Are they trying to tell us something?
Yes. Yes, they are.
Downtown New Haven is a crazy quilt of quotations, messages, aphorisms, affirmations, slogans and good wishes. Some have deeper meanings. Some are simple and to the point, just there to brighten your day. Some are fashion statements.
Tracy B’s, the clothing boutique on Chapel Street near College, had a long quote from the Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond chalked on a blackboard in the shop’s window last month: “You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments when you have truly lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love.” It was an especially poignant quote because Stacy B’s was marking its last days in New Haven. The business is moving to a new location in Branford.
Green well Organic Tea & Coffee shop on Crown Street doesn’t post messages on its chalkboard. It asks questions. Under the permanent heading “Happy Thoughts,” the board invites green well customers to answer the query “What are you grateful for today?” One recent morning, the wall simply read “CFGNH,” for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Some days the response is simply “coffee.” Fair enough.
There are any number of churches in town which use their outdoor notice boards not to post the details of coming services but rather to provoke thought or give passersby a chuckle. A well-wrought one-liner is a godly gift indeed. For a week last month, the board outside St. Paul’s Union American Methodist Episcopal Church at the corner of Chapel and Dwight streets read “Whoever is Praying for Snow: Please STOP!” That sentiment still holds true.
Another church, United Church on the Green, has been spreading a hopeful message through a flock of pink flamingos that have been perched for the last few months outside the church’s parish house, which is located at the corner of Wall and Temple Streets. When it snowed, the flamingos were decorated with little scarfs. On Christmas, they grew reindeer antlers. For St. Patrick’s Day they wore sparkly green top hats. As UCG pastor John McIver Gage has explained, the flamingos have no explicit meaning. They are put there to start a dialogue. Asking what a pink flamingo is doing on a church’s lawn can lead to more discussion and more profound revelations. Oh, and there are some textual messages associated with the flamingos (though you’ll find nothing in the Bible about these birds): A sign which accompanied the flamingos when they first took root in the UCG Parish House yard last August read “Let your true colors show.” And if you happen to run off with one of the plastic fowl (not recommended), you’ll find a small sticker on the bird’s underbelly granting you forgiveness for stealing it.
Other hallowed institutions have their own impertinent art statements. Yale’s Sage Hall on Prospect Street has a statue of a man, found halfway up the exterior wall of the building’s entranceway. This poor guy has been subjected to decades of indignities. He’s donned Santa hats, togas and dresses. He’s held cricket bats and brooms. He’s worn every manner of mask and scarf. Scarcely a week goes by when the statue is not lovingly recostumed, to the delight of anyone who walks or drives by the building.
Downtown stores are awash with badges and bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing upbeat greetings and intriguing commentary on modern civilization, but using a building for such a purpose is something special. The practice goes back decades, centuries even, to the businesses and factories of old New Haven. Remnants of old ads for cigars, undergarments and other products have been retouched and repainted. Even if those products are no longer manufactured, we just like seeing words on buildings.
But our fast-paced text-message society also likes to just throw a statement out there with no expectation that it will be permanent. Chalk scrawlings wash away. Letters on notice boards get rearranged. The white-paper placemats or tablecloths at restaurants which are smart enough to hand diners crayons to doodle with while their food is being prepared will be discarded when the table is cleared. And that’s okay. A fleeting message can be a fine one, like days of old when town criers would chant “10 o’clock and all is well.”
Spring is here, even though it’s only just starting to look like it. Expect to see outdoor messages sprouting like daisies. The May Day celebration on New Haven Green usually involves some form of public graffiti wall, for citizens to post their thoughts about peace, community, the government and themselves. In early June, the Audubon Arts on the Edge celebration also has such a wall (a less politicized one, perhaps), and also closes the street around Leeney Plaza near the Educational Center for the Arts so that people can chalk up the streets with colorful patterns and all kinds of kind words.
To some, New Haven is famous as a transient town. A perceptible percentage of people come here to go to college, or work here for a while. They leave their mark then move on to other cities and challenges.
Leaving marks is in New Haven’s nature. With that in mind, take chalk in hand and make your mark on the chalkboard at green well. Give a good-natured wave to United Church on the Green’s flock of flamingos. Salute the Sage Hall statue. Then go about your day, a little cheerier for the noticing.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.