It’s rare for a supermarket to make it onto a traveler’s itinerary. But two people have recommended Elm City Market, so here I am.
The sprawling organic food co-op is bright and cheerful, with luscious produce and cheese offerings that would make a monger proud. But really, my guides have sent me here because the market anchors a larger transformation.
Not so long ago, New Haven’s Ninth Square neighborhood was just a stretch of empty red brick buildings. Now, it’s chockablock with art (including Artspace, a warehouse of mini-galleries), quirky shopping (a Jamaican dress designer is just doors down from the century-old Acme Furniture) and divey ethnic food options.
It’s one sign among many that New Haven has outgrown its reputation as a college town that’s more crime than coffee shop, pockmarked by poverty and post-industrial waste.
That was an identity forged largely after World War II, when demand for New Haven’s wartime manufacturing goods disappeared. Jobs followed, and violence ticked up. Entire neighborhoods were left for dead. By the late 1980s, even the president of Yale University wouldn’t live in town, settling in New York instead.
But on a recent weekend trip, I discovered that this New Haven doesn’t really exist anymore (if it ever did). In its place, I found a city transformed.
Once-vacant factories now house art studios and coffee shops. Galleries have popped up in abandoned churches and parking garages. Restored Victorian gingerbread houses dot quaint main streets and city squares. And culinary intrigue lurks around many a corner.
In short, it’s a city with Boston’s historic charm, Philadelphia’s artistic pleasures — and Buffalo’s beer prices.
New Haven was settled in 1638 by a group of Puritans under the leadership of the Rev. John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, who hoped that it would become both a bustling seaport and a Christian utopia. To educate the future heads of this theocracy, 10 Puritan elders established a university that would grow into Yale.
Much of this early history is preserved in Center Church, a white-spired building on the New Haven Green built in 1812 to house the graves of Puritan settlers and Revolutionary War soldiers. Today, you can tour its eerie basement crypt, with 137 tombs (Benedict Arnold’s first wife is buried there) and the remains of more than 1,000 early settlers. Nearby, two other churches are also open for visits, including Trinity Episcopal, America’s first Gothic-style church.
I wander from the New Haven Green to another historical landmark — the Grove Street Cemetery, America’s first chartered burial ground. An Egyptian revival arch welcomes visitors with a haunting message: “The Dead Shall Be Raised.” Inside, the tombs are laid out in a geometrical pattern that echoes the city’s layout. Famed final resters include Roger Sherman, who signed the Declaration of Independence; Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin; and Eaton.
Nearby is Yale University. I take a free campus tour for bits of history and trivia. Highlights include the Sterling Memorial Library, a cavernous building adorned with a kitschy Alma Mater mural, and the Woolsey Rotunda, where the names of Yale alumni killed in battle have been etched into the walls. Yale grad Maya Lin has said that this memorial helped inspire her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Many of Yale’s buildings honor the neo-Gothic architecture of Cambridge or Oxford. But down the road from the main campus are two modernist masterpieces designed by Louis I. Kahn. The Yale University Art Gallery boasts an impressive collection, with works by Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko. But I’m drawn to the Yale Center for British Art, right across the street (the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom). I meander through portraits of 19th-century aristocrats in all manner of poses. Though the building is mostly concrete, high ceilings and skylights leave the space feeling almost impossibly airy.
I stop for a post-browsing snack at Claire’s Corner Copia, a 38-year-old New Haven staple, for a slice of doughy Lithuanian coffee cake iced with sweet vanilla frosting. Claire’s is casual, with luscious salads and cupcakes on display at the counter.
From Yale, I head to the city’s bustling arts districts. New Haven sets aside 1 percent of municipal construction budgets for public art, money that has drawn artists to the city. Today, there are at least 16 galleries and dozens of small alternative spaces.
One is the John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art on Trumbull Street. The gallery, in a restored Elizabethan-style house with a deep porch, features regional work. Nearby, the Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street offers classes in everything from pottery to bookbinding. I browse through the gift shop’s paper dolls and quilted baby clothes, stocked by local crafters.
There’s also a smattering of specialty museums, including the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (which houses an original Gutenberg Bible) and the Peabody Museum of Natural History (it displays live poison dart frogs from South America and giant cockroaches from Madagascar, along with a life-size bronze Torosaurus).
The city also has a well-deserved reputation for innovative, eclectic dining — after all, both the hamburger and American pizza were reportedly invented here. Restaurants such as Miya’s offer up “weird sushi rolls” that might include, on a given day, curried tuna, goat cheese and cranberries or krill, mozzarella, honey, banana and burdock.
Nearby is Bar, where I stop for a slice of mashed-potato-and-bacon pizza. The brewpub is spacious, with pool tables set up around copper casks. But it’s almost always packed, testimony to its popularity.
“The city’s food diversity in itself is unique,” says Stephen Fries, who leads the New Haven Culinary Walking Tour, an eclectic exploration of New Haven. “There’s every ethnic type of food you can think of.”
That includes a Little Italy near Wooster Square. I stop at Lucibello’s Italian Pastry Shop for a clam-shaped sfogliatelle, filled with a fist-size glob of vanilla cream.
Afterward, I consider taking in a show. The Yale University School of Drama provides a steady stream of eager, talented thespians to three well-loved playhouses, including the Long Wharf Theater, where Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey have played.
Instead, I opt for Cafe Nine, a no-frills bar short on natural light and long on $4 beers.
Cafe Nine is nicknamed the “musician’s living room,” and with good reason. On my visit, a jazz quintet from Hartford debate their playlist in front of the audience. They end their set with a soulful rendition of “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” It’s an ode to a season that right now seems awfully far away. But it’s also a fitting celebration of a town that has come into its own, after a long winter.
Erickson is a senior associate editor at the Atlantic Cities.