There’s no question that these are all good things, but with all of this redevelopment and all of these “luxury residences” going up across town, it becomes important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that a city without surprises makes for a dull city. In other words, part of the charm of New Haven is that there’s a healthy ecosystem of corporations, academic institutions, locally-owned small businesses, regional chains, and yes, even the big behemoth national chains. A healthy balance of businesses and residences creates an intentional aesthetic nonuniformity which makes a city unique, accessible, charming and, yes, still filled with surprises.
In cities where you’ve got rents that are so high that only huge corporations can afford to shell out the bucks to keep paying the lease, you lose out on this kind of magical urban environment. Think about what Manhattan would look like if it all looked like Midtown, or what Boston would feel like if it was one gigantic Newbury Street. Walk down any of Manhattan’s Midtown thoroughfares, and it’s Starbucks after Starbucks. I’m not bashing Starbucks per se, and I’m certainly not comparing New Haven to New York, but imagine New Haven without Mamoun’s, Toad’s Place, or Cody’s Diner. Back in my day, and I think I can afford to use that term now since I’m over thirty, we had the Tune Inn, Rudy’s (which in its heydey was something of a legend as far as the whole dive bar mystique thing goes), and the York Square Cinema. Each of these places gave New Haven a grimy yet homey sort of character that you just can’t replicate when you gut out an old place and furnish it with subway tiles and edison bulb light fixtures and whatever variation of deer antler rack is suddenly en vogue.
I certainly have no qualm with new places popping up around town and no qualm with some luxury residences plunking themselves down amid the row-houses and multi-families, hell I don’t even mind having a drink now and again at a bar with subway tiles and edison lamps, it’s just that I’ve seen bad--not to mention boring-- things that happen when a city decides to reinvent itself by going all luxe.
I love that part of New Haven’s City-Wide Open Studios is held in an old creaky armory, and I love that places like the Book Trader Cafe are still there and virtually the same. I love walking down Orange Street and seeing the sign for the East Rock Pharmacy and when I drive through Westville, I’m glad to see that most of the stores on Whalley Avenue are still for the most part locally owned. These are the things that give our city character and a sense of history and make it memorable, for people who happen to be just passing through, or for those of us who happen to call these 20.12 square miles home.