Open Space

R ailings along the seawall could use a new coat of paint. Dusty grass-encroached paths would benefit from a few dedicated spades and an infusion of gravel. Wooden benches with metal hardware rusting like the hulls of passing barges merit some TLC. A gap in the sizable brown stones lining part of the shoreline, meant to keep high tides from lapping away at terra firma, is allowing some noticeable erosion.

But all in all, Quinnipiac River Park, one of New Haven’s most underrated parks, is doing just fine. The half-mile expanse of pale green grass along the western shore of the river, dotted sparsely with trees, turned 25 barely two weeks ago. It was June 4, 1989, when, according to an old report in the New Haven Register, the park was welcomed to Fair Haven with a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by outgoing mayor Biagio DiLieto, replete with a “parade of boats at noon and live music all day.” The four-year project involved building up the seawall; replacing acres’ worth of soil, which had become contaminated during the site’s previous life as a dumpsite; and, of course, doing the basic things that make parks pretty and enjoyable, like seeding grass, carving out paths, installing benches and planting trees.

Today, that’s still really the extent of what you’ll find at Quinnipiac River Park. There’s no playground for the kids, no marked courts or fields for the teenagers and no historical plaques or monuments for the adults. There’s only the pure, unadulterated essence of the concept “park,” and it’s this lack of clear direction telling visitors how to occupy themselves that is the secret behind the seductive charm of the place. It’s a blank slate, full of possibilities.

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Prompting this realization was frequent park-goer and lifelong Fair Havener Scott McNulty (pictured third above), who said of the grounds and surrounding neighborhood, “It’s what we make of it.” McNulty was basking in the sun and had gotten some color on his face when I first spied him lying down not far from the water. He likes to “just sit here with the wind, watching people fish, watching families walk by and enjoying the scenery.” He remembers fishing at the northern end of the park before it was a park; he and his friends would perch themselves on the raw steel now covered by a concrete floor and raised railing, casting lines out into the Quinnipiac.

Other Fair Haveners at the park that day also vouched for its tranquility. “I’m just here relaxing,” Lisa Pilato (pictured fourth) said, sitting on a blanket she’d spread out under a tree. She had red highlights in her hair, and gave off a quiet-but-thoughtful vibe. “I like the view and how peaceful it is out here. No one bothers you.” Reposing on a bench hundreds of yards away, Tracy Casiero (pictured fifth), who was full of enough sunshine to rival that of the blazing orb above, said she comes to the park “every day,” adding that she likes to “put a blanket down, chill out and relax,” and that “it seems like it’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of Grand Avenue and Ferry Street and all of that.”

That “world away” effect must have felt even greater for Robert French (pictured sixth), who came to the park all the way from Wallingford to fish. I found him standing next to a couple of poles at the southern railing, giving his torso a tan while waiting for a bite. “I come for the fishing,” he said; he also likes that the park is “really nice and kept up,” and that it’s “a quiet place.”

Several other people were pursuing their own ideas of happiness that day. A fellow on a bench near water’s edge was lost in a book, shoes kicked aside, showing off pink and baby blue socks. A Spanish-speaking mother played with her young daughter on a blanket under a tree. At the northernmost edge, three boisterous women with a couple kids in tow were taking photos of themselves in funny poses, posting them to Facebook. A hulking man patiently walked a small-ish pooch.

That’s right: dogs are allowed. Even for frequently excluded non-humans, Quinnipiac River Park is an open space.

Quinnipiac River Park
Fair Haven along Front Street, near the eastern terminus of Chapel Street (map)

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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