N ext time you’re strolling through New Haven’s Ninth Square district, look down.
You’ve probably walked by, or on, them before: 21 granite stars embedded in the sidewalks of Orange and Crown Streets. There’s one memorializing Elnora Bess, a dressmaker who opened Elnora’s Fashion House (both a shop and a school) in 1941, and Lee Chong, who opened his Chinese restaurant, Far East, in 1920. One star is for surveyor John Brockett, who, in the late 1630s, guided our then-very-young city into the nine-square grid that still shapes downtown, and who subsequently lived in the Ninth.
The series, titled “Path of Stars,” was completed by artist and graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (pictured above next to one of her stars) in 1994, when the Ninth Square wasn’t yet the cultural locus it is today. Back then it was undergoing a major renovation, hot on the heels of an influx of money for new residential development. De Bretteville won a $25,000 public art commission from a committee comprised of developers, artists and city representatives to forge the Path.
The project, as de Bretteville wrote in her original proposal, would celebrate the “residents and landlords, merchants and laborers, managers and employees” who made up the neighborhood’s “vital mix.” No doubt influenced by famous celebrity stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the artist, who lived in Los Angeles for 20 years before moving to New Haven, chose to celebrate some of New Haven’s most dedicated and under-recognized heroes with her granite tributes, each featuring a name and a bit of the story behind it.
“I went deep into New Haven,” she says of the research surrounding the project. The figures she highlighted were meant to represent the city’s varied cultural palette. Historical, too: only three honorees were alive when the project was installed.
At the time, De Bretteville herself was a new New Havener, though she went on to secure her own place in the city’s history, becoming Yale Art School’s first tenured female professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in Graphic Design.
The research for the project helped her feel anchored in her new home. And with only 21 figures to honor out of New Haven’s whole history, selection standards ran high. For one thing, she only considered those who had worked in New Haven for at least ten years (although many had done so for 40 or 50 by life’s end).
Moreover, “I chose people who did more than their jobs,” she says. De Bretteville—who is still at Yale and works out of the home and studio she and her husband, architect Peter de Bretteville, designed in an old water tower in Hamden—chose to celebrate individuals who made bold moves for their time, background or gender.
There’s a star for Helen Perez Hallock, who, after her husband died in the midst of the Great Depression, took over his electrical appliance shop, Hallock Co., despite having three young children to care for. When the company went into foreclosure in 1932, she somehow scrounged up enough credit to reopen the store—and enough gumption to rename it Helen P. Hallock’s at a time when women were generally expected to be content with being wives and mothers only.
Another star represents Joseph A. McAlpine, who was not only the first African-American to work at the New Haven Gas Co., in 1955, but also became the company’s community representative, setting up a community relations board and starting a college scholarship program.
De Bretteville, a world-renowned artist, is known in part for singing about the relatively unsung. One of her most lauded projects is “Biddy Mason: Time & Place,” an 82-foot concrete timeline featuring embedded and embossed design features. It highlights the trials and accomplishments of Ms. Mason, an African-American slave who won her freedom in court and became a much-valued contributor to her community as a nurse and midwife.
“Path of Stars” is also about time and place, and people. With warmer weather finally upon us, it’s a good moment to do a little stargazing.
“Path of Stars” by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville
On the sidewalks of Orange and Crown Streets in New Haven’s Ninth Square.
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.