History of the Dixwell Neighborhood
Postcard of Dixwell and Goffe Streets, Entrance to Lower Dixwell c. 1920s. Courtesy Joe Taylor.
Dixwell remained farmland through the 1820s, as had most areas of New Haven outside the original nine squares. By 1800, the district was intersected by the Litchfield Turnpike (now Whalley Avenue) and Goffe Street, and in the following decade by Dixwell Avenue itself. These three major streets were named for three English judges, Edward Whalley, William Goffe, and John Dixwell, who had signed the death warrant of King Charles I in 1649. New Haveners helped them escape the pursuit of the agents of King Charles II. There is a cave near the top of West Rock where Whalley and Goffe are said to have hidden. A monument erected in 1849 behind Center Church on the New Haven Green marks the grave of Colonel John Dixwell.
Development and settlement continued to grow especially in the triangular area composed of Dixwell, Webster, Sperry and Goffe Streets. Businesses flourished, especially the carriage manufacturing industry, and by the 1850s a small Black population emerged in this part of the Dixwell neighborhood. This community erected an African Methodist Episcopal Church building on Whalley Avenue near Sperry Street in 1851.
Shelton Avenue Trolley shed 1890s. Courtesy Joe Taylor.
The completion of New York’s Erie Canal in 1820 set off a canal-building frenzy across the country. New Haven’s business elite commissioned Benjamin Wright, Chief Engineer of the Erie Canal, to survey a canal that would cut through the Dixwell area north of downtown and connect New Haven Harbor to the Connecticut River at Northampton, Massachusetts. Construction began in 1825 and the Connecticut portion known as the Farmington Canal opened to Farmington in 1828 and to Granby, near the Massachusetts state line in 1830. The chief contractor on the canal basin was William Lanson, the Black builder and entrepreneur who constructed the original Long Wharf. Lanson hired mainly Black and Irish laborers to build the canal’s retaining walls, and was noted for completing the work on time and under budget.
Lyric Theater c. 1925 (one-story building with the vertical sign under the Uneeda Biscuit sign). Courtesy Colin M. Caplan/United Advertising Corp.
The Canal was dug mainly by Irish immigrants working with hand-tools who were paid 40 cents a day. These workers settled in the area, and when the Canal’s financial failure in the 1840s led to its conversion into a railroad line, they provided the labor force for construction of the railroad lines through Connecticut as well as for New Haven’s carriage and gun manufacturing industries.
The early 1870s witnessed a great increase in residential construction, reflecting the growth of industry, especially the appearance of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Admiral, Henry, and Gregory Streets were established at this time, where houses were constructed for factory workers. The rest of the neighborhood’s streets were laid out by 1911.
Dixwell’s population growth expanded dramatically in 1917–18 to meet the needs of the arms industry during World War I, but many of these jobs disappeared after the Armistice. During the 1920s lower Whalley Avenue came to be known as “automobile row” along with automobile dealerships on lower Goffe Street and Dixwell Avenue.
Students in the Dixwell Community House gym. Courtesy of New Haven Museum.
The neighborhood now had the Dixwell Community “Q” House, a valuable activity resource for youth and adults, established in 1924 and located at 98 Dixwell Avenue before moving to its location at 197 Dixwell. The district boasted historic churches such as Dixwell Avenue Congregational and Varick AME Zion, along with the Hannah Gray Home. The East Rock Lodge #141, I.B.P.O.E.of W. was located at 204 Goffe Street from 1938 to the 1960s when they moved to Webster Street. A myriad of businesses lined Dixwell Avenue as well as Goffe, Sperry and Webster Streets. These businesses included Bob’s Quality Market at 507 Dixwell, and the Unique Boutique at 287 Dixwell Avenue. In the late ’30s and ’40s nationally known jazz musicians would stop by New Haven on Friday and Saturday nights at the Democratic Club and the Musician’s Club on the corner of Dixwell and Webster Streets and at the Monterey Club. Later, live jazz could be heard on Dixwell at the Sound Track II Club. N. & B. Sosensky’s Hardware, started by a Russian Jewish immigrant, thrived as a Dixwell institution from 1919 through the 1950s. Additional former businesses created by members of Dixwell’s African American community and recalled by Dixwell’s residents include Holley’s Drug Store (located at Dixwell and Charles Street) and the Rakorta Club (a private club, located on the second floor in the area now occupied by the Dixwell Shopping Plaza; the ground floor was a Pool Room owned by John Robinson, a prominent Black businessman). Others were Pegues Dry Cleaners and Bouzoucos Brothers Confectionery, owned by a Greek family. The non-profit Bowen-Peters Dance Studio to train young minority dancers was located at 388 Dixwell Avenue. It was founded by Angela Bowen Peters and her husband, drummer Ken Peters. It was important to the minority youth of the city.
The Great Depression took a toll on jobs and income and sent Dixwell into decline. To remedy this, the city embarked on a redevelopment and renewal program. The massive demolition activity changed the character of the neighborhood. “It was a crash and burn demolition process,” noted local architect Edward Cherry, who grew up on Gregory Street (which no longer exists) in the Dixwell neighborhood. The Elm Haven housing project, a multi-block sprawling complex completed in 1940, was built to replace the depressed conditions of the area. Well-intentioned but ill-conceived, this, too, fell into complete disrepair, and was demolished in 1991 to make way for the Monterey Place Apartments bordering Dixwell Avenue and Webster Street.
The Dixwell neighborhood was home to a mixed population of German, Italian, Jewish and African American residents. During the period of southern migration to the north during the 1910s, the African American population grew steadily and by 1930 made up 50 percent, and by 1960, 75 percent of the neighborhood. This decade saw the Italian, Jewish and German families relocate to other areas of greater New Haven. Although the Dixwell neighborhood went through redevelopment and construction during the 1960s, it now supports a library, banks, health care facilities, successful businesses, churches and a resilient population.