Play Rooms

Play Rooms

For our vacation this week, we’re traveling back to some favorite recent stories, including this exploration of a rare and strange place.

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Hearing about 91 Shelton Avenue, a.k.a. the New Haven Business Center, is an early rite of passage among the city’s independent musicians. For years, the hulking ex-factory has quietly offered local bands something they can’t find anywhere else: an affordable, flexible place to be loud.

My own band rehearses in one of the practice spaces there. It’s a haven, but it’s no paradise. The building’s dim, paint-peeled, rust-pocked environment—which you can vicariously explore in this dreamy music video from The Tines—seems, as one bandmate says, like liminal space, neither here nor there. Walking in the dark stairwell, I sometimes feel on the edge of disappearing, that the building would swallow me if it could. After rehearsals, we often stand listening in the dark of the parking lot, looking up, wondering who’s playing and trying to trace the sounds.

Back inside, a freight elevator is out of order, its doors indefinitely open. The hallways are long and lined with uncurated art. City Climb Gym is tucked away at the end of the ground floor, and the second to fourth floors seem to house just a handful of tenants: a medical imaging company, a media studio, an artist whose work, rumor has it, has made it into the Met. Pink fiberglass insulation peaks through holes in the walls. Some rooms are padlocked, and a strange smell grows stronger while ascending. Vestigial yellow signs declare “Safety Glasses Required” on nearly every door.

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The building’s fifth and final floor is home to most of the practice spaces. Band stickers dot the walls. Large murals color the halls. A wooden sign hung from a bent strip of metal asks, “Do You Believe in Rock-n-RoLL?” In room 537, alternative rock band A Pallet for the Shoal rehearse. They share the space with fellow acts Big Sigh, Mightmoonchew, VVEBS and Cabins, East!, but tonight it’s theirs. We first meet them down in the parking lot, one of the place’s many “random driveway interactions,” band member Lucas Hibbard later notes. The lot, it seems, is 91 Shelton’s crossroads, where tenants most frequently run into each other.

A Pallet for the Shoal discovered 91 Shelton from a friend after RVP Studios in West Haven shuttered. “It’s the only space we know of in the surrounding area,” Hibbard says. A long lineage of New Haven bands have practiced there, adding improvements along the way, from basic shelving to a wood-paneled sound booth. The walls are painted deep blue and gray, a string of red, white and green lights rising and falling at the edge of the room.

At the hallway’s opposite end, the garage rock band The 509ers are the building’s longest musician tenants. Named after their first practice room here, they found the complex through Craigslist 12 years ago. Having since moved around the fifth floor, their current space is decorated with photos, white string lights and a painting of two majestic horses in a wooden frame, a green laser light dancing around walls covered with acoustic foams and fabrics.

The 509ers are part of a Facebook group for 5th-floor tenants, which began as a way to alert each other about whether or not the elevator was functioning. “It makes gigging hard. I’m 55 and can’t carry equipment up five flights of stairs,” one band member says.

In spite of complaints, many tenants seem worried about the building’s future and their place within it. “I’m thinking we’ve got a year or two left here,” 509er John Zuccardy says, gesturing toward new rising townhouse apartments on nearby Henry Street. The sentiment is echoed by A Pallet for the Shoal’s Hibbard while commenting on the area’s recent development boom. He wouldn’t be surprised, he says, if the building was soon noticed by “people who want to ‘improve’ it.”

For now, at least, the music plays on at 91 Shelton Avenue, thanks to both the people and, for all its flaws and features, the place.

Written by Lindsay Skedgell. Image 1, of 91 Shelton Avenue, photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2-6 photographed by Lindsay Skedgell. Image 2 features Lucas Hibbard practicing with A Pallet for the Shoal. Image 4 features 509ers. Image 6 features 509er John Zuccardy. This story was originally published on March 24, 2023.

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