A cat on the stoop, plants in the window, laundry on the line between two colorful buildings. It sounds like a real neighborhood, but this streetscape is made of paint and concrete—a new mural below the I-91 overpass at State Street and Bradley Street, started last month by real residents and friends.

The mural is an attempt not only to brighten the space but also to revive a sense of continuity from one neighborhood to another. “There was a whole street right here, and my grandmother grew up in a house that was here,” says Alex Novak, one of the artists who spearheaded the project. “Then 91 really split those neighborhoods up.”

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The idea for the mural emerged about three years ago when Novak was looking for a project to do with West Haven artist Anika Stewart. At the same time, the Upper State Street neighborhood, led by John Martin of the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op and East Rock alder Abby Roth, had been talking about improving the dreary passage under the highway. A long approval process and the pandemic slowed their efforts, but in May teams of neighbors and friends finally gathered to prime the walls one weekend and fill in swaths of color the next.

Some worked on the big picture, rolling green and red and blue and yellow onto the walls, one color per shift. Others took a more detailed approach. Larry Abbott, visiting all the way from Hawaii to see his daughter, asked if he could paint a mulberry tree beside one building. “Our volunteers are superstars,” Stewart said as she observed his finished component, a work of art right down to its shaded blossoms. The mural project cost $16,000, paid for via neighborhood fundraising matched by a state grant, with an assist from the city and the state Department of Transportation, which installed new LED lights.

This is just one of several projects meant to brighten up dark and intimidating underpasses for pedestrians and drivers alike. A mural on one side of the I-91 overpass in Cedar Hill already welcomes visitors to the neighborhood with a vibrant collage of upraised palms, flowers and starbursts arrayed around a painting of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument atop East Rock. Another mural on Humphrey Street covers both walls under the highway. Here, a fantasy scene turns an ordinary bathtub into a stormy ocean, dives deep into an octopus cave, then spills a deep sea diver into a desert. A giant monarch butterfly transitions the scene into an oversized lawn that gives passersby the feeling they’re lost in tall grass with a giant scorpion. Across the street, multicolored squiggles give way to the giant word LOVE surrounded by names and messages painted by neighbors and members of the Under 91 Project.

With a snaking highway plus railroad overpasses, New Haven has plenty of other opportunities for mural beautification—an idea other neighborhoods have dabbled with, too. “Hopefully, this will happen in more places,” Roth says.

Over the next few weeks, Novak and Stewart will continue to sketch in and paint the details that will bring the fanciful cityscape at State and Bradley to life. “I think after a year at home, people are really into it,” Novak said as the green paint shift ended and the red, brown and brick-colored shift prepared to take over. “It looks a lot better already.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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