It’s a Gas

It’s a Gas

T he long-awaited gas station at the Whalley Avenue Stop & Shop supermarket has opened, with seemingly little fanfare. Cars just pull in and fuel up as if the station has been there all the time. And why wouldn’t it have been? Whalley’s got car dealerships, auto parts stores, car washes, auto repair garages… Is it possible that there hasn’t been a gas station in that spot until now?

In fact, there once was a service station on that very corner of Elm and Orchard, where Dwight Plaza—a block-square shopping center accessible from Whalley Avenue and Elm Street—ends and the residential feel of Elm resumes. But that earlier gas station existed decades ago. When neighborhood meetings were held in 2012 about the viability and environmental impact of a gas station, that was a compelling argument: gas pumps were previous occupants, and the lot had been vacant since. Agreements were struck regarding making the station more aesthetically agreeable (shrubbery was mentioned), and the neighborhood largely approved of the plan. For Stop & Shop, offering more services meant a greater likelihood that the supermarket chain would renew its lease and remain at Dwight Plaza for years to come.

Now Stop & Shoppers who are continually being told how many “gas points” they’ve earned can put them to use at an S&S gas station without having to drive to Amity Road or Branford or Orange to redeem them.

Like the new gas station, Stop & Shop isn’t the first of its kind on the site. It was preceded by a Shaw’s, which did good business on the block for nearly two decades before the entire Shaw’s chain decided to pack up and leave Connecticut.

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Supermarkets—the food shop equivalent of department stores, augmenting dry-goods offerings with anything from fresh produce sections to pharmacies and bakeries and banks—are a 20th-century phenomenon, following innovations in how food could be packaged, cooled, transported and stored. Single-location stores became chain stores, then became superstores. There’s a shining example of the pre-supermarket model of a food store just a few hundred yards up from the Whalley Stop & Shop: Minore’s Meats at 320 Whalley, which supplements its central meat counter business with shelves of breakfast cereals, canned beans, flour and other staples.

The AutoZone franchise that shares Dwight Plaza with Stop & Shop and the new gas station replaced a brick-and-mortar video rental store. The RedBox vending machine inside Stop & Shop represents what this once-booming industry has evolved to.

As for gas stations, they have populated every part of the country, a very visible example of how dramatically the automobile has altered the American landscape. The gasoline engine is still less than 150 years old, and the Ford Model T—the assembly-line produced exemplar of cars which could be afforded by the masses—hit its stride less than a century ago, in the 1920s.

At that time, New Haven was still producing parts for horse-drawn carriages because there was still a demand for them. The smarter factories had diversified into building bicycle parts, though few in the area went full-throttle into the auto parts racket. C. Cowles & Company, established in 1838 and still in existence, originally made lanterns for horse-drawn carriages, then adapted those skills to producing lights for cars, and now has six divisions which specialize in everything from plastic injection molding to auto accessories and liquid level controls for boilers. But the carriage trade didn’t die overnight.

There are elderly folks in New Haven who may still recall the horse-and-buggy races which took place in Edgewood Park among the wealthier families; judging from the anecdotes, they may have still been racing carriages as late as the 1930s. The park (itself an example of 20th century design, as laid out in 1910 by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.), lay in between some of the carriage businesses downtown and in Westville. Carriages regularly drove through the park, a privilege not granted to automobiles.

All this history puts the arrival of a new gas station on the corner of Elm and Orchard in a new perspective. It wasn’t that long ago—within the lifetimes of your grandparents or great-grandparents—that there were Elm trees on Elm Street (those trees were largely killed off by Dutch Elm disease in the 1930s) and gardens on Garden Street, and shopping was accomplished by a buggy ride through the park to the newfangled markets and department stores downtown. With a filling station rather than a horse fountain along the route, not all that much has changed. Yet, to some—including the horses—everything has.

When you stop for gas at Stop & Shop, take a minute to reflect on all the people, beasts and vehicles which have rolled through that spot of New Haven.

Super Stop & Shop (with on-site gas station)
150 Whalley Avenue, New Haven (map)
(203) 503-0105
www.stopandshop.com/…

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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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 www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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