Neighboring

H ome to a historic village, a public library, old factory buildings, art studios and galleries, Edgewood Park, Hopkins School, the Yale Bowl, the Yale Golf Course and housing stock ranging from mansions to apartments dating from 1795 to practically yesterday, Westville ranks among the city’s most eclectic neighborhoods. In fact, Westville feels a bit like a town unto itself, which it basically was until New Haven managed to wrest control of it 100 years ago. Talking to residents, you’re still likely to hear a note of civic pride that belongs to the neighborhood and not to the city, perhaps in reference to their annual ArtWalk festival that draws thousands or maybe just their daily stroll through the park or across quiet athletic fields.

There are still a few places where Westville feels rural and pastoral, as it was when the writer Donald Grant Mitchell turned up in 1855 and purchased a working farm, which he named Edgewood. “It was to be a model for beauty in farming, home building, and town planning,” says a finding aid in the New Haven Museum collection. Known to the rest of the world by his pen name, Ik Marvel, Mitchell wrote numerous popular books inspired by Edgewood and was noted by his literary peers, earning the compliment “one of the pleasantest of our American writers” from the famous poet Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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Today, Mitchell’s name has lapsed into obscurity, at least outside his adopted home of New Haven, but his impact on Westville lives on. He designed the park and the street that share the name Edgewood, the latter “dubbed the Hillhouse Avenue of Westville, an elegant compliment,” writes Doris B. Townshend in her encyclopedic The Streets of New Haven (1998, second edition). Mitchell’s original farmhouse still stands at 999 Forest Road. So does a grander home, albeit modified, at 1076 Forest, which he built circa 1870. According to architecture writer Elizabeth Mills Brown, traces of an estate road along the ridge, which Mitchell allowed the public to use, can still be seen in the curve of the driveway and wooded paths of Hopkins School. A pair of old stone pillars stands mostly unnoticed at the edge of the school’s athletic fields.

When Mitchell died in 1908, the lower part of his estate—an area bordered today by Forest Road, Chapel Street, Alden Avenue and Woodbridge Avenue—was sold for development and became, Brown writes, “a beautifully preserved specimen of an upper-middle-class development in the serene days before the Depression.” It’s now part of the Suburban Westville Historic District, not the first such recognition within the neighborhood. (The village portion earned a National Register of Historic Places designation in 2003, and the Yale Bowl earned one in 1987.)

As late as the 1870s, this part of Westville was, according to Townshend, “a vast stretch of woods and fields separated from New Haven by the [West] river.” Nevertheless, the character of this independent suburb was already changing. The Fair Haven and Westville Railroad Company had completed construction of its horse-drawn trolley tracks in 1861, connecting the neighborhood with downtown New Haven and beyond. In 1873, a bridge built across the river opened another route to downtown via Edgewood Avenue. In the last quarter of the 19th century, a “streetcar suburb” began to spread out from the village center, and horses were replaced with electric trolleys in the 1890s.

It was then that Westville “practically exploded,” writes the New Haven Preservation Trust on its website. “Many of the district’s early twentieth-century residents would be the officers, owners, and employees of the downtown businesses and companies, seeking refuge from the blighting effects of rapid urban growth.” But Westvillians weren’t particularly eager to throw in their lot with the city of New Haven. They didn’t become full-fledged city residents until “well along in the 20th century,” according to historian Rollin G. Osterweis.

In 1913, ground was broken for the Yale Bowl, which would soon be marked by grassy outer walls, recessed portals and the status of being the world’s largest stadium at the time. It was joined for a while by the Connecticut Tennis Center, which is about to become the Westville Music Bowl, slated to open in 2021. Hidden in the southwest corner of the neighborhood is the Yale Golf Course, built on 700 acres that were once part of another estate, this one belonging to the Greist family, owners of the Greist Manufacturing Company in the village.

The far reaches of Westville—west of Forest Road and south of Fountain Street—remained mostly undeveloped, however, until the mid-20th century. Townshend cites an 1891 book by James D. Dana, The Four Rocks with Walks and Drives About New Haven, in which the author describes driving west on Fountain Street: “‘The first rise in the road is to the top of the West River terrace… a little over a mile from Westville the ascent of the ‘long hill’ or the Woodbridge Heights commences… the summit of the ‘long hill’ is reached on passing the Clinton cottage,’ from which was afforded a fine view in the old days.” That “long hill” is memorialized in the name of Long Hill Terrace.

The neighborhood’s final development push—at least, as far as available land goes—occurred from the 1930s to the 1950s. This mid-century build included the conch shell design of streets centered on Brooklawn Circle (apparently named for a brook that can still be found on the Yale Golf Course) and a long, skinny development squeezed between Hopkins School and the fairways.

Today, with a total population of about 8,548, according to a 2015 Data Haven report, the neighborhood promises “amenities galore”: “community activities, the Mitchell Branch Library, nature trails, restaurants, boutiques, and more!” as the Westville Village Renaissance Association website notes. On both sides of “the hill,” neighbors extol its virtues. It’s a family place, “quiet,” says one 10-year resident overseeing a fun and decidedly not quiet water balloon war among neighborhood kids on his Judwin Avenue front lawn one hot summer day. Over at the Mitchell Library, where she’s just finished tending the gardens, 32-year resident Kate Bradley says Westville “has [a] very identifiable sense of community that is almost palpable… People know each other, we support each other in our different efforts.”

Like any urban neighborhood, Westville also has its complaints, including limited parking, gaps in public transportation, absentee landlords, vacant properties and new development pressures. Nevertheless, its remaining open spaces—the park, the playing fields, the Hopkins campus, even the library’s sloping, shaded lawn—give neighbors a chance to feel as if the city is at a distance.

In front of the library, in one of its gardens, water in a birdbath made by a local resident bubbles soothingly under the power of a solar panel. Buried nearby, Bradley says, is a time capsule from 1976. She notes she’ll be gone by the time it’s supposed to be opened, in 2076. But it’s easy to imagine that this neighborhood, with such a clear sense of self, will still recognize itself 56 years from today.

Photo Key:

1. A residential neighborhood peeks over the edge of the Yale Bowl.
2. Water fight!
3. Flowers and water in Edgewood Park.
4. Thompson Hall at Hopkins School.
5. Kate Bradley watering plants on the grounds of the Mitchell Library.
6. The former Greist Manufacturing Company factory at 446 Blake Street.
7. A view of downtown New Haven from Hopkins.
8. Yale celebrates a touchdown against Lehigh in 2014.
9. Browsing some vendors during Artwalk in 2014.
10. The results of live graffiti by REO of HI Crew during City-Wide Open Studios’s Westville Weekend in 2017.

Westville, New Haven
west of downtown, south of West Rock, north of West Haven (map)

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 3-4 and 6-10 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2 and 5 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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