulent, paper-thin pizzas, one with fresh tomato sauce, the other with clams, a New Haven specialty.
There is an autographed oil painting of Frank Sinatra hanging up. The singer, I am told, would send his limousine from New York just to pick up one of Sally's pizzas.
A five-minute drive takes me to Louis' Lunch, a quasi-religious hamburger joint in the heart of downtown. Mentioning burger accompaniments such as ketchup is blasphemous here. Founder Louis Lassen allegedly invented the hamburger in 1900, when he sandwiched broiled beef in between slices of bread for a rushed customer. During my adolescence, the eatery capped off countless nights of debauchery and cumbersome schooldays.
Jeff, Louis's great-grandson, greets me by name and recalls my usual order, "two cheese onions". I sit out the gruelling wait on one of the idiosyncratic benches into which the namesof a century of customers are carved. I'm shortly appeasedby the familiar clinks andsizzles emanating from Louis's antique cast-iron grills, in which burgers are cooked vertically and relieved of their fat. After taking my first bite, I'm oblivious tomy surroundings. Meat, cheese, onion and toast coalesce into an inimitable, almost beatific flavour.
My belly full, I head to the Yale campus. The Yale Art Gallery's buildings are as eclectic as its collection. Its 1952 brick, glass and steel Louis Kahn edifice sits beside the 1926 neo-gothic Swartwout building, which conjures up palatial Florence. The exhibition American Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts begins with Albert Bierstadt's "Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail", a landscape typifying a generation that saw the American wilderness as pure and divine and paved the way for modern environmentalism. Passing works by Edward Hopper, I mull over artefacts such as an outdated Macintosh computer and a sleek Charles Eames chair.
Across campus is the Yale Beinecke, a modern fortress whose face of marble squares appears daunting. But these panels cast the library's interior in an ethereal glow and filter light to protect several million manuscripts, contained in a glass tower at the building's centre.
Exiting the Beinecke, I'm drenched by a storm and rush towards my car. On the way, I notice hundreds of residents on the New Haven Green braving the weather in anticipation of tonight's Boyz II Men concert. Every summer, thousands gather to drink and dance at suchfree events.
Driving away, I'm tinged with melancholy at the thought of leaving the city. New Haven offers an alluring blend of cosmopolitanism, provinciality and grittiness. It could be described as the east coast's quintessential small city. I'm just happy to call it home.