Upside Downtown

Upside Downtown

C all it Fright Aid.

A former Rite Aid pharmacy building at the corner of Whalley Avenue and Dwight Street, vacant for several years, has been transformed for just a few weeks into an iParty Halloween Store. For a couple more weeks, you can wander shelves of werewolf fur, vampire fangs, spiderwebs, cauldrons and artificial blood.

Then the store will vanish into the ether like a ghost.

It’s a weird transformation, because when that Rite Aid held its going-out-of-business sale a couple of autumns ago, Halloween accessories were among the main things it was discounting. A crystal ball with a scary witch head inside, spouting spooky prophesies, could be had for a banshee-like song.

What made the loss of the pharmacy especially horrifying was that a Staples office supply store had recently vacated the big building next door, and the Shaw’s supermarket near that had also been empty for a time.

Life may be fleeting for the Halloween Store, which breathes its last once the holiday has actually arrived October 31. But the Staples space happily became a Harbor Freight tool emporium earlier this year, and Stop & Shop took over the supermarket site in 2011, and will expand its presence this year by adding a gas station.

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There have been some interesting retail switch-ups downtown as well. The popular new Shake Shack has reinvigorated a hallowed Chapel Street location that once housed New Haven Restaurant (and its comedy club, which hosted dozens of now-famous comics in its ‘80s heyday) and the small theater company/cabaret Performance Studio, which had been unoccupied for an unbelievable two decades. The last time there was any life in the space was when the film crew for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull stored set pieces there for a couple of weeks in 2007.

Last week, Metaphore’s former location on Chapel Street near Atticus Bookstore Cafe was the site of a pop-up shop by {Cut. Cloth.} which presented racks and racks of vintage clothing, including selected items provided by Vintanthromodern Vintage. Among the treasures on view: a blue satin jacket from Rudy’s Bar & Grill on Elm Street circa the mid-1980s, embroidered with the name “Butch” and bearing the slogan “The Friendliest Place in Town.”

A few days later, Vintanthromodern Vintage debuted its new “Vintanthromobile” at the Columbus Day Festival in Wooster Square.

But the biggest spatial transformation of autumn time, unparalleled for the past 15 years, has been City-Wide Open Studios. The community-fueled visual arts spectacular is overseen by Artspace, whose galleries at the corner of Orange and Crown streets are turned into a central headquarters for CWOS, which fans out into several distinct areas of New Haven.

Open Studios opened last weekend with the most conventional aspect of its three-weekend visual arts blow-out. Many cities indulge in “open studio” affairs where artists who are lucky enough to have home studios that can accommodate visitors set out wine and cheese and let visitors investigate those workspaces. Where Artspace builds upon this phenomenon is in finding ways to promote hundreds of other local artists as well. On the weekend of  October 13 & 14, City-Wide Open Studios focuses on the rented studio spaces and galleries at Erector Square on Peck Street. The 15th anniversary event ends October 20 & 21 with its hallmark “Alternative Space” weekend, where a noted vacant or largely abandoned building is transformed into a marketplace of art and creative vision.

In the past, Open Studios has inhabited the Smoothie Foundation Garments factory (before the building was remodeled into apartments), the Pirelli Building (before it morphed into IKEA), a warehouse in what is now the Science Park technological development district, as well as schools, utility company buildings and blocks of storefronts. Most years, the choice of space has underscored an important transition in city life, drawing attention to areas of town that are being rethought  and remodeled, or to ongoing overhauls such as the renovation of New Haven schools.

This year, the Alternative Space of choice is the New Haven Register building on Sargent Drive. The building is for sale, its press facilities closed last year and its staff has been reduced as the Journal Register chain’s flagship daily continues to maneuver through trying times for print media. The Register is looking for new digs downtown, itself a transition which is being conceived as a new way for the paper’s staff to relate directly with its readers, and which will reportedly involve a coffeeshop, a modern version of the paper’s staid old “community room” concept.

Daily Nutmeg has tipped you previously to the good works of Project Storefronts, and to the ongoing delights of the monthly “On9” Ninth Square neighborhood parties. On October 5, all those transformative events converged, along with another one: the second annual gathering of LAMP (Light Artists Making Places). Films and other images were projected on buildings (like the one pictured above), as well as on a specially constructed cube in the center of The Lot, an outdoor gallery space on Chapel near Orange.

Exhibitions like this demonstrate how we can see New Haven not for its vacancies and absences but for its lightness, openness and creative potential. Our city has transformed itself numerous times, from a Puritan enclave to a port city to a factory city to a university town to the mishmash of all of the above, and more, that it is today. It takes art and vision to be that. It also takes the will to change.

Written by Christopher Arnott. Photograph by Robert Greenberg, 2011 LAMP installation.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

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