Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven

On the Sides

They’re fixing some of New Haven’s sidewalks. Finally. This has been an initiative of the Board of Aldermen and other city administrators for some time: to find a way to afford and implement long-needed repairs on walkways in numerous New Haven neighborhoods.

We have brand-new schools all over town, but the walkways around them can be cracked and rubbled. When you roll a cart to some downtown markets, the bumps and thuds may cost you a cracked egg or a fizzed-up soda. City sidewalks can be a tough place to teach a kid to ride a bicycle.

But the alders are walking the walk. We now stride forward, without tripping. Many neighborhoods have had their sidewalks repaved, with more to come.

The board passed an ordinance nearly a year ago which, in the words of the New Haven Register, aimed “to ensure a fair and transparent system to allocate city funds for sidewalk repairs, street-paving, tree-trimming and stump removal.”

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CitySeed Downtown Farmers' Market on the New Haven Green

The “transparent” part of that statement is not about the sidewalks—you can’t see through them, like in a science fiction film. Transparency is about ensuring the “fairness” part, which has to do with folks in some parts of town thinking the sidewalks were prettier on the other side. People care about their sidewalks.

The effects of that ordinance, and of the city’s attention to sidewalk maintenance without even being prodded, can be noticed throughout town. In some places, like behind the Stop & Shop on Whalley, the new smoothness is a godsend. No more jumpy carts!

On the other hand, there are areas of the city where you’d swear the sidewalks never get used. But that’s the rush-hour perspective. The long stretch of sidewalk along Whitney Avenue into Hamden may seem untrammeled. But get up early some morning and count the joggers and dog-walkers. These walks may not get the wear and tear of downtown’s, but they are essential to the character of their neighborhoods.

What would Grand Avenue be like if all those small businesses—bakeries, convenience stores, clothing stores, furniture stores—existed in plazas instead of having sidewalks? There’s no friendlier walk in town than Grand Avenue on a balmy spring day, with all those neighbors exchanging pleasantries outside their shops.

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Windows into Heaven at Knights of Columbus Museum

According to the city website, “There are about 370 miles of sidewalk in the City of New Haven. … Replacing sidewalks is very expensive—approximately $120 per linear foot including curbs and driveway aprons, or about $80 per linear foot just for sidewalks.” The city is not legally obligated to fix privately owned sidewalks, meaning the vast majority of all the walkways in town. But it does anyhow. It’s expected. Someone’s got to have the standards, and the tools, and the wherewithal.

For a city laid out 375 years ago on a then-revolutionary urban-planning grid pattern, New Haven hasn’t always been clear about how wide or how sturdy or how thickly curbed or well populated those streets should be. Dirt roads became trolley tracks, then asphalt or various grades of cement.

In a downtown now defined as much by its one-way streets as by its centuries-old crisscross patterns, pedestrians experience a peace of mind not granted to motorists. They don’t need to worry about circling the block if they miss a one-way turn off of George Street.

In preparing for the grand-scale reworking of the Route 34 connector, which has been ballyhooed as a reconnection of two areas of town extremely close to each other but separated for decades by an imposing stretch of highway, sidewalks have been a big part of the discussion.

Sidewalks will feature heavily in New Haven over the next few weeks, as the International Festival of Arts & Ideas conducts its walking tours and folks amble over to the Green for concerts. In August, Creative Arts Workshop takes its regular summer vacation, but keeps its gallery space “open” by virtue of a monthlong installation which art lovers can view from the sidewalk outside the gallery.

Sidewalk walkers have a special vantage point. They can see where they’re going. They can also stop and look down. Much was made of a spate of positivist sidewalk graffiti a few months ago, stenciled and spray-painted mottoes such as “Wake Up Laughing,” “Climb All Obstacles” and “The Past is Over.” It was the work of the mysterious muralist Believe in People, who is now rumored to have moved on to other cities.

Other lamps unto your feet: the Ninth Square “Path of Stars” spotlighting local (relatively) unsung heroes and the markers along the statewide Connecticut Freedom Trail, such as the tribute to crusading African-American lawyer Constance Baker Motley which is embedded in the sidewalk at the corner of Edgewood and Day streets outside the Amistad school.

You can look down, and you can also ground yourself on the sidewalk and gander skyward. Last Saturday night, on the sidewalk at the corner of Broadway and York Streets, members of the Sidewalk Astronomers of New Haven, a maverick group of stargazers, set up an impressive and expensive telescope array (pictured above) outside the recently closed Au Bon Pain and invited passersby to peep through its lens. The group frequently holds such impromptu gatherings on street corners when skies are clear. It’s the ultimate expression of what a sidewalk is about. You’re in the city. You’re outdoors. Others are about, also heading interesting places or looking for things to do. And the sky’s the limit.

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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