Underpass Makeover

Underpass Makeover

D rivers are slowing, sometimes just to crane their necks to get a peek at the action unfolding under the concrete slab of an underpass on State Street at Bradley. Or, they slow to avoid running over Ben Berkowitz and Chris Randall. Standing smack-dab in the middle of the street, the pair clutch either side of a grayscale portrait of a smiling New Haven resident blown up nearly as tall and wide as the two of them. Randall’s got a megaphone. He uses it, loudly, to narrate the afternoon’s events—and to make various demands.


New Haven’s vibrant neighborhoods are punctuated by a number of highway intrusions: dark, concrete tunnels dotting the city. They’re empty, sometimes unkempt, and a little daunting to walk through. So, often, people don’t. The underpasses have been called “border vacuums,” separating neighborhoods both physically and psychologically.

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Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven
But a growing group of New Haveners is thinking about these spaces, how to soften them, how to humanize them—and hoping the rest of us will too. Last year, with support from New Haven’s Urban Resource Initiative, neighbors worked to clean up a nearby underpass with painted fences and tree plantings. This year, it’s photo shoots: snapping close-ups of neighbors and passersby, roping people in and asking them to think about the overpasses—what they mean to the neighborhood—while raising money to dramatically enlarge those portraits and attach them to overpass walls.

The project is called Inside Out NHV. It’s a grassroots spin-off of the international Inside Out Project started by French street artist and TED fellow “JR”—known for wheat-pasting enormous, often goofy close-up portraits of regular people in the most unexpected places, like the Israeli-Palestinian border. It’s a project meant to break down borders, real and imagined, to make people wonder about spaces, boundaries, and who their neighbors are.

Saturday’s IONHV shoot is generating that thoughtfulness: drivers don’t just slow, they stop and park. Supporters of the project show up in droves to have their photos taken, and ask how they can help. Unsuspecting walkers and bikers are flagged down by Randall and his megaphone, or any volunteer with a release form. Then they’re positioned in front of the wall where one of three volunteer photographers snaps a few quick shots in black and white—funny faces, smooches, children, pets and props welcome. Everyone’s having a good time. There’s energy and laughter and collaboration in a formerly ignored place.

In three sessions, photographers have snapped over 200 people. The city and state Departments of Transportation have been totally supportive, Berkowitz says. And the project—at least this iteration—is now 110 percent funded with $10,564 pledged by neighbors, businesses and interested supporters. The group has finished shooting photos for the Upper State Street/Jocelyn Square area, with plans to print and install them in June. “Just the simple act of walking up to someone and saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got a beautiful face. Can we take your photo for this neighborhood project?’ The reactions have been amazing,” Berkowitz says. “People are really into it.”

Project organizers Berkowitz and Miles Lasater hope the simple act of photographing and installing representations of New Haveners from both sides of the overpass will kickstart other activities and conversations about how to knit Upper State Street and the East Rock neighborhood back together with Jocelyn Square on the other side. Others have already expressed interest in taking on the two overpasses dividing Fair Haven and Wooster Square on Chapel Street and Grand Avenue. And Berkowitz expects more. “We’d love to see this project expand. Anyone can take the lead and do this in their own neighborhood,” he says.

Got an overpass? Grab a camera and start shooting.

Inside Out NHV
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Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.

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Uma Ramiah is a New Haven-based journalist using audio, print, and photography to tell stories about Connecticut. She holds a Masters in Religion and African Studies from Yale and spent a few years traveling and working in West and Central Africa before settling down in the Elm City.

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