W hen the curators at New Haven Museum put its elaborate new exhibit Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square together, they were literally playing with blocks. One of the interactive aspects of the exhibit is a puzzle where you arrange colorful cubes. Properly connected, the blocks can show you clocks: large images of ads and photos from when timepieces were manufactured at a famous clock factory in the area.
Blocks also figure into how the neighborhood has been defined. In terms of the neighborhood’s distinction as the city’s first historic preservation district, Wooster Square was defined simply as the Square itself—Wooster Square Park and its perimeter. The museum exhibit draws a broader outline. What’s Wooster Square without Wooster Street? How can you show the region’s development from an extension of the downtown residential area (dubbed “New Township”) to the base for major local factories (due to its proximity to the waterfront, the train tracks and downtown businesses) without noting Union and Olive streets? The ethnic neighborhoods which sprung up on the East part of the city due to the factories and other factors provide some of the most delightful and enlightening images in the exhibit. By mapping Wooster Square to extend from Summer Street to the old waterfront along Water Street, between the once-busy train tracks of Union Avenue and Railroad Avenue, New Haven Museum has charted a most manageable and illuminating Wooster Square experience.
As whole sections of the exhibit (“Mapping Wooster Square,” “Designing the Square,” “Redefining Wooster Square”) spell out in their very titles, the area has changed numerous times since Revolutionary War hero David Wooster lived there in the 18th century. Proceeding block by block, Beyond the New Township shows that journey.
According to NHM executive director Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky, it’s “the biggest exhibit the museum has done in at least a decade.” She also notes that “it’s the first one with technology,” such as the video screens which provide photo slideshows and other historical highlights. Plus, she says, “it’s the first one with children’s activities,” which seems only natural considering Wooster Square’s current reputation as a great neighborhood for young families. Beyond that, Township “makes extensive use of all our collections,” says Tockarshewsky. New Haven Museum’s own Wooster-related possessions are augmented by contributions from dozens of gratefully acknowledged “lenders” and “community engagers,” from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven and the Connecticut Irish American Historical Society to community activist Theresa Argento and local historian Joe Taylor.
The exhibit provides a deft, loving mix of Wooster Square commerce and community, culture and pop culture, past and present. Items on display include photos, paintings, posters, lithographs, engravings, postcards, magazine ads, and products manufactured at factories in the neighborhood, from foodstuffs to girdles. There are maps and casserole dishes, newspaper clippings and a tin ruler promoting the Theodore DeLauro Insurance Company. Ted DeLauro was the father of Rosa DeLauro, who has served Connecticut’s 3rd congressional district as its U.S. Representative for over 20 years.
DeLauro is one of the present-day names we associate with Wooster Square. The show gives us names to represent virtually every decade of the neighborhood’s centuries-long existence, adding a warm human touch to the history. There’s a portrait of Daniel Greene, for whom Greene Street was named, as well as a photo of where his wife Hannah lived after he died, a building on Academy Street appropriately enough known as “The Widow Greene House.” There’s Strouse and Adler, makers of Smoothie undergarments. There’s B. Shoninger, who sold organs and pianos. There’s Captain Peter Bontecou, whose house at Wooster and Olive Streets later was known as “a commonplace hotel.” There’s Benedict Arnold, the infamous American traitor who was known during his New Haven days as a war hero, a successful merchant, a druggist and a bookseller. (Both Bontecou’s and Arnold’s houses were torn down in 1917.)
Beyond the New Township also makes history come alive with everyday objects such as a wind-up clock and other household staples manufactured or used in the neighborhood. There’s a coffee roaster used by Cavaliere’s Grocery and an actual laced corset on display which museum goers can try on themselves. Local delicacies are represented by recipe cards which you can bring home. Is there a better way of getting a taste of Wooster Square history than baking an authentic Italian-style cheesecake?
Some vestiges of Wooster Square’s illustrious past still remain—the ornate funeral homes, the distinctive pattern on the iron fence surrounding the park, the generations-old Italian restaurants. But the museum also shows us a Wooster Square with stages, union halls, social clubs and movie theaters. As far back as 1798, wax figures, taxidermy, velocipedes and other “curiosities” were on display at the multi-venue “Mix Museum, Assembly Hall and Columbia Gardens” which dominated the corner of Olive and Court.
“The nicest thing I heard on opening night of this exhibit,” Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky says, “was, ‘There’s so much here that I have to come back.’” As Beyond the New Township proves, there are many different Wooster Squares to come back to.
Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square
New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Avenue, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 12-5pm, 1st Sun 1-4pm through February 28, 2014.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.