T here was once a place called Dragon, in the east. A place where oysters thrived and arrowheads could be found simply by tilling the soil of your garden. It got its name for the seals that once played and warmed themselves at the entrance to the bordering river. “The sailors called them sea-dragons and hence dubbed the waterway Dragon River,” remarks local historian Doris B. Townshend in the opening pages of Fair Haven: A Journey Through Time (1976).
With the seals long gone—the oysters mostly, too—the river’s taken a newer name, from another historic population: the Quinnipiac. And where the Dragon of old has sunken into the annals of history, Fair Haven has risen in its place.
During the Civil War, demand for munitions brought industry and, thus, industrial laborers to New Haven—but especially the Fair Haven neighborhood. “Yankee stock still prevailed in Fair Haven,” Townshend writes, “but it was soon to be out-numbered by a flood of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Russia and Italy.” More than a hundred years later, Fair Haven is still a home for immigrants, but their “stock” has changed again.
Lee Cruz—called by some the “unofficial mayor” of Fair Haven, though he protests the title—points with pride at the houses of his Clinton Avenue neighbors, noting Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, Indian, Polish, Mexican, Italian and Honduran heritages. Cruz himself is Puerto Rican, his wife Sarah a German Jew. Community, to Cruz, is something that’s held together “not because of its similarities, but in spite of its differences.” And it’s talking about these differences that brings a special warmth into Cruz’s smile.
Rather than Fair Haven’s unofficial mayor—although he has quite a lot to do with local community organizations, particularly the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association—Cruz sees himself as its unofficial storyteller. For more than 10 years he’s been leading walking tours of Fair Haven for locals and various Yale school groups, among others. This past year, he started doing “gastronomy tours” hitting high points of Fair Haven’s Latin American cuisine. So far, it’s been particularly popular, he says.
According to DataHaven, as of 2012, 63% of Fair Haven’s population is Hispanic or Latino, reflecting the area’s most recent wave of immigrants. The flavor they’ve brought to the neighborhood can quite literally be found on the wind. Up and down Grand Avenue, Fair Haven’s main economic thoroughfare, the smell of Mexican, Peruvian and Puerto Rican food hangs in the air. In Criscuolo Park, salsa music radiates from the speaker of a pickup truck. Shouts from béisbol and fútbol games carry over the grass. The clack, clack, clack of an older generation’s game of dominoes can be heard off to the side.
The influx of traditionally Christian Latin American immigrants over past decades has restocked the pews of local churches. Saint Rose of Lima, more commonly called Santa Rosa de Lima in these parts, regularly seats more than 1,100 Roman Catholics hailing from approximately 18 different Latin American countries. Second Star of Jacob church has an evangelical congregation of hundreds, I’m told, while various smaller congregations can be found throughout the neighborhood, along with a handful of storefront churches scattered along Grand Avenue.
Industry, another long-term resident of Fair Haven, is still milling about. Old brick-and-steel industrial buildings, many abandoned, can be found along River Street, with a more recent quasi-industrial zone standing along Fair Haven’s western shore. But a history of industry leaves behind more than just rugged brick buildings.
Pollution of the Quinnipiac’s waters—which began in colonial times, when New Haveners could still walk into the water and find lots of oysters—picked up steam in the mid-1800s thanks to industrial manufacturing. “The city turned its face from the river,” Cruz says, “and Fair Haven’s waterfront became a place for industrial refuse.” Many plots along River Street are still awaiting remediation. Although wild plants grow on some, the earth beneath is not necessarily as healthy as it seems, Cruz says. Perhaps the area’s most infamous emblem of industrial pollution is English Station and its toxic quagmire on Ball Island, in the middle of the Mill River, marking Fair Haven’s western edge.
But Fair Haven’s industrial fossils aren’t all grim. Remediation efforts have successfully transformed plots of industrial wastes into some of the neighborhood’s most charming green spaces. Clinton Park, now a large public space for playing baseball, soccer and even cricket, was a city dump until 1911. In 1989, the scrap yard that once sat along the Quinnipiac River was turned into Quinnipiac River Park—a long, open “passive park,” without ballfields or playgrounds.
Remediation has also been the dominant pattern among Fair Haven’s public housing in recent years. In 2006, Quinnipiac Terrace housing project, once very visibly segregated from the rest of the community, was redeveloped into a “Cape-Cod style village” by Elm City Communities. A similar transformation is in the works for Farnam Courts just outside Fair Haven.
Other neighborhood improvement projects have been underway thanks to the work of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association. It’s initiated a traffic-calming program on Grand Avenue and holds annual cleanups of Chatham Square, Dover Beach and Quinnipiac River Parks, providing a grassroots outlet for discussion and action on blight management, economic development and elevating Fair Haven’s esteem.
One of CSNA’s various projects has been the cleanup of Lewis Street Park. Once a site for prostitution, drug dealing and copious dog droppings, the park is now the site of a pleasant new playground, overlooked by a community-painted mural commemorating the cultural diversity of its present, the departed “dragons” of its past and the rising sun of its hoped-for future.
Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1, 3 and 4 by Dan Mims. Photo 2 by Daniel Shkolnik.