Walk with Me

M y husband and I set off on Walk New Haven’s Wooster Square tour one recent sunny morning, and as you might expect, pizza and pastries were prominent in the website’s historic narratives. But there were also surprises, including pianos, seaside amusements and the early history of New Haven television.

Our tour began at the iconic Sally’s Apizza, where workers were opening up a pallet of new pizza boxes, and sent us down Wooster Street with stops for Canestri’s Pastry Shop, Consiglio’s Restaurant, Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Midolo’s Bakery, Generoso Muro Macaroni Factory, Libby’s Pastry Shop, Cavaliere’s Grocery Store, Mike’s Meat Market and Maiorano’s Cheese Factory, a generous helping of the neighborhood’s food history that includes businesses past and present. Some are still in the hands of the families that founded them. Consiglio’s, for example, originally opened across the street from its current location as The Big Apple Restaurant and is owned today by the granddaughter of original owners Annunziata and Salvatore Consiglio. Other businesses are just a memory, like Canestri’s, owned by the grandparents of US Representative Rosa DeLauro, and the Generoso Muro Macaroni Factory, known not only for pasta but also for having its own orchestra and a son-in-law, Aldo DeDominicis, who helped establish Connecticut’s first TV station, WNHC.

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We’d walked Wooster Street many times, but always with food on our minds, and we’d never slowed down to pay attention to the story told by the street’s architecture. This time we noticed what was missing. Two- and three-story brick buildings with shops on the first floor give the street the flavor of an old urban neighborhood. But there are also parking lots and modern structures that date to the mid-20th century, the period of urban renewal. The Walk New Haven map distinguishes between existing buildings, marked with a blue dot, and those that have been demolished, marked with a brown square. Historic photos show what once filled those brown gaps: more buildings like the older ones that stand today, many of them housing first-floor shops peddling the goods people depended on for their daily needs and providing the backbone of a busy walking neighborhood.

By the time we reached the end of Wooster Street and the rumble of traffic speeding behind the wooden sound barriers on the I-91 overpass, we were able to imagine the loss Wooster Square residents must have experienced when the highway cut through their neighborhood. At the corner of Chapel and Franklin Streets, we peered through the long, broad underpass. Water glistened in the distance. Somewhere, on the other side of the highway, was the original location of Lucibello’s Pastry Shop and Carrano’s Market. “The market sold fancy fruit and confections,” Walk New Haven says. “The leisure ship Richard Peck would tie up at Belle Dock on Sunday afternoons and the passengers would walk down Chapel Street and would purchase the fine candy and fruit as they passed the store.” At one time Wooster Street “ran to the waterfront where local men played bocce and sandlot baseball at Waterside Park in the shadows of the Sargent factory. In summer months young boys jumped from piers and people fished from banks of long-destroyed channels leading to the harbor.”

Around the corner at Chapel and Chestnut Streets, we could see the alignment of telephone poles showing that a walkway next to Harry A. Conte West Hills Magnet School was once part of Chestnut. The school, with its modern architecture, replaces the old B. Shoninger Organ Company, which manufactured organs and pianos in a massive six-story factory building with 300 feet of frontage on Chestnut Street. “A new office added in 1881 was the finest in the city, finished in polished mahogany, cherry, walnut and curled maple, relieved with delicate tracery of inlaid wood and rich hand carvings,” Walk New Haven says. “The average number of men employed at that time was over 300.”

The app also helped us use our imaginations when we reached Wooster Square itself, anchored by St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church glowing like a pearl in the sunlight. At the square’s north end, a row of modern apartments now stands where the Columbus School (originally the Greene Street School) once dominated the block with its imposing three-story facade. Next door, at the corner of Greene and Hughes Streets, the original Sacred Heart Academy (now located in Hamden) was begun in 1946 in the provincial house of the religious order Missionary Zelatrices of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It, too, is gone.

But while some of the neighborhood’s historic buildings are a thing of the past, others remain and retain traces of an earlier time. American and Italian flags flying at 20 Academy Street mark the former Italian Consulate, opened in 1910 (the building dates to 1890) “to assist the immigrants in their assimilation to their new life here in Connecticut” and serving as “the center for Italian immigrant life during this period of time.” Across the park, on Chapel Street, the name “P. Russo” is carved on the lintel of one building, presumably alluding to its onetime owner, prominent Italian resident Paul Russo, who’s mentioned several times on the tour. The shape of the old Congregation B’nai Sholom synagogue on Olive Street is apparent even in its current incarnation as an office building.

More shocking is the transformation of 576 Chapel Street from an 1841-42 Greek Revival mansion, home to rubber magnate Henry Lucas Hotchkiss, into the 1935 Art Deco Lupoli Brothers Funeral Home with its Egyptian-themed stone columns and gilded, stylized name carved above the door. We spent quite awhile comparing the Walk New Haven photo of the original mansion to the building in front of us before confirming they were one and the same.

Walk New Haven’s Wooster Square tour illuminates the neighborhood’s immigrant history from the late 19th century onward, but it skips many details of the more distant past. For that reason, be sure to read the introductory history of the area before clicking into the tour map. Here, you’ll learn about square namesake Major General David Wooster, killed in a Revolutionary War battle in Fairfield. You’ll learn about the neighborhood’s evolution from home to “prosperous ship captains, wholesale grocers, and successful entrepreneurs,” some of whose houses still stand, to residence of later immigrants from Ireland and finally southern Italy. An 1880 map in the introduction documents many of the buildings around the square at that time.

Back on Wooster Street, we took a deep breath of the delicious scent of pizza baking at newcomer Zeneli Pizzeria, then opted to take home a few cannoli and cookies from Libby’s across the street. Take your Walk New Haven app to Wooster Square for a helping of history, but don’t leave without a generous serving of the culinary magic it’s still known for today.

Walk New Haven: Wooster Square
www.walknewhaven.org/tours/map_sites/woostersquare_map.html

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2-4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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