The neighborhood which I have been teaching in New Haven for the past year is called The Hill. It has the reputation of being the poorest and most dangerous in the city. Located between Ella Grasso Boulevard and the train tracks, it is an area that travelers are advised to avoid and has a history of poverty and dissent.
The area was home to new immigrant groups throughout the 1800s. First the Irish settled here, working on the railroads and Farmington River Canal. Then the Eastern European Jews came to the neighborhood, fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They set up tailoring shops and other businesses all along Congress Avenue. There also was a large African American population, mostly resettled from the South in search of work. These groups were often clashing as they were competing for the same jobs, fighting over resources and expressing cultural differences. Into the present many people migrate to the The Hill, although the population has changed from immigrants, to predominantly African Americans moving up from the south, and Puerto Ricans relocating from Puerto Rico, or other parts of the United States. (2) The Hill was always a place where poverty and lack of resources were issues, but during the 19th and early parts of the twentieth century there was industry and some services. There was even a time when the Hill had an active music community. Dellie Hoskie, an R&B artist from the 1960s, remembers in a recent article, a time when the Hill was thought of as New Haven's Harlem, when jazz clubs and jam sessions dotted the neighborhood. (3) In fact the song "In the Still of the Night" was written on Congress Avenue at this time. Despite this type of triumph and an active local "scene", the Hill (and most of the city of New Haven) was already beginning to decline. The neighborhood, like many other inner city neighborhoods in the United States, went through a difficult period during the last century.
The Hill Today
I recently went on a few excursions through the Hill to see what the neighborhood is like in the present. As I drove through the streets I noticed many abandoned buildings and homes. Some of the homes looked as if they had been through a fire, and were haphazardly boarded up. After driving through the neighborhood twice I realized there were no grocery stores and no pharmacies. Most of the businesses I saw were corner bodegas, pawn shops or check cashing facilities and fast food restaurants. There was one laundromat that I noticed in the entire area. The lack of resources in the neighborhood where my students live was worrisome. I knew that many of my students parents did not have ready accessibility to cars and that getting basic necessities such as food, medicine and clothes was potentially difficult. Despite the blight, however, there were some interesting and joyful areas in the neighborhood. There was a large park with a colorful play area that seemed well kept. Between the abandoned and neglected houses were ones that had flowers growing and families talking and relaxing on the porches. There was even a large flea market on Ella Grasso Boulevard that on the weekend was akin to marketplaces in another time with vendors bartering over their wares with the locals, who made a sort of celebration out of their shopping there. These places which reflect some sort of hope are scarce, however. The area has a forgotten, or at the least neglected feeling during the day and can feel dangerous at night.