H istory is written in the streets of New Haven.
There’s Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, named after Connecticut’s first female governor who, in 1975, was also the country’s first female governor to be elected without having been preceded in office by her husband. During two terms, the second of which was cut tragically short by a bout with ovarian cancer, she established the Freedom of Information Commission, an important public service that helps protect citizens against the mishandling of public records requests.
Davenport Avenue recalls to us a figure from way, way back in New Haven’s records: Reverend John Davenport. In 1638, the Puritan pastor, along with the merchant Theophilus Eaton, led a band of settlers to what would soon be dubbed New Haven Colony. Davenport sought in New Haven a purer form of religious government than could be found in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as economic prosperity facilitated by New Haven’s harbor. That dual vision attracted £36,000 in startup funds—“by far the largest investment of all the New England settlements,” according to historian Michael Sletcher—from the Bay Colony’s merchant class.
Decades later, in 1661, Davenport helped members of an even more exclusive class: those with royal bounties on their heads. John Dixwell, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, now immortalized on signs along some of New Haven’s busier arteries, had signed King Charles I’s death warrant in 1649, leading to his execution and the establishment of the Puritanism-infused British Commonwealth. After the crown was restored to power in 1660, Charles II ordered the execution of any living regicides, offering hefty rewards.
Dixwell had already been hiding out in New Haven, where few knew his real identity. Goffe and Whalley came next, fleeing from Massachusetts where bounty hunters nipped at their heels. Davenport took the two men in before they were compelled to flee once more, this time to the secluded wilds of West Rock. The pair hid there for several weeks, surviving with the help of Richard Sperry, a member of Davenport’s congregation and resident of nearby Woodbridge who, according to an account of Edward Atwater’s History of the Colony of New Haven to its absorption into Connecticut (1881), would leave rations on a tree stump between the cave and Sperry’s home.
There’s poetry in how and where Goffe Street, Whalley Avenue and Dixwell Avenue come together today, merging into a single point that gives way to downtown and so many relics of the city’s colonial past. Near this intersection, a short road by the name of Sperry Street connects Goffe with Whalley. Coincidence? Maybe; Sperry Street could also be named for former Mayor Lucien W. Sperry, who served the Elm City from 1867-1869. Then again, Lucien was ultimately named after Richard anyway, being his direct descendant and all.
Other mayors surely get their due on street signs in this city. At least ten of ’em—Sherman, Bishop, Bristol, Daggett, Kimberly, Peck, York, Sargent, Tower and Daniels—are forever memorialized on green and white metal rectangles. Sherman Avenue is named for New Haven’s first mayor, Roger Sherman, who was a member of the First Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He signed it, too, as well as the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.
Also not far from the nexus of Whalley/Goffe/Dixwell, John Daniels Place honors the youngest city mayor to have a street named after him. Daniels also happened to be New Haven’s first African-American executive, after beating out a young John DeStefano in the 1989 Democratic primary. Daniels was something of a pioneer on public safety, introducing a community-based policing program in an effort to attack the city’s especially high crime rate at the time. He won a second term in 1991 before stepping down in ’93.
New Haven’s streets also nod to past entrepreneurs, like Whitney Avenue, named for the famous Eli Whitney, and Blake Street, which is named for Blake Brothers hardware, a former mainstay of Westville. In that very shop, Philos Blake, a nephew of Eli Whitney’s, invented the corkscrew. (He was actually the second person to file a patent for the idea, though both filings happened and were awarded on the exact same day.) Philo’s brother, Eli Whitney Blake, was literally tasked by the city with remaking its streets, which led to his greatest invention: a steam-powered rock-crushing machine that allowed the project to proceed in a much speedier fashion.
Of course, there are loads of streets honoring places and things, and not people: for main thoroughfares downtown you’ve got your your Chapel, your Temple, your Church and Elm. Elm Street, for one, got its name in the same way New Haven got its nickname: from an elm and buttonwood tree planting effort sponsored by the city in 1759, which was the first publicly funded planting program in the United States.
Tales from the Elm City’s amazing history meet on every corner. Just follow the signs.
Written by Jake Goldman. Photographed by Dan Mims.