In Northeast, a city's tale of turnaround

After decades of decline, New Haven and other mid-size cities now see a positive population trend.

Buying confessional booths, stained-glass windows, and centuries-old stonework from decaying Irish churches and shipping those items to New Haven, Conn., is not a cheap venture. Neither is transforming those materials into a 17,000-square-foot restaurant.

But the worry for Damian O'Connell and his partners at the Playwright Pub & Restaurant was not start-up costs, but the possibility of a lack of customers. After all, they opened their business on a quiet street, with a hotel and half-empty mall punctuating the streetscape of abandoned buildings.

"It was a big risk," Mr. O'Connell says. "But we had a great feeling about New Haven at the time."

Four years later, the risk has clearly paid off. Pedestrians, once a rare sight on Temple Street, are now common. Both the mall and an empty office building nearby have been transformed into apartments. Diners have a choice of Syrian, Italian, Ethiopian, Japanese, or Irish food. And a five-screen movie theater opened down the block last November.

"It was a ghost town on this street," O'Connell says. "Now it's like Mardi Gras on the weekends."

Temple Street is not the only block in New Haven that is a little more bustling as of late. According to recent census estimates, the city's population increased by 1,053 residents from 2000 to 2004, bringing the city's total population to 124,829. For many other cities, this small growth would be unremarkable. But for New Haven, which has seen its population decline for much of the past half century, the increase is an encouraging sign.

Other cities in the Northeast are moving in a similar positive direction. Like New Haven, many other mid-size cities in the region had seen their population drop continuously for decades.

"I think what we are seeing in the Northeast is some rebound stories here," says William Frey, a fellow in metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The numbers

In the band stretching from Elizabeth, N.J., to Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass., there are 13 cities with populations between 100,000 and 300,000. Of those cities, only one, Jersey City, N.J., actually lost population from 2000 to 2004. The remaining 12 saw an average population increase of 1.6 percent.

Of course, that growth is nothing compared with the population explosions of Florida, Arizona, and California. Gilbert, Ariz., grew by 42.6 percent during the same time period, the fastest in the nation.

But the surprise comes not in the magnitude of growth, but the fact that the cities are growing at all. The growth stands in stark contrast to Midwestern cities, which continue to lose population, and even larger Northeastern cities such as Boston, which also saw a drop in residents.

Newark, N.J., saw the biggest lift. The city's population had dropped every decade from 1950 to 2000, from a high of 438,776 to 273,546. But since 2000, Newark's population has increased by almost 8,000 people, according to census estimates.

Several cities have followed the lead of Providence, known for its aggressive strategy of transforming its center during the 1980s and '90s. In New Haven, for one, developers are refurbishing old buildings into apartments with the hope of bringing into the city's center more Yale University employees.

Indeed, New Haven clearly emphasizes its downtown. The city has opened up an information center, and "Downtown Ambassadors" patrol the streets, eager to share information with passersby.

But while brightly colored maps available at the information center advertise downtown businesses, documents on the immigrant neighborhood of Fair Haven are nowhere to be found.

Yet the city's population increase might have as much to do with neighborhoods like Fair Haven as it does with efforts at attracting young professionals and empty nesters. Over the past five years, the number of immigrants from Mexico and Ecuador has exploded, those familiar with the neighborhood say.

In fact, increasing Latino immigration is a primary factor in many of these cities' population gains. Immigrants have sought out these places because of the better job market.

"Some of them actually came directly from New York City, and they said the jobs in Connecticut are more plentiful. And the pay is the same, if not better," says Kica Matos, executive director of Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven nonprofit. "And the living conditions are much better than in New York," she adds.

Many of the immigrants come to Fair Haven directly from Mexico, often from the same two towns, Matos says. Some employers recruit Mexican immigrants to come to the city, often to work in landscaping jobs, says Jacqueline Olvera, a sociology professor at Connecticut College in New London.

With the influx of residents, Fair Haven's main artery, Grand Avenue, is attracting new businesses, particularly Mexican restaurants and food markets as well as money-order services.

"In the 1980s, there was a growing number of gangs in Fair Haven, and people were afraid to come to Grand Avenue," Ms. Matos says. "That is no longer the case. People are actually walking on Grand Avenue, as opposed to pulling over, getting their wares, and driving away quickly."

Ongoing challenges

Despite the recent population growth, New Haven and other mid-size Northeastern cities still face significant problems. Nearly a quarter of New Haven residents live in poverty, and Hartford, Conn.; Providence; and Newark have even larger percentages of poor citizens. While many new immigrants find jobs, many longtime residents struggle to retain work.

And the immigrant boom brings its own problems. Matos says she recently discovered 10 men and an infant crammed into a two-bedroom apartment.

Still, many hope that a changing attitude will become an important first step in promoting business as well as a broader city revival.

Jennifer McTiernan, who launched a farmers' market in New Haven last year and has since expanded it to four neighborhoods, remembers the farmers' initial reluctance at coming into the city to do business.

"The first market I had, I had to twist people's arms ... to get those first farmers there," she says. "We opened at 7 a.m. By noon, everyone was sold out."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to In Northeast, a city's tale of turnaround
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today