Originally published in The Daily Nutmeg August 2, 2013
Over the next month, the United States Department of the Interior will be reading a 193-page report about New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood. The document contains detailed information, house by house, naming each resident and his or her occupation, with maps and photographs. When all is said and done, there won’t be any immediate changes to the neighborhood; nobody’s phones will be ringing more than usual, no government agents will be knocking on doors and no new major redevelopment plan will be in the works.
But Newhallville will be added to an existing national historic district called the Winchester Repeating Arms Company Historic District. One of the most successful and pioneering munitions makers in the world, the Winchester Company introduced the world’s first successful repeating rifle; the company’s line of rifles was later dubbed “the gun that won the West.” During World War I, the arms maker expanded to cover over 80 acres of land and became the largest employer in New Haven with nearly 25,000 workers. After the war, the company also produced cutlery, tools and other household goods.
If the district expansion goes through as expected, the move will push the existing boundary northward to the top of Newhallville (and the bottom of Hamden), more than doubling its size and making it the largest historic district in the state of Connecticut.
Why Newhallville? For one thing, it was where most of the employees of the Winchester factory (pictured above circa 1920) lived. For another, the neighborhood’s residential architecture, mostly comprised of two- and three-family flats, is considered emblematic of the growth of urban neighborhoods across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Along with enjoying increased pride and awareness as a result of the designation, some current residents will be able to access grants meant to help property owners fix up their buildings and incentivize restoration to historical standards. Unlike a Local Historic District status, national recognition does not require homeowners to go through New Haven’s more restrictive Historic District Commission, an oversight committee tasked with preserving the charm, beauty and legacy of designated city neighborhoods.
Though history may seem abstract, it’s really quite tangible—it’s under our feet and in our homes. It’s also in the names of the places we inhabit.
Newhallville’s name comes from once-prominent New Havener George Newhall, who founded what would become one of the largest carriage companies in the world, the George T. Newhall Carriage Emporium, in 1848. Situated near the old railroad (which had formerly been the Farmington Canal), other industries later joined Newhall’s. Munitions, for example: Oliver Winchester settled his ammunition company nearby in 1870. Demand for housing increased until virtually every building lot in the area was developed. Business districts thrived along Newhall Street as well as Winchester, Shelton and Dixwell Avenues.
Nothing lasts forever, though. A decline in factory jobs which started during the 1960s caused great financial and social stress in Newhallville. In more recent years, a lot of attention has been focused on gang violence, slumlords and industrial waste remediation issues in the neighborhood.
Such negative attention tends to mask the underlying community, which has retained vibrant church congregations and a tight-knit cohesion. Newhallville’s annual Promise Land Festival, which returns this weekend to promote the “history, culture and spirit” of the neighborhood and includes food, games, raffles and live music (more info at the end of this article), brings those community assets to the fore.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of new halls going up in Newhallville. Achievement First/Amistad Academy will be building a charter school on Dixwell Avenue, expected to serve 550 students starting in 2015. Science Park at Yale, which occupies the remains of the old Winchester factory, now houses the headquarters of Higher One, biotech companies and many of Yale’s operational services. The developer Forest City will be converting part of the old factory into high-end residences.
In the midst of those recent and new developments, it’s especially important that the old ones get some attention too. Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) of New Haven commissioned the neighborhood’s nomination for National Historic District status, but it’s not going to stop there. Using the grants available as a result of the status change, NHS plans to restore about two dozen of Newhallville’s historic homes.
It’s a good re-start.