Middle of the Food Chain

Middle of the Food Chain

When I visited Long Wharf’s New Haven Food Terminal, it was sweltering. The air shimmied, and even the seagulls who’d flown over from the harbor seemed dispirited and limp as they waddled between parked cars and semi trucks.

But some of the plaza’s denizens were beating the heat, despite their getups. Meatpackers in fleece and long pants took a break in front of refrigerated warehouses, while others dressed like surgeons strolled about.

At the food terminal, opposites attract. Hot and cold. Retail and wholesale. Old country and new. Work and play. The plaza, whose businesses rest almost exclusively above a raised concrete loading lip, extends in a huge broken U-shape lined with warehouses, delis, a restaurant, a theater and—at the back, beyond a gravel lot and a guard rail—a nightclub.

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Browsing might mean having to step out of the way of small forklifts hauling wooden pallets of onions and peppers. Many of the establishments are Italian, selling canned tomatoes, frozen gnocchi pasta and enough olive oil to fill the Sound. Some warehouses have small storefronts, seeming afterthoughts, where imported goods like amaretti cookies and coffee line raw industrial shelves.

At the Hummel Bros. Deli, near a larger Hummel meatpacking facility, office workers formed a long queue for their noontime sandwiches and soups. Later, on a different day, long white Whole Foods trailers lined up outside Lamberti’s Sausage, while pallets of fibrous goods were stacked outside Advance Paper Company. After hours (and also during them, for Wednesday matinees), Long Wharf Theatre and the Terminal 110 dance club attract crowds for different flavors of fun, while Brazi’s Italian Restaurant cooks up dinner for theatergoers and other patrons.

Completed in 1964, the complex was built primarily to be the new iteration of the wholesale food market that had bustled near New Haven’s Union Station since the late 19th century. As early as the 1910s, and especially during New Haven’s mid-century urban redevelopment period, many considered the market a stone in the city’s shoe, occupying valuable property that could, in their eyes, be put to better use.

Mayor Richard C. Lee, who presided over its redevelopment, offered harsh words in its memory. “The old market was a tangle of stress, often so congested that normal business was impossible,” he said in a 1965 speech. “Most business was conducted from the tailgates of trucks. This was a truck market in every sense of the word, with little tax return to the city and few permanent jobs. The buildings that were used were obsolete and inefficient, relics of a bygone age.” Once cleared, the space was turned into a sprawling affordable housing project, after a plan to build luxury apartments fell through.

According to a Connecticut Historical Commission file, the decision to build a new market at the Long Wharf location was made much earlier, in 1949, though the plan was only finalized in 1958. Once marshy wetlands, the city, along with federal help, used landfill dredged from the harbor to create a solid surface for the area’s retail and office parks, plus I-95.

Designed by architecture firm Granbery, Cash and Associates, whose other works around the city include the Zion Lutheran Church on Davenport Street and the Crown Street Parking Garage, the terminal’s construction was funded by a group of local produce dealers, attracted by the proximity to a railroad freight depot. It was a quick success, soon processing 90% of the produce destined for the region’s independent stores and restaurants according to the CHC.

Things have changed since then, says Sal Manna, a warehouse manager at Carbonella & DeSarbo, a produce wholesaler in the terminal. “It used to be so busy,” he says, looking out over the half-filled parking lot at noon. “It used to be full of cars.”

That might be because, although the city’s restaurant scene is as strong as ever, there aren’t as many independent grocery stores to sell to anymore, and food distribution as an industry has become more conglomerated on one end and more direct and localized—embodied by the farm-to-table movement—on the other. The terminal also faced a more acute challenge in 2015, when a large set of shares in its holding company went to auction, throwing the joint venture’s future into doubt. According to a New Haven Register article published April 16, 2015, the city was floating potential development of the site into two large apartment complexes, suggesting history could soon repeat itself, with the plaza being displaced in favor of housing.

If that ever happens, the market may have to endure another reinvention, perhaps even farther from the stomach of the city it still helps to feed.

New Haven Food Terminal
200-400 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photos 1, 3-7 and 9-10 by Dan Mims. Photos 2 and 8 by Anne Ewbank.

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