On the Edge

On the Edge

Cycling south from the top of Yale Avenue takes advantage of one of the better designated bike routes in New Haven. You’ve got Edgewood’s woods at your shoulder, followed by the monumental concrete structures of the Yale Bowl and the Westville Music Bowl. From start to finish, you’ve pedaled all the way into West Haven without much resistance.

But then, at the end of Yale Avenue, you come face to face—across four lanes of Route 34, still doing its best to be an expressway—with a red iron gate and a “Do Not Enter” sign. Beyond is an unpromising lot shaped in part by the turn radii of dump trucks, maybe with a levee of mulch lining one end and piles of wood and slag at the other.

If you’re new and unsuspecting, you turn east or west or around. But if you press for a walk signal and roll through the pedestrian gap beside the gate, you’ll enter what is actually the widened mouth of an unmarked road named Marginal Drive.

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Marginal Drive used to hide well even on a Google map, looking like nothing more than the border of adjacent West River Memorial Park. But search for a bicycle route from Westville to the West Haven shore and Marginal Drive might light up like invisible ink in a Hardy Boys mystery, a secret, bike-friendly passage between Westville and West Haven’s Allingtown neighborhood. The map also shows how closely married Marginal Drive is to the West River. They meander together.

I expected to see the river on my left when I first cycled in, but the intervening strip of land is dense with trees and underbrush. There are dubious breaks, partial views that hint at wide open space, a couple crude paths to the water’s edge but none wide enough to tote a boat through. Much of the ride’s visible water is, in fact, on the right, to the west. In that direction, I first saw the tidy lines of headstones in Saint Lawrence Cemetery. Then emerged a pale, still body of water called Horseshoe Lagoon. There’s a point here where the river and the lagoon are only separated by the drive and a little bit of embankment, and you can see both of them, one flowing, the other waiting.

The peculiar magic of a fully paved road with no cars and no buildings—for three quarters of its length, anyway—is that it doesn’t feel like it counts toward the total length of your trip. I pedaled through it but mentally coasted, lulled by the greenery on both sides. Contributing to that feeling was the neither-here-nor-there-ness of Marginal Drive, its gradual returning to nature, with grass poking through the ruts in the road and one of its light posts being pulled backward and downward by a cloak of vines. It’s inside the West Haven border, but also inside a New Haven park. By being both, it feels like neither.

Understandably, then, it’s become a place where hazards and heartbreaks of human marginalization play out. Tent encampments of the homeless are known to spring up in the woods nearby. As reported in the New Haven Register, the largest of these was broken up by New Haven and West Haven police in 2010, having come to be associated with accumulated misdemeanors both inside and outside its circle. In 2013, the Register reported the accidental and unwitnessed death of a homeless man named Raymond Beauchesne at his campfire on the river side of the road. Being alone is by itself a vulnerability, but being left alone is the expectation of people who come to spend the night along Marginal Drive. I’ve seen plastic-sleeved paper signs, in both English and Spanish, forbidding encampment by order of the West Haven police. I’ve also seen the remnants of one camp—a tiny tent and blankets—within 10 paces of one of the signs.

Still, efforts in the past decade have begun to make Marginal Drive itself less marginal. The Register reported a major trash and debris cleanup effort by West Haven community resource officers and Allingtown volunteers in early summer 2013, and proposals have gone before both city governments to incorporate Marginal Drive into a path system or greenway that would run the entire length of the West River in both cities.

It wasn’t, after all, intended to be a secret—and it still isn’t when you approach it from the south. Between the southern entrance on the Post Road and a gate about 1,500 feet in, it’s a regular access road for Allingtown residents. Before the rest of Marginal was closed to motorized traffic, you could drive directly from the Yale Bowl to the Bowl Drive-In Theater, which once stood directly across from the Post Road entrance.

The original proposal for West River Memorial Park, submitted by esteemed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. in 1926, had included a drive connecting Derby Avenue to what was then an extension of Congress Avenue, plus two parallel paths for strollers and horseback riders. While the paths disappeared in the execution, the drive was maintained as a “main thoroughfare” as late as 1963, when it was first paved by joint effort of both municipalities. The project was proudly reported in the New Haven Parks & Recreation Department’s Annual Report for that year. One of Olmsted’s design principles regarding such thoroughfares was that they should “avoid collision or the apprehension of collision, between different kinds of traffic.”

Now that it’s largely hidden, Marginal Drive is both failing and keeping that promise.

Marginal Drive
Location: Extending southward from Yale Ave past Derby Ave, along the western edge of West River Memorial Park (map)

Written by David Zukowski. Photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story was originally published on September 28, 2018.

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