Hot Spots

Hot Spots

Last Saturday afternoon, the thermometer hovered in the high 80s, and despite a cooling breeze off the Long Island Sound, the sidewalks of downtown New Haven radiated heat. Braving it were dozens of diners, shoppers and listeners out and about on the second of three Summer Saturdays hosted by a collaboration of the city and numerous downtown organizations.

In Pitkin Plaza behind Elm City Market, two members of the Caribbean Vibe Steel Drum Band played to a rotating crowd of about 25 shade-seekers. The bright notes of the steel pan accompanied by whistle, shakers and drums bounced off the brick sides of the plaza and danced onto Orange and Chapel Streets.

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Ives Squared at the New Haven Free Public Library

Meanwhile, up on the corner of Chapel and College Streets, guitarist and Neighborhood Music School teacher Cliff Schloss was grabbing a lunch break between his sets. A number of friends and acquaintances had been by, he said, “lots of bikers stopping, listening for a little bit…” Schloss participated in the Arts on Call portion of this year’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas and had been slated to back up several performers at the festival, which is a cosponsor of Summer Saturdays. Saturday’s gig seemed to give him a lift. “I’ve actually been surprised how many people are willing to come out and listen,” he said. “I think it’s ’cause… there’s such a hunger for seeing live stuff… It feels really nice just being out here and playing.”

After listening to Schloss, I stepped into the shade of Claire’s Corner Copia (closed for renovation) to place an online lunch order at Soul de Cuba Cafe, also participating in Summer Saturdays with 20% off some items. While I waited to pick up my food, I wandered down College Street and around the corner to Crown. Traffic on College was narrowed to one lane, allowing room for distance among restaurant patrons. Down at Pacifico, a lone saxophonist was soulfully playing jazz from a shady stoop, as the restaurant was doing a decent lunchtime business. On Crown, where buildings and a few trees provided more shade, diners at Jack’s Bar and Steakhouse and BAR enjoyed sidewalk tables, while brand new decks (with scraps of lumber still visible) built over the parking lot behind South Bay and Midpoint Istanbul boasted umbrella-shaded tables and several patrons each. Pacifico and South Bay are among the restaurants offering a special $20 two-course prix fixe Summer Saturdays menu (not including beverage, tax and tip). Just up the street, Geronimo was booming.

Across the street from Soul de Cuba, I chatted awhile with college friends Emily Orkins and Emma Czaplinksi, who were meeting up for the first time in a long time. They’d decided this was the perfect day to “grab some classic New Haven pizza” at BAR and spend the afternoon together. I found them eating ice cream waffle cones outside Milkcraft.

Orkins, originally from East Haven and now living in Virginia, had self-quarantined and taken a COVID test before coming up to spend the summer with her family. “Even though we’re out and about, we’re doing things in a very responsible way,” she said, adding that people need to attend to their mental health as well as their physical health.

“Being able to do these things again is awesome,” Czaplinski agreed, “but as long as we continue to take the necessary precautions.” She felt people were being “pretty respectful” about keeping their distance on the sidewalk.

Lunch in hand, I wandered back toward the Crown Street Garage, where I’d parked for a promotional $3, and ducked through the passageway to Temple Plaza. There, a shady table provided the perfect relaxing lunch spot to enjoy my Cuban appetizers and an essential cup of iced tea. While I feasted, a downtown ambassador named Irvin stopped by to say hello and alert me to a summer film series, Movies in the Plaza, held at sundown every Wednesday back at Pitkin Plaza on Orange Street. He figured the heat was keeping a lot of people indoors on an otherwise beautiful Saturday. Just two other small groups were lingering on the artificial turf. After saying goodbye, Irvin picked up some trash left behind by previous visitors, then headed off on his rounds.

Belly full and mask-free face cooled, I picked up my car and made a quick stop at the Broadway stretch of The Shops at Yale—another cosponsor—on the way home. Pedestrian traffic was scarce, except at the Apple store, where a crowd waited in line and security officers checked temperatures. About half of the tables on the Broadway island were occupied. I opted for a browse at Grey Matter Books, one of 18 merchants offering 20% off deals for Summer Saturdays. A stack of cardboard boxes holding a pump bottle of mandatory hand sanitizer met me inside the door, and shoppers managed to keep a distance among the tight shelves.

The final Summer Saturday is happening on July 25 from noon to 4 p.m., with live local music at six locations between noon and 3. It’s a great way to get people offline and on the streets, but there was a tentative feel to it all, like stepping back from a stranger who’s a little too close. We might need to learn how to have fun again. Orkins observed this may be the first time that a lot of people used to having “so many things at our fingertips that are within our control” are now powerless. “This is really hugely out of our control.”

Most of those who were out on Saturday, especially at the restaurants, were under 50 and maybe even 40. The number of people I saw wasn’t bad considering the heat and the pandemic. On the other hand, New Haveners weren’t exactly dancing in the streets.

The good news is that, in the afternoon at least, nothing is crowded. This may be just the time to try that restaurant you’ve always meant to visit.

Summer Saturdays
Last one: July 25, noon-4pm, downtown New Haven

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features members of Caribbean Vibe Steel Drum Band. Image 2 features Emily Orkins and Emma Czaplinksi. Image 3 features Cliff Schloss.

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