From Ditch Corner to Goatville, recalling the Elm City’s rich (and sometimes not-so-rich) history
Those of us who live in or were born in New Haven can easily tick off the names of the neighborhoods everyone knows: The Hill, Westville, Fair Haven, Newhallville, East Rock, Morris Cove, to name a few. Also included are Amity, Beaver Hill, Dwight, Brookside, Wooster Square and Broadway. The number of modern-day neighborhoods and historic districts lies somewhere between 30 and 65, depending on whom you ask and where you’re standing when you do the asking.
This is not a definitive story about these forgotten neighborhoods because back in the early days of the colony, nearly every corner was a neighborhood or area named after someone famous or dead. But when you do a little research and look at a few historic maps, that’s when the “forgotten” neighborhoods appear, bringing with them a new understanding of just how steeped in history the Elm City remains.
No such research can be undertaken without a trip to the Whitney Library and its archives, located inside the New Haven Museum, where reside 30,000 printed works, 300 manuscript collections and countless maps and drawings that document the life of the city that was founded in 1638 by Rev. John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, the latter of whom was the stepfather of Elihu Yale and — well, it quickly becomes easy to see how this is all intertwined.
Thanks to the work of several writers, including Doris B. (Deb) Townshend, Robert M. Lattanzi and Colin Caplan, one can discover the origins of these forgotten neighborhoods, the way of life in the early days of this seafaring colony and the origins of the city’s street names and neighborhoods.
For example, City Point still is referred to by locals who live there as Oyster Point or Oyster Point Quarter, harkening back to the oyster fishing industry that once was based there, now removed to the Quinnipiac River area (or “Dragon” as it was known in the 19th century. If you left the Quarter and traveled west, you’d come upon Sodom Hill, later named Mount Pleasant and now known as “The Hill.”
Travel down Congress Avenue to Congress Circle (or Square), near George and Church streets, and you’ll be in the Oak Street area, host to newly arrived ethnicities including Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants a century ago. Head east and up Columbus Avenue to the Six Corners neighborhood, also bounded by Hallock Street, Dewitt Street and Washington Avenue. You’d be a stone’s throw away from the Suburb’s Quarter and Mr. Lamberton’s Quarter, having never stepped out of the modern-day Hill neighborhood.
Heading toward downtown, you might cross through the Thompson Square neighborhood, named in the 1860s after a Mr. Thompson (obviously). This later became Spireworth Square and, yet later, was renamed Trowbridge Square. Nearby you’d find possibly the oldest building in New Haven at 198 North Front Street, owned by the Fargeorge family back in the 1600s.
Sailing into the mouth of the Quinnipiac River, known as the Neck and then Dragon in the early 1800s, you might have agreed with Capt. Richard Russell when he passed through Clamville and looked upon the west side riverbanks, noting it was a “Fayre-Haven,” while the Farms and Waterside occupied the east bank of Dragon.
Farther up the river, the Hemingway family farmed their property, known as Quinnipiac Meadows. And where the Mill River joined Dragon, you’d find Grapevine Point and the Barnesville Hotel, located in Barnesville. Moving toward the East Shore, one would find Woodwardtown near the intersection of Main Street, Quinnipiac Avenue and Forbes Avenue.
Wooster Square wasn’t always the namesake of Revolutionary War hero Gen. David Wooster. Once known as Oyster Shell Field, it later become known as New Township Park (the neighborhood that arose to the east of the original nine squares was known as New Township), and finally Wooster Square, says Colin Caplan, a New Haven native who has written five books about the city and operates “Taste of New Haven,” whose mission it is to educate visitors to the city on its food, culture and history.
“Slineyville was an Irish neighborhood located in an area near Barnesville and close to what we now call Wooster Square,” explains Caplan. “It was named for a man named John Sliney. It was kind of like a slum for poor workers who lived on the outskirts of town in the early to mid-1800s. There was even a Sliney’s Corner, at the corner of Chapel and Chestnut streets.
“Not too far from that in the same time period was an area called New Guinea,” Caplan continues. “That was part of William Lanson’s development; [he] was a runaway slave. He became a contractor in the city and the only person who devised a way to extend Long Wharf into the longest wharf in the country [jutting approximately three-quarters of a mile out into New Haven Harbor] at that time. He developed New Guinea and also New Liberia, located near Green and East streets, a black and Irish neighborhood.”
Caplan says Hell’s Alley, located at the top of Beaver Pond Park, lived up to its name.
“It was on the border with Hamden,” says Caplan. “In the late 1800s to early 1900s, the newspapers mention it as a kind of scary romantic area. It’s what we now know as Cherry Ann Street in Hamden. There was a shanty village of largely Polish families. Conditions were reported as deplorable and there were knife fights and murders. It was cleared when the city developed Beaver Pond Park.”
“Let’s not forget Goatsville on upper State Street near where Route 80 is now,” says Joe Taylor, a well-known local researcher and city historian. “And before we had Westville, it was known as Hotchkisstown, named after the Hotchkiss family that lived out in that area.” Farther on up the western bank of upper West River, now known as Amity, there existed Chestnut Hill, a farming community.
The Broadway District, now a popular shopping mecca with exclusive and unique shops developed by Yale University, wasn’t always that glamorous a location.
“The area where Broadway now is located was a small busy commercial zone because of all the roads that converged down there that created a small business district,” adds Caplan. “It was an early dense area of commerce. Before it was called ‘Broadway,’ it was referred to as Ditch Corner. But the actual Ditch Corner, which is an old term going back to the 1680s, refers to a ditch that was dug between Beaver Pond and a creek, which later was known as the Farmington Canal. They dug the ditch to try to reverse the flow of Beaver Pond into the old creek to create a new mill closer to town. The corner to which we refer was that of Goffe and Orchard streets, the old way out of town. That corner was the site of a big battle in 1779 between the British and American troops.”
Next time you’re shopping on Broadway, glance northward toward that intersection and imagine that, only a few hundred years ago, people were fighting over our independence and not haggling over the price of a new pair of shoes.