As the International Festival of Arts & Ideas brings corners of the globe to New Haven, it also brings New Haveners to different corners of the city—sometimes through whirlwind excursions. The whirlwindiest of these are IFAI’s three-hour bike tours, organized around purposes like getting to know New Haven’s past and present, and enjoying the simple pleasures of sightseeing.

The “New Haven Parks” tour last Wednesday engaged all three. Co-organized by Elm City Cycling, which puts on rides year-round, our intrepid leaders were Laura Burrone and Paul Proulx—founders of the riding group Outspokin’, which brings local cyclers together for rides often inspired by a food goal, like ice cream or hot chocolate. Behind our two guides, the unified power of our 20-odd bikes became a respected force of traffic as we cycled through a mix of New Haven’s better and lesser-known parks.

First stop? Edgewood Park, a popular spot that still manages to retain some surprises. For example, it was designed in 1910 by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.—son of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park and considered by many to be “the father of American landscape architecture.” Today there are basketball courts, wooded trails, tennis courts, a duck pond, soccer fields and a skate park decorated with big splashes of commissioned graffiti.

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Machine de Cirque at Arts & Ideas, June 23-27

At Beaver Pond Park, our next stop, I learned that it’s waterfowl, deer and woodchucks—but sadly, no beavers—making splashes. Long ago, according to Burrone and Proulx, there were beavers here, but they were killed off by trappers. Today, the land and its inhabitants—whose entrance is at the corner of Crescent and Fournier Streets, just down the road from Southern Connecticut State University, kept prim with the help of volunteer gardeners—are much better cared-for.

From there we took the scenic Farmington Canal Trail to a much smaller park—the smallest in New Haven, according to Burrone and Proulx, coming in at about 1,200 square feet. A triangle made by State, Mechanic and Lawrence Streets, opposite the Mexican restaurant Mezcal, it’s a mixed bag. Hemmed in by an elegant wrought-iron fence, an etched stone and an American flag billowing atop a pole honor local WWII veterans. “Your service and sacrifice will never be forgotten,” the stone reads. But that’s at odds with the park’s scraggly, patchy grass and, in the middle, an unsightly pit the size of a huge pothole.

Next up was Quinnipiac River Park, to which time has been a better friend. A half-mile long and a couple hundred feet wide, it has lots of grass for picnicking, yet it was once the last place you’d want to settle in for a meal. Before its reclamation, completed in 1989, it was a scrap yard, contaminating the ground badly enough that the city had to replace acres’ worth of soil. Now it’s a great place to sit quietly and contemplate, taking in a view of the Grand Avenue Bridge upstream or the leafy edge of Fair Haven Heights across the water.

Riding the southward curve of the Quinnipiac until it met the Mill River, the tour came to Criscuolo Park, on the site of the camp where the 29th Colored Regiment mustered to join the Civil War. 152 years later, with the Q Bridge construction project looming in the distance, the park is a favorite mustering spot for youth, boasting soccer nets, basketball courts, two baseball diamonds (one much spiffier than the other) and bright lights on tall poles for night games.

As we left Criscuolo, the smells of resident food trucks were in the air, soon to be replaced by the aromas of pizza near Wooster Square Park. According to the Historic Wooster Square Association, the grounds once hosted ploughing contests, where competitors were judged by the straightness and neatness of their furrows. In 1825, the field was converted to a park and named after the revolutionary war general David Wooster, gaining prominence between 1830 and 1870. In the mid-1980s, after the area had fallen into neglect and disrepair, a crew of locals led by recently deceased Beverly Carbonella, nicknamed the “Queen of Wooster Square,” founded the HWSA to resuscitate the neighborhood and its central gathering spot. Each April, much of the city gathers there for Wooster Square Cherry Blossom Festival, something Carbonella also had a hand in establishing.

Having come nearly full-circle in geographic terms, we cycled back into downtown, convening at Ashley’s on York for a post-ride ice cream social. Biking builds an appetite, but be warned: the appetite you build might not just be for food but for more group cycling.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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