52 Grand Ave, New Haven, CT 06513
Visitors to New Haven might be surprised to stumble upon Edgewood Park in the center of New Haven. The park, which consists of 120 acres of land, features forested areas, ponds, marshlands, and grassy knolls. Since its construction, its unique tranquil feel has attracted widely different communities to enjoy what it has to offer.
Edgewood Park started out as 60 acres of property “adopted” by the City of New Haven in 1889. Individuals including Nicholas W. Hubinger, James Mason, and Donald Mitchell added their own contributions, creating a 120-acre stretch for the city’s new Park Commission to develop.
The history of Edgewood Park is inextricably tied to the planning of New Haven itself. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the City Beautiful movement was riding high. Responding to tenement crowding, high birth rates, increase in immigration and shifts in population from rural areas to urban, proponents of City Beautiful suggested that introduction of Beaux-Arts architectural elements and monuments—and, above all, parks— into cities would promote social harmony.
This aesthetic climate saw the emergence of New Haven’s planning efforts. In a 1910 report for the newly formed Civic Improvement Commission, architect Cass Gilbert and planner Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. noted “that the percentage of old New England stock in the population is progressively diminishing. People of the old New England stock still to a large extent control the city, and if they want New Haven to be a fit and worthy place for their descendants it behooves them to establish conditions about the lives of all the people that will make the best fellow-citizens of them and of their children. The racial habits and traditions, the personal experience and family training, the economic conditions and outlook, of the newer elements of the population, are such that a laissez faire policy applicable to New England Yankees is not going to suffice for them.” The report remains a document central to the tenets of the City Beautiful movement; upon its recommendations, New Haven began to construct what would become the Edgewood Park we know today.
In the report, the planners suggested changes to create a space that adhered to the City Beautiful tenets. “The present area of Edgewood Park has already been somewhat developed for park uses, but there still remains much to be done to bring it to a state of completion. As now planned it is to be devoted to general park purposes, with provisions for playfields, driving and boating; but the plan can be much improved upon to bring out the real charm of the valley landscape, to improve the somewhat awkward and uninteresting lines of the slopes and shores, and to produce more pleasing outlines and masses of foliage.” Their suggestions, now carried out, are still visible today. Olmsted’s design also included a rose garden, an archery field, a lily pond, and a “grandmother’s garden.”
Since the days of Olmsted et al., later generations have improved on Edgewood Park’s offerings, rendering it more accessible to more people. The park’s neighbors have added a skate park, a basketball court, and a gazebo; the carriage road has been paved over and is now a path for joggers and bikers. Visitors can also find memorials to the Holocaust and to Spanish American War Veterans.
Edgewood Park’s varied offerings attract dramatically different communities to the same spaces. In some ways, it resembles the liberal fantasy of the park insofar as it facilitates distinct groups sharing and mixing with each other. For example, the skate park attracts avid skaters, but also draws families with children. And that’s only one facet of the park’s programming.
A lot of the community engagement is mediated through Friends of Edgewood Park, an organization that acts as an interface between the park’s users and the New Haven’s administrative departments to help effect change in the most immediate, tangible and beneficial ways. It’s hard to work within the constraints of a bureaucracy like the New Haven Parks Department; Friends of Edgewood Park helps ensure than individual community members can actually see real improvement in their park, advocating for what the community wants while also working with the city to accomplish goals.
The organization has been especially active in terms of public safety. During the summer of 2013, after a series of attacks disrupted the calm of Edgewood Park, Friends of Edgewood Park mounted a “Take Back the Park” campaign to reclaim their space’s public perception and community involvement; they also worked with the city’s police and other officials to ensure that the space was being improved in terms of perception and environment. They added lighting to places deemed particularly concerning and encouraged their partners to implement safety solutions.
Slideshow photography by Sarah Eckinger, Brenda Holloway, Nicholas Guarracino, and CT Fund for the Environment.