Snow in New Haven

Go with the Snow

There’s a new exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art which interprets artist John Constable’s cloud studies and landscape paintings by reducing them to their essential colors and basic geometric shapes.

That exhibit bears striking resemblance to New Haven snowfalls, which turn trees into cones, benches into rectangles, the lumpy slate gray roofs of Yale into smooth blank white canvases.

Of late, we’re lucky here when the snow has a chance to stay on the ground. One of the things those from other climes (even from the same coast, as close as Massachusetts) notice after they move to New Haven is how the snow tends not to stick around. It often turns to rain, or otherwise dissipates and fades away.

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Snow that piles up for a while is a relative rarity in this city, one that we’re told (via the distressingly convincing new Seasons of Change exhibit now at the Yale Peabody Museum, for example) will get rarer and rarer as global warming persists.

In time, memories of massive storms like that of just a couple of winters ago will be dim recollections. Luckily, chronicling natural disasters comes easily to historians, so there are plenty of records of the chilliest, deepest, wildest, longest, wooliest storms. In 1987, Judd Caplovich published Blizzard! The Great Storm of ’88—as in, 1888—chock full of photos, drawings and descriptions of one of the largest snowstorms Connecticut has ever seen. Known as the “Great Blizzard of 1888,” it was extra-cataclysmic because nobody really saw it coming. Caplovich called it “the benchmark by which other violent and severe storms are measured.” Some areas of Connecticut received over four feet of snow. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the storm, which hit on March 11, 1888, lasted for several days, and impacted how the city operated for months.

There was much destruction, and many deaths, from the Great Blizzard. But photos of the storm’s aftermath also show noble and charming attempts to return the community to normal, despite huge walls of snow blocking the residents at every turn. Little pockets of solace were dug out in front of buildings. Advertising signs were carved directly into snowdrifts. Wagons had their wheels removed and were pulled around as if they were sleds or boats.

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So it is to this day, though on a much smaller scale, in New Haven after a sustained if still dainty snowfall such as last weekend’s. The City of New Haven always has a tough job cleaning up snowstorms when local colleges are off on their winter breaks. Students’ cars may have been left parked on city streets and there’s no one to move them when the plows come around. On the more aesthetic side of things, it makes for some interesting inadvertent public sculptures when snow piles up in one place and nothing is done about it for weeks. Certain parking lots start to resemble Stonehenge.

The wondrous, and extremely manageable, winter storm we had on Dec. 29—a longer-lasting version of the more symbolic quickly-turned-to-rain snowfall we experienced on Christmas Eve—was soft and steady and sweet. Despite its fluffiness, it turned out to be good packing snow, and snowmen and igloos sprang up while more snow still fell.

There was also sledding. There are no official “designated sledding areas” in New Haven, but there are few slopes in the city that have not been tested by local children, and generations of Yalies have zipped down snowy hills along Prospect Street or Hillhouse Avenue on their trusty cafeteria serving trays. On Saturday (and still on Sunday, despite a whole lot of shoveling having been done), you could pull a child on a sled straight across town using a network of snowy or icy paths, including the gorgeous white expanse of New Haven Green.

There’s a blissful feeling you get when pulling a sled across the Green—or just sliding down the sidewalks in your boots (we highly recommend the oft-desolate walkways along Sargent Drive, around IKEA and the post office). It hearkens back to simpler times of dashing through the snow in one-horse open sleighs—something New Haveners were particularly adept at, what with all the carriage factories here in the old days.

Snow on the ground is a chance to see New Haven in a new light—at least until that light starts to melt the winter wonderland.

Written by Christopher Arnott.

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