History of the Wooster Square Neighborhood
The Generoso Muro Macaroni Co. orchestra at WELI Radio Station. 2nd from left, Aldo DeDominicis, 3rd from left, Frank Tito, 4th from left, Generoso Muro, 6th from left, Italian singer Lorenzo Passariello. Conductor is Nicola Ciarlo. DeDominicis and Tito were sons in law of Generoso Muro and DeDominicis was a co-founder of WTNH TV in New Haven, c. 1930s-40s. Courtesy John Migliaro.
By the late eighteenth century, the Wooster Square area was known as the New Township. It had become the center of seaport related activity, with Long Island Sound just three blocks away from what is now Wooster Street. Wooster Square received its name from Major-General David Wooster who maintained a warehouse on Wooster Street prior to the Revolution. Wooster lost his life in 1777 in Fairfield, CT while leading his troops against the British. Until 1825 when the land was purchased by the city and Wooster Place built, the square was a field used for ploughing contests. In the 1820s and 30s the population east of Wooster Square consisted primarily of an Irish area known as Slineyville and an area known as New Guinea, founded by William Lanson, a former slave and successful New Haven entrepreneur.
During the middle of the nineteenth century Wooster Square was a residential area which prosperous ship captains, wholesale grocers, and successful entrepreneurs found conveniently close to their places of business. The development of the square occurred primarily between the years 1830 and 1870. Some of the most notable buildings in the area were erected in the 1840s and are the work of the well known New Haven architect Henry Austin. The Wooster Square Historic District, which became a local historic district (New Haven’s first!) on June 11, 1970, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 5, 1971.
As a result of the devastating 1847–1852 famine, mass migration of Irish to America in the late 1840s–1850s changed the Yankee flavor of New Haven forever. In the 1850 U.S. Census 3,459 (76%) of the city’s foreign-born residents came from Ireland. The Irish continued to represent more than half of the city’s foreign born residents through the 1880s. Because of work opportunities for both men and women, the Irish established homes and businesses in the Wooster neighborhood and also found work as domestic servants, gardeners, coachmen, etc. in the homes of the factory owners.
Bavarian Jews Max Adler and Isaac Strouse became leaders of New Haven’s corset industry. In 1866 Strouse established the first corset factory in the United States. This led to the Strouse, Adler Company Corset Factory housed in buildings on Olive Street and later known as Smoothie Foundation Garments. Mr. Adler built a beautiful Queen Anne style family home that stands today at the corner of Greene Street and Hughes Place. In 1873, Congregation B’nai Scholom, the second oldest synagogue in New Haven, moved to William Street in the neighborhood. By the 1840s the Square was a fashionable residential area which attracted many of the prominent citizens of the town.
New Township Brochure 1880. Courtesy New Haven Museum.
Industrial America was booming in the late nineteenth century and it needed an increasing amount of labor for factories, mills and railroads. Excited by the economic opportunity and the promise of a new life, Italians joined the millions flocking to the shores of America. They came for a new life, and they found a home. Many of them settled in the Wooster Square area of New Haven from such towns as Amalfi, Atrani and Santa Maria a Vico. In 1884 La Fratellanza, the first Italian society in Connecticut was formed. It linked thirty families to one another. Its stated aims included the desire to promote citizenship while reserving a love for the motherland. That same year La Marineria, another mutual aid society, was founded, headed by Dr. Ciro Costanzo. These two societies and most others were organized on the basis of the original place of origin. They were often named after political figures prominent in Italy or for a village’s patron saint as in the case of the St. Andrew the Apostle Society or the Santa Maria Maddalena Society. These societies allowed fellow townsmen to continue to support one another as they had in Italy.
Many mutual aid groups provided charity, as well as sickness and death benefits. Some provided recreational opportunities and cultural enrichment, and sponsored athletic events. Some even included the political aim of Americanization. The effectiveness of the various mutual aid groups was evidenced by the very small percentage of Italians who applied to organized charities or found themselves on the town’s relief roll.
St. Andrew’s Society Feast leaving St. Michael’s Church, c. 1930s. Courtesy Joe Taylor.
As the community grew, Italians felt the need to have parishes of their own. In 1884, a delegation headed by Paul Russo approached the most Reverend Lawrence McMahon, Bishop of Hartford, to express the need of New Haven’s 1,500 Italians for a separate parish in the Wooster Square area. In 1885 a series of Italian priests, with the bishop’s approval, began to minister to the Italian community’s needs. Father Riviaccio, conducted services in a hall on Wallace St. contributed by the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church on Grand Ave. and Wallace St. The church services moved from one location to another until finally moving into a small church at Wooster and Brewery Streets. It was purchased in 1889 and dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, in honor of the Patron Saint of Gioia Sannitica, a place that many of the worshippers came from at the time. St. Michael’s was dedicated on February 3, 1895; the present site and building were purchased from the Baptists in 1899. A remodeling after a fire in 1904 created the beautiful Italian Renaissance building that is seen today.
Wooster Square had its own grocery stores, fruit stands, pasta shops, fish and meat markets, tailors and barbering establishments. In 1914 the New Haven Register called the Wooster Square area Little Naples. The Wooster Square area was comprised almost exclusively of Italians from the Campania region in the southern part of Italy. They came for jobs at such places as the J. B. Sargent Manufacturing Company, the nearby L. Candee Rubber Company and the New Haven Clock Factory.
Wooster Square was the largest of New Haven’s Italian neighborhoods, a self-contained urban area teeming with families in multistoried tenement houses. English was a second language and residents stayed within the boundaries of familiar blocks, walking back and forth to work at shirt shops and factories within the embrace of its tree-lined streets. Wooster Street had its own macaroni factory, five bakeries, pastry shops, and specialty meat markets. There were many street vendors who sold fruit and vegetables or bread and pizza from horse-drawn wagons. The local community bank made personal loans based on family name and a handshake.
Parade on Wooster Street, c. 1940s. Courtesy Luisa Canestri.
Prior to construction of Interstate 91 during the redevelopment period in the late 1950s, Wooster Street ran to the waterfront where local men played bocce and sandlot baseball at Waterside Park in the shadows of the Sargent factory. In summer months young boys jumped from piers and people fished from banks of long-destroyed channels leading to the harbor.
Michael DePalma was a tireless leader of the Wooster Street Community in the mid twentieth century and there is a corner named for him. Another tireless leader, Theodore (Ted) DeLauro was the true spearhead in neighborhood preservation and revitalization when the entire area was “threatened” by highway building. Mr. DeLauro went from house to house and business to business with information on demolition, preservation, and available funding for individual building preservation. He was dedicated and also tireless in his efforts. The historic district stands as a testament to his unqualified success. There was once a park dedicated to his memory on Grand Avenue near Franklin Street. During the highway-building and the revitalization, the historian who gave unstintingly of his time and knowledge was Richard Hegel.
Today Wooster Street draws suburban diners and tourists who wait in long lines in all types of weather to eat at one of its famous pizzerias or landmark restaurants. Walking down Wooster Street, one can still catch glimpses of the old neighborhood and imagine it in its heyday. The St. Andrew’s and Santa Maria Maddalena Societies’ buildings are open to society members who still return from the suburbs to be reunited with old childhood friends.