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Chapel Street is New Haven’s longest single route, according to Doris B. Townshend’s The Streets of New Haven. But its western downtown end has a character all its own thanks to the twists and turns of history. Unlike some city neighborhoods with a more homogeneous character and use, West Chapel Street, as this stretch was once called, has been home to the city’s wealthiest and poorest residents, to sprawling mansions and tiny apartments, to retail businesses, restaurants, hotels, churches, schools, hospitals and more.

Chapel West is the official name of the portion of Chapel that runs west from York, at the Yale School of Architecture, to Sherman Avenue and the Saint Raphael campus of Yale New Haven Hospital. It’s one of the city’s five “special services districts,” a designation it earned in 1986. Though the neighborhood’s boundaries may be somewhat fluid as far as residents are concerned, the special services district is clearly if irregularly drawn, including jagged bits of Crown Street and Edgewood Avenue as well as both full and partial blocks along Chapel itself.

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Under state statute, residents and business owners in a proposed special services district vote in a referendum on whether they want the district. A yes vote compels everyone in the district to pay supplemental taxes for what Chapel West business manager Brian McGrath calls “micro services” that go beyond the “macro operation” of the city. In Chapel West, these include its own street cleaning and trash removal crews, security cameras, tree planting, extra streetlights and “Belgian blocks” around streetside trees. McGrath and Chapel West president Vincent Romei are paid to work part-time managing the district’s projects and problems. Having the special services district makes the neighborhood “more personal,” McGrath says. “We know each property owner, we know every inch of the street.”

The history of Chapel West goes back to 18th-century New Haven, when the street was named for the Yale College chapel at what is now College and Chapel Streets, Townshend writes. In 1840, when it first appeared in the city directory, the street was known as Sherman Avenue from York Street westward and only later became West Chapel Street. Today’s separate north/south Sherman Avenue is the western edge of the special services district; just past Sherman, Chapel Street splits at Monitor Square, its southern fork becoming the old “road to Derby,” now Derby Avenue.

By the second half of the 19th century, the neighborhood was well-developed, though it retained some rural reminders that may be hard to imagine today. According to the Arnold Guyot Dana scrapbooks at New Haven Museum, in a 1943 recollection, New Havener Anna A. Cutler wrote of a family that had lived on the southeast corner of West Chapel and Park Street. “All the William Daggett family lived in that red brick house, and the cows were kept in the grounds at the back which must have extended well down to Crown St. … I remember being often sent diagonally across the street to purchase milk.”

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At the same time, the neighborhood was gaining a reputation as an “Old Quality Area,” as one historic map labels it, a past still visible to the keen observer today. A survey of the owners of Chapel West’s grand 19th-century homes is a veritable who’s who of New Haven, including judges, a mayor, a governor (Rollin C. Woodruff), Yale professors and influential businessmen. Among them were attorney Burton Mallory, whose estate in 1892 became Grace Hospital, described in Dana’s scrapbooks by one uncited newspaper as “the only homeopathic institution of its kind in the state” and “a model in its construction and appointments”; and E. Henry Barnes, owner of a pork-packing business, whose house became the original home of St. Raphael’s Hospital, founded in 1907.

Well into the 20th century, Chapel Street and its neighboring blocks were the place to be. Former New Havener Susan Ward, now of Branford, recalls the marathon of bargain-hunting with her mother at the downtown department and dime stores and the thrill of having lunch or tea at House of Hasselbach, a “silk-stocking tea room and candy shop.” In his childhood, McGrath recalls, “We couldn’t walk down the sidewalk on Church Street—I’m not kidding. They would knock us off the curb into the street, the older people shopping like crazy everywhere on a Saturday…”

But by the 1970s and early ’80s, in the wake of the razing of—by McGrath’s count—about 12,000 housing units in the name of federally funded urban renewal, as well as Vietnam War-era protests and racial unrest, New Haven’s downtown and Chapel West in particular had fallen on harder times. McGrath, a 40-year city employee who retired in 2006, recalls the neighborhood as an area of “filth, prostitution and rampant crime… It just became really a battle zone. It was really bad.”

Ward, at that time a new graduate of Connecticut College, rented her first apartment on Crown Street above what is now Geronimo’s restaurant for $110 a month in 1973. She later worked at Yale’s alumni magazine in Chapel West for seven years. The neighborhood “never struck me as dangerous,” she says, though she eventually moved out after becoming the victim of a random violent crime. Another time, when she was working downtown, a drunk man on the street tried to enter her car while she sat at a red light. Still, alongside Chapel West’s struggles, Ward recalls a vibrant music scene and a “flowering of creativity.” “The light poles and telephone poles were plastered with posters all the time because there were all these concerts going on,” she remembers.

Through the same era, some of Chapel West’s most iconic businesses managed to survive and thrive, including the legendary diner Gag Jr.’s (although it’s now Dunkin’ Donuts), Hull’s Hobby & Hardware Store (now Hull’s Art Supply, relocated up the block) and Group W Bench, a jam-packed retail shrine to the Summer of Love. Neighborhood notables of that time are recognized on street signs, including Gary Gagliardi (Gag, Jr. himself); Evelyn Schatz, the first executive director and business manager of the Chapel West district; and activist Elsie Cofield, who founded New Haven’s AIDS Interfaith Network.

Today Chapel West is home to vibrant restaurants, bars and cafes, especially toward the downtown end—Book Trader, House of Naan, Miya’s, Rudy’s—as well as the New Haven YMCA Youth Center, numerous smaller nonprofits, shops, the hospital, a couple of hotels, several churches, Yale University buildings, two fraternity houses, private residences and this very publication. Flowers pack sidewalk planters. Banners delineate the area and celebrate New Haven’s most notable hometowners. The special services district’s folksy newsletters are full of photographs from parties and cookouts, first name shout-outs and good wishes for neighbors and praise for local police, businesses and politicians.

Still, McGrath sees plenty of room for improvement. He’s eager for a revision of the city’s “archaic” zoning laws, which date back to 1928. He believes they’re holding back growth that could be good for New Haven’s larger economy. A salty, seen-it-all veteran of New Haven bureaucracy, McGrath isn’t the first person you might describe as optimistic. Yet he offers up a vision for Chapel West that expands upon its present, digging deeper into “education, entertainment, food… We are not the destination we’re going to be in the future.”

Chapel West Special Services District
York St to Sherman Ave along Chapel St, New Haven
(203) 787-3000 | chapeldistrict@aol.com

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-2, 4-9 and 12-18 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 3 photographed by Sorrel Westbrook. Image 10 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 11 photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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