What’s a Cherry Blossom Festival without cherry blossoms?
It’s still a festival—a bright, vibrant gathering which in New Haven is one of the first signs of spring.
Trees don’t always bloom as planned. (Nor do flowers, as the organizers of the annual Daffodil Festival in Meriden in late April will tell you.) But polite festival goers have been known to overlook the obvious and plunge instead into the whirl of music, activities, info booths and neighborliness.
Does anyone know—or care—how many of those forty cherry blossom festivals actually featured blossoms? Actually, considering the detailed blogging being done on the entertaining Wooster Square Blossom Blog, it’s not a stretch to think some enthusiastic Wooster Square resident out there probably does know all the stats over the years. This time around, at least, the weather has been tracked daily, and hopes are high that the cherry blossoms will at least be bright and “popping,” if not fully popped, by Sunday’s festival. This week’s unexpected heat and rain have provided last-minute support for the blooming prognosis.
When the Cherry Blossom Festival began four decades ago, the Wooster Square neighborhood was in the process of sprucing itself up. The New Haven Historic District Commission had been established by City Hall in 1970. In 1974 the commission published a delightful little booklet, Iron Fences of Wooster Square, designed by legendary local calligrapher and designer John O. C. McCrillis.
The booklet notes that Wooster Square was “established as a public square in 1824.” The park’s hallmark cast-iron fencing came in around 1860, and was extensively renovated thanks to attention from the Historic District Commission and a host of other local preservation groups. (When sections of fencing had to be replaced, the original cast-iron and wrought-iron manufacturing had become rare and prohibitively expensive; the replaced sections are made of steel, not iron.) The area was initially distinguished by its proximity to other lengths of iron—train tracks. The New York line came along State Street, while the Hartford line followed the Mill River a couple of blocks beyond the other side of the park. Wooster Square has never been on the wrong side of the tracks, but it has been in-between them.
And then there are the blossoms! But the reality is this: Wooster Square is a swell park year-round. For a week or two in spring it’s known for its flowering trees, but for dozens of Saturdays a year it’s recognized for its City Seed farmers market. Twenty or so years ago, Wooster Square made national headlines for its “Jesus Tree,” on the trunk of which the faithful could discern heavenly facial features. As for neighborhood-fueled events, the tradition of a “Pre-Festival Concert” held a couple of days before the official day (thus turning the festivities into “Cherry Blossom Weekend”) is itself now celebrating 15 years of concertizing. The free 7:30 p.m. show on Friday, April 12, at St. Michael’s Church (at the corner of Wooster Place and Green Street) welcomes violinist Xilin Feng Jordan, mezzo-soprano Sara Henry, oboist Libby Van Cleve, jazz/rock bassist Jack Vees and three pianists: Mei-Tsen Chen, Leon Planting and Christine Pulliam. It’s an indoor show, which makes the state of the cherry blossom bloom less relevant.
Culture and climate aside, many of us simply appreciate Wooster Square as a park that’s always tidy, full of friendly folks and one of the best places downtown to walk a dog. (Leashed dogs, that is: canines can cavort au naturale at the new dog park at Chapel and Union Street.) The place even looks cool on rainy days.
Pets and neighborhood organizations figure heavily in the festival. Theresa Argento is showing off “local memorabilia.” The Ethnic Heritage Center will have a booth. Having organized the festival, the Historic Wooster Square Association will especially appreciate the old (as in “historic”) and the young (as in hosting a special area of the festival for kids). Wooster Square Watch & Friends of Wooster Square will show you what it means to be good neighbors.
From elsewhere in town comes the New Haven Free Public Library Bookmobile, and a display from New Haven Museum (which is opening a major exhibit on the Wooster Square area in May). Easycare Energy Solutions, Solar Sunlight Energy, Next Step Living and Community Energy will be among those with the environment on their minds. Crafters include Suburban Crafts and Make a Bracelet. There’s bread from Chabaso Bakery, healthy food tips from Elm City Market, and representatives from such diverse places as Chiropractic Care Centers, the Ethnic Heritage Center, New Haven Preservation Trust, The Olive Oil Factory, Horizon Wings Raptor Rescue, the Yale Peabody Museum and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Even other parks are checking in: Fort Nathan Hale’s sending someone, and the Elm City Parks Conservancy will be on hand.
As for food, try a dozen different vendors, from Abate’s Apizza to Szabo’s Seafood, with Mexican, Asian and Indian food, not to mention French fries, in-between.
Besides all the experts and professionals and small businesspeople and civic leaders and devoted park folk milling about, the Wooster Square Cherry Blossom Festival also offers a schedule of live entertainment on a large stage erected right in the middle of the park. From noon to 1 p.m., the Premier Jazz Ensemble from the Neighborhood Music School plays, followed at 1 p.m. by even jauntier jazz from the Tuxedo Junction Big Band. At 2 p.m. there are some awards and announcements and a ceremonial Cherry Tree planting. The 2:30 p.m. musical offering turns classical, with three opera singers (mezzo soprano Cybil Juarez, tenor Daniel Juarez and soprano Jurate Svedaite) and piano accompanist Justine Macurdy. A rousing climax occurs at 3:30 p.m. courtesy of St. Luke’s Steel Band, with the festival ending at 5 p.m.
It’s a jam-packed five-hour celebration of a neighborhood, a historic township and a community at large.
With a cherry blossom on top.
The 40th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival
Wooster Square Park, New Haven (map)
Sunday, April 14, from noon to 5 p.m.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.