Cultural Heritage Tours

A project of the ETHNIC HERITAGE CENTER

History of the Downtown Neighborhood

City Hall c. 1912. Courtesy Joe Taylor.

Since 1640, the New Haven Green and its surrounding streets have been the center of New Haven’s cultural, religious, and commercial life. This concentration of public functions and spaces in the city’s downtown brought together citizens from diverse cultural backgrounds, despite the obstacles created by racial and religious discrimination. This walking tour will highlight examples of sites that reflect the pre-1970 experiences and contributions of the five cultural groups that are currently members of the Ethnic Heritage Center. Additional downtown tours are listed at the end of this overview New Haven’s first settlers were Puritans from England led by Theophilus Eaton and John Davenport. They established the original nine squares of their planned Christian utopia near settlements of the indigenous Quinnipiac people, who brought deer meat and other wares to the New Haven Green to trade with the colonists. Even after a reservation for the natives was established on the eastern shore of the harbor, the Quinnipiacs and colonists continued meeting in the nine squares for commerce and political negotiation. These interethnic encounters were complex and sometimes exploitative: some Quinnipiacs were converted to Christianity and worshiped in local churches, while others were subjected to punishment by local courts, or even enslavement.

Chapel and State Street, c. 1870s. Courtesy New Haven Museum.

From the early days of New Haven Colony, Blacks were present in the downtown area. Some were free, while others were enslaved to the local white elite. The Wadsworth map of 1748 records the presence of a free African-American farmer named Jethro living in the northeast quadrant of the nine squares. The African Ecclesiastical Society, later to become the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, was organized in 1820 and purchased a church on Temple Street four years later. At the same time, a community of free Blacks established itself on the eastern edge of downtown. New Haven’s William “King” Lanson, a successful builder/contractor, owned a boarding house that was frequented by white and Black clientele.

Many important episodes in the Amistad story took place in downtown’s public buildings between 1839 and 1842, including the African captives’ imprisonment in the City jail. A memorial commemorating the Africans’ struggle for freedom was erected in front of City Hall in 1992. Downtown New Haven contains more than half a dozen sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, established in 1996 to recognize places associated with the abolitionist movement, civil rights movement, and African-Americans’ struggle for freedom and dignity in Connecticut. The Exchange Building is also a site on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. It housed the law office of Roger Sherman Baldwin when he represented the Amistad Africans and worked with John Quincy Adams in preparing their case before the United States Supreme Court, which decided on March 9, 1841 that the African captives were free.

New Haven Parks Commission Float 1956 Parade. courtesy of CT Irish American Historical Society Archives: Collection of Richard Clark and St. Patrick's Day Parade A Local Legacies Project.

The first known Jews in New Haven were the Sephardic Pinto brothers, Jacob and Solomon. The two brothers were prosperous merchants who fought in the Patriot Army during the Revolutionary War. Jacob Pinto’s impressive home, the first brick house in the city, was located near the intersection of State Street and Grand Avenue at the edge of the nine squares. The home owned by Solomon’s son William still stands on Orange Street. The Young Men’s Hebrew Association, which would become the Jewish Community Center, was founded in an office building at 200 Orange Street in 1917. After several downtown moves, the Jewish Community Center built a new facility at 1156 Chapel Street, an expansive modern facility. The present site of the Jewish Community Center is in Woodbridge. The oldest Jewish congregation in the state, Congregation Mishkan Israel, was established in 1843 when Connecticut law permitted non-Christian societies to organize. Since 1840, the congregation had met in private homes in downtown. In 1856 the congregation purchased the Court Street Meeting House of the Third Congregational Church, and remained there until 1897. This continued an established pattern of re-use of religious buildings that was repeated throughout the city’s history as demographics and community needs shifted over time.

Irish immigrants initially arrived in New Haven as mariners and domestic servants, and by the 1820s significant numbers were drawn to the area as laborers for the Farmington Canal and the railroads. Initially settling in the “New Township” or Wooster Square neighborhood, many Irish came in the 1840s as a result of the potato famine. They settled in the Hill neighborhood, an area south of downtown known around 1800 as Sodom Hill and described as a place of poverty and crime, as well as in Fair Haven. The Irish established service businesses in the downtown as well as in the neighborhoods. They built the first Catholic Church in New Haven in 1834 and held New Haven’s first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1842. About 90 members of the Hibernian Provident Society, a mutual aid organization, marched through the downtown streets behind a banner made especially for the occasion. The Knights of Columbus was founded in New Haven in 1882 to serve the city’s Irish Catholic immigrant population. Its first offices were in Irish immigrant and Yale Law School graduate Cornelius Driscoll’s law office at 157 Church Street.

Gamble Desmond (left), Malley’s (right), c.1880s. Courtesy New Haven Museum.

New Haven’s ethnic diversity was perhaps most clearly on display in downtown’s many theaters and department stores. Many of these downtown establishments were owned by immigrant entrepreneurs. The Jewish-owned Shartenberg’s department store, with its elegant Neoclassical six-storey building on Chapel Street, was one of the finest in New Haven. Irish immigrant Edward Malley founded a dry goods store in 1852 that became one of the city’s premier retail outlets until closing in 1982. Italian immigrant Sylvester Poli operated his theater empire, which extended across the entire northeastern United States, from his headquarters in New Haven. His Poli’s Palace and Bijou Movie Theaters on Church Street were among the largest and most beautiful movie theaters in the state. The Russian-Jewish Podoloff brothers completed construction of the New Haven Arena at Orange and Grove Streets in the 1920s. For almost fifty years it hosted sporting events and musical concerts that drew New Haveners of all backgrounds. Other historic New Haven businesses launched by immigrant families included Kebabian’s rug store, Del Monico’s hat store, and Ferrucci Limited men’s clothing on Elm Street. In the 19th century, there were several downtown German restaurants, and in the 20th and 21st centuries additional ethnic groups have brought their food to downtown diners, including Chinese, Greek, Indian and Latino restaurants. A Puerto Rican Day Parade has become an annual downtown event, and there is currently an Ecuadorian Consulate on Church Street.

Malley's, c. 1890s. Courtesy Rita Hughes.

Originally a bastion of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant privilege, Yale University has become a place for high-achieving students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. The world-renowned Ivy League university was founded in 1701 and moved to downtown New Haven from Saybrook, Connecticut in 1717. German-Jewish immigrant Sigmund Waterman was the first Jew to graduate from Yale in the 1840s. Native New Havener Edward Bouchet was an early African American graduate of Yale and the first African American to earn a PhD in the United States. Unfortunately, discrimination against Jews, Blacks and other ethnic groups persisted well into the 20th century. In 2016 Yale named one of its new residential colleges after African-American civil rights activist Pauli Murray, making it the first Yale residential college to be named after a person of color.

Since its earliest days New Haven’s downtown core has been the place where members of different religious and ethnic groups would come together in the practice of politics, commerce, recreation, and every other facet of life and death. People of varied backgrounds conducted business together in local markets and commercial establishments, engaged each other in political debate at City Hall, fought each other in legal disputes at the courthouse, encountered each other at public libraries and restaurants, and were even buried beneath the New Haven Green (New Haven’s first and only cemetery until the Grove Street Cemetery was established in 1796). More than any other part of the city, downtown expresses the complex and multi-layered ethnic history of the city.

In addition to providing religious, social and cultural support programs for themselves, members of these ethnic groups have participated actively in the civic and political life of the community. They have served as elected officials to the Board of Education, Board of Aldermen, and even as mayor. They have supported community-wide educational, cultural, health care, and charitable institutions. As new cultural groups join our community, they continue this history of contributing to the enrichment of New Haven.

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