New Haven’s Elm City Mosaic

This story is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Knowledge Building grant supporting a partnership between Springboard for the Arts and the International Downtown Association. See more stories from the partnership here.

When the city of New Haven, CT, began construction on Route 34 in the 1960s, the idea was that it would connect the city to its suburbs in the Lower Naugatuck Valley. Instead, Route 34 had devastating effects for the city; completely cutting off the Hill neighborhood from the rest of downtown, displacing over 800 hundred families and demolishing 350 buildings. When construction on Route 34 stopped in the 1970s, residents were left with a roadway that led to nowhere and a fractured downtown.

“The initial phase was concluded but it didn’t go far beyond downtown, which is probably a good thing in hindsight,” David Sepulveda, a local artist and Arts and Culture writer for the New Haven Independent, says. “It saved further neighborhoods and communities from becoming borders for a super-highway.”

There are major redevelopment efforts underway in New Haven to reconnect the Hill, which houses Yale School of Medicine and the Yale-New Haven Hospital to its surrounding downtown. This has meant increasing opportunities to attract attention to long forgotten spaces.

Charlotte Eliscu, who lives and works in downtown saw an opportunity to begin transforming some of these forgotten spaces on one of her many walks to work. Eliscu is Director of Marketing at Town Green Special Services District, a business improvement district responsible for 27 square blocks in the downtown area.

“There’s certain locations that are forgotten,” Eliscu states. “They come to have more litter, if something was planted there it wasn’t watered. It’s not offensive, it’s not dangerous, it’s just not really considerate for anybody.”

Eliscu began thinking of ways she could turn these locations into cared-for spaces that exuded New Haven’s vibrancy and rich history. She came up with the idea to design, create and install large tile murals to cover chain link fences at selected locations in the Town Green District. Early this year, with a creative placemaking grant from Springboard for the Arts and the International Downtown Association, Eliscu began working on a project titled Elm City Mosaic.

New Haven being a city where “art is almost everywhere you look,” according to a New York Times article, there was no shortage of artists for the organization to reach out to in creating the project. To begin with, they reached out to Sepulveda, a huge proponent of public arts and a “larger than life” personality according to Eliscu. Sepulveda is well versed in mobile making, set designs and also known for his large installations, such as his Snowbama sculpture—an icy tribute to the 44th President. For Sepulveda, his interest in Elm City Mosaic tied into the larger regeneration happening in the Historic Ninth Square, which sits adjacent to the Hill neighborhood.

“There is so much going on in the area,” he says. “Not far from there is a multi-million dollar project called Downtown Crossing. That project stands to completely reunite and revitalize an area of town that was part of a casualty of 1960’s well intended redevelopment.”

Sepulveda provided the initial placeholder design for the project, but Eliscu also wanted to involve lesser-known artists. Unconventionally, she reached out to Michael Pavano, a high school arts teacher. Mr. Pavano teaches at New Light High School, an alternative school providing opportunities for students to learn while working and connecting them to the things they are most interested in, such as the arts. His students came with the added benefit of previous experience in creative placemaking projects. In the past, they had worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to paint colorful trash barrels for the City and had created a vivid mural for one of their school walls. Sepulveda would guide Elm City Mosaic’s artistic design, with input from the students at New Light who would create and install the design.

Elm City Mosaic initial design by David Sepulveda.

“My main goal was having a project where art was accessible and enjoyed by everyone,” says Eliscu. “Also having young people be able to visualize change and influence their environment was very impactful,” she adds.

While Eliscu had originally planned on multiple sites for the project, when it came down to the budget and the grant timeline, she realized that starting with one site would me more feasible. Based off the project’s challenges and successes at the single location, it could then be replicated elsewhere and even feature different artists for each iteration. Securing a single fence location came with its challenges. At the initial proposed site the property owner declined to give approval for the project. After a regroup, the organization selected another fence location, adjacent to the first, with lots of foot traffic and merchants along the block. Behind the fence sat a regularly used parking lot, a plus in that the parking lot (and consequentially, the fence) would be there for a while, in light of the many new developments springing up in and around the neighborhood.

The second property owner proved to be more excited about Elm City Mosaic and offered to match some capital improvements to the grounds. Eliscu notes, it was, “a wonderful example of a property owner willing to take it to the next level.”

For the half a dozen New Light students engaged in the project, Elm City Mosaic would give them a chance to try their hand at something they had never done before. According to Pavano, for students who haven’t succeeded in traditional schools, the opportunity to try something new, learn to fail at it, and use those lessons towards a successful final product, is instrumental in changing the way they view themselves.

“Their confidence is built. They’re seeing a whole different side of what they are capable of. That’s the most important part, seeing that look of pride on their faces when they see a project from start to finish,” Pavano tells me.

Like most art projects, the concept for the design bloomed. Sepulveda began to think about including a kinetic art element that would evolve the design beyond the framework of the rectangular chainlink fence. Similarly, while initial discussions involved incorporating design tied to New Haven’s seasons, the final plans relied on the unique history of the area to pull passers-by into the story of a part of downtown that has been integral to New Haven’s development and history. Using corrugated plastic (coroplast) panels, Sepulveda wanted to create a mosaic that was “an interesting amalgam of color, form, shape and history.”

“We’re gonna move a little beyond pure abstraction, which as an artist, appeals to me. But because it’s a key economic location, I think it’s a wonderful idea to help people reflect on the legacy of what they’re inheriting.”

These multiple design changes pushed the project’s timeline back a few times, but eventually Sepulveda, New Light and Town Green District developed a concept they felt worked best for the space. They would design an agamograph, a form of kinetic art that features two main images. The centerpiece images would be a map of New Haven and the other, an aerial view of the New Haven Green, a park and recreation area located in the downtown district. Once design and materials had been agreed upon, they now had to wait out the long New England winter which proved prohibitive for most of the direct work such as painting the tiles and the actual installation.

By June, the team was ready for installation on the fence located on Chapel Street. The installation would also function as their launch. Town Green District invited media, local police and their downtown Ambassadors to help supervise and witness the installation, which took about three hours to complete. According to Eliscu, the “installation went better than I expected. It was both easy and fun! There was a great media turn out, a lot of the teachers from the school helped install, and people who passed by stopped to comment and ask about the project.”

Since its installation, Elm City Mosaic has received a lot of local media coverage, particularly for its inclusion of New Light students. For Tyriq Banks, a senior at the school, the project left him with a sense of pride.

“I feel proud that everyone gets to see what our school did for the community and the city,” Banks told the New Haven Register.

Praise for the project continues to pour in on social media and the community response has been overwhelmingly positive according to Eliscu, with many remarking that it is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, accomplishing Town Green District’s vision for transforming “forgotten spaces.” In the end, the project serves as yet another reminder of the importance of art, not only to the New Haven economy, but in enlivening and enriching the city for all its citizens.