I t’s early fall, a balmy Sunday afternoon, and East Shore Park in New Haven is packed with little leaguers, their seasons coming to a close. High-pitched pings from aluminum bats connecting with fastballs ring across the park’s six baseball diamonds. Passionate parents shout and pump their fists from their foldable camping chairs lined behind the dugouts.
The park is located north of Lighthouse Point Park, and its main entrance sits just off of a traffic circle where Woodward Avenue and Tuttle Street meet. Loop around the ball fields by heading to the park’s north end, marked by a well-maintained soccer field and an adjacent parking lot, and you’ll find three sets of paved trails that run the length of the park. The widest footpath runs behind all the ballfields and provides access to the park’s four basketball courts, eight tennis courts and three bocce ball courts.
It’s also the most direct route to the Salperto Skating Rink toward the center of the park. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the outdoor rink was active during the coldest months, but rising maintenance costs put an end to its use. On this day, a tall volleyball net stretches across the worn paved rink, and on either side, three men bat a soccer ball back and forth. They’re playing Ecua-volley, an Ecuadorian variation on volleyball. The game is played with three players, instead of six, and the net is over a foot taller at its center than a standard volleyball net. Players can also hold the ball for a nanosecond upon contact, unlike volleyball, where the ball must be smacked away immediately. And, because it’s a smaller soccer ball, players have much more control, so the ball moves back and forth with much more speed and accuracy. It’s fast-paced and mesmerizing.
If athletic competition isn’t your thing, fret not, for East Shore Park is no one-trick-pony. A narrower, paved footpath slices through the center of the park. This is prime strolling and picnic territory. On either side of the path are long stretches of grass, dotted here and there with wooden benches. A rolling breeze from the New Haven Harbor pushes its way through swaying reeds atop sand dunes.
There’s a third paved trail that butts right up against the shoreline. Along this route are a few beaten down dirt paths that lead to the beach. Things are pretty quiet on the sand, nearly meditative. Four brothers and sisters dance around their mother who is tired-looking but smiling. She holds out an open plastic bag into which her children drop newly treasured seashells.
The tide is heading out, and it scatters piles of puckering snails across the sand. On the southern end of the shore, near the New Haven Coast Guard Station, an older couple and their dog play fetch with driftwood. My wife turns over a rock, and two fiddler crabs skitter across the sand for shelter. Directly across the harbor is West Haven, and the northern view is a cluster of downtown New Haven’s tallest buildings. Prime seating is available on two small jetties that jut out a few feet into the harbor. Swimming is prohibited here, but the serenity of the scene alone is worth it. I laugh to myself. It’s my first time inside the park and its beauty stuns me. I wonder what else I haven’t yet seen in this city.
The park is a good scene for kids, too, home to the country’s second-largest “boundless playground.” The playground, called “Hannah’s Dream,” is 300,000 square feet and is designed to cater to children of all ages, regardless of size or physical ability. The park is named for Hannah Kristan, a New Haven resident born with spina bifida, a disease that hinders spinal cord growth. Kristan learned of boundless playgrounds when she was 12, and with the help of her parents, she spearheaded a funding effort that eventually made the playground a reality, and a place where she could finally feel like a kid. The playground opened in 2000.
Just a few weeks ago, the park was host to the East Shore Festival, which included a magic show from Cyril the Sorcerer and face painting for the younger kids. For older sets, it featured a plethora of food vendors, a Coast Guard-sponsored water safety crash course and a native plant garden tour.
The sun is setting on my visit, and the wind is picking up. Picnickers pack up their wares on the grass. Tennis coaches zip up their rackets, and a pick-up soccer game ends on the south field, high-fives and handshakes all around.
Ecua-volley is still going strong, though. A crowd has gathered to watch. They lean on the posts along the rink’s perimeter, sipping sodas. Someone has set up a boom box blasting hip-hop. A gangly man steps up to the net as the ball flies toward him. He bashes it into the pavement with authority. The crowd whoops.
Most of the baseball games are coming to a close, mothers and fathers tousling their kids’ hair on the way to the parking lot. On the field farthest from the park’s entrance, the baseball game has gone into extra innings. Up on a small knoll beyond centerfield and behind the fence, a family sets up a grill while cheering on their team. They’ve got it all figured out.
East Shore Park
350 Woodward Ave, New Haven (map)
State Park Website
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.