I t’s June, and Lighthouse Point Park is back in the swim of things.
It’s also been in the news. A City Hall move to raise parking fees there for New Haven residents (from free to a proposed $20) was rejected by the Board of Aldermen. The park’s historic carousel, assembled in 1911 and installed at Lighthouse Point in 1916, was afforded a gala 100th anniversary celebration last month.
Of course, the park has withstood far more than media scrutiny. Though it got pummeled a lot less severely than some other area beaches during Hurricane Irene, it wasn’t as lucky in 1938, when a similar storm knocked down buildings and trees.
But even when overcast and tempest-tossed, as it was following Tuesday night’s thunderstorm, Lighthouse Point Park has a natural lightness and grandiosity. Its existence brightens the whole city, even though the lighthouse itself hasn’t lit anything since 1877. The Southwest Ledge Light in Long Island Sound took over Lighthouse Point’s duties long ago. There’s still boating in the area, but not at the volume of previous centuries, and newfangled devices like radios and tracking devices take all the pressure off what is essentially an overgrown candle.
So the lighthouse now is mostly house. It rises from the sand like a medieval monument, a menhir, an altar. It’s a beacon of another kind, an outpost of a welcoming city. The New Haven Harbor Lighthouse has another name, Five Mile Point Light, because it’s five miles from the original center of town, New Haven Green. It’s a five-mile journey that brings you from a bustling downtown through calmer roads studded with old factory buildings, over other bodies of water, around a highway and out to the great beachy beyond.
The park may not have kept up with all the beach trends of the last century or so, and this feels like a blessing. There’s an old-world feel to the place, with basic wood pavilions and picnic tables and none of the splashy, gussied-up buildings and bandstands which some cities invested in a few decades ago. The natural quality of the place—that large lawn between the parking lot and the beach, all those trees—makes a great place for birdwatching. Many birds appear to agree, and make Lighthouse Point a stop on their migratory trips. As for humans, there are hundreds of scheduled events that happen in Lighthouse Point Park year-round, from nature walks to volleyball leagues to the autumntime Hawfest to the wintry Polar Bear Swim to wedding and other private functions. But most of what goes on there is spontaneous fun: the exhilarating rush of a splash of salt water in the face.
Lighthouse Point did get a new splash park a few years ago which still looks shiny and clean. Otherwise, the park is classic, even its non-natural stuff. The carousel (enclosed in a building that’s rented for dozens of weddings and other parties or ceremonies throughout the summer), the metal grilling stations and wooden picnic tables, the trees, the swings and playgrounds. Just the expected beach gathering necessities, none of which detract from the central splendor of the water, sand, grass and air.
Lighthouse Point Park
2 Lighthouse Road, New Haven (map)
General info: East Shore Ranger, (203) 946-8790. Permits: (203) 946-8020.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.