THE PLACE WHERE I LIVE – William Street, Wooster Square neighborhood, New Haven, Connecticut
The window in my bedroom is shaded by the canopy of a Chinese elm, a species which replaced the graceful American elms that once lined this city’s streets until they were ravaged by Dutch elm disease in the early 1900s. New Haven is still wistfully known as the Elm City, though now the most common street tree is an invasive species, Norway maple. Through the leaves of the Chinese elm I can see the wooded embankment abutting Interstate 91, which cut through the neighborhood in the early 1960s, part of a massive wave of “urban renewal” projects from which the city has never quite recovered. Just on the other side of the interstate lies the Mill River, where Quinnipiac Indians once caught shellfish and river herring. Now instead of frogs and insects you hear the hum of tractor-trailer air-horns on the interstate. About 20% of the children in my neighborhood suffer from asthma, mostly because of pollution from the two highways that intersect here.
My kitchen window looks down on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger rail line in the country. The Acela train whizzes by here several times a day, carrying well-heeled travelers to their destinations in Boston and New York. Supposedly security has been upgraded here since 9/11 but all I can detect is an ever-thickening layer of Japanese knotweed on the hillside leading down to the tracks.
To the north beyond the tracks looms the city’s most famous landmark, East Rock, a dramatic basalt formation jutting up from the coastal plain. When the Puritans came here in 1638 they thought it indicated a sacred place and laid out the grid for a new city. For two centuries it has been a favorite subject of landscape painters, including famous American Impressionists and members of the Hudson River School.
From my bathroom window I can see the downtown skyline. The high-rise buildings – including a new LEED-platinum apartment building built next to the train station — dwarf the three church steeples rising from the New Haven Green, a vestige of the city’s founding long ago by deeply religious men, a symbol of the transcendent hopes that gave birth to this deeply American place.