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Crafting a Public Square

In an alleyway off Chapel Street, across from the New Haven Green, a massive red shape seems to float in mid-air. From most angles, it looks like a collection of disjointed forms painted at random across the walls of the side street and a distant, spiraling parking garage. But from one privileged perspective, at the entrance of the alley, the abstract streaks coalesce into a single form: a square poised on a vertex, with four circles cut away from its interior.

The shape isn’t just a random apparition, but rather the culmination of years of planning. In 2004, after putting together a successful light show on the Green, a group of friends and art enthusiasts formed Site Projects, a non-profit arts organization, to encourage and fund public art across New Haven. Square with Four Circles, which the organization commissioned in 2010, has become one of their most recognizable pieces: a quirky, amusing surprise for those who stumble across it. The Site Projects team also claims that their work advances a far more profound mission: bridging disparate New Haven communities through the shared experience of urban art. But can public installations, whether made out of paint or light, really deliver on that vision?

Every two weeks, Site Projects’ six-person, part-time staff meets in an ivy-covered repurposed iron foundry on Whitney Avenue to discuss their new projects. With its collaborative workspaces and open plan, their office has the atmosphere of a tech startup. A rolling whiteboard features a jumble of budgeting figures and buzzwords like “community engagement” and “outreach.” Books with snappy graphics and vague titles like Rainbows line the shelves. In keeping with their entrepreneurial workspace, the team’s vision—art as a unifying force of society—matches the grandiosity of a startup’s mission statement.

“That’s my story. Getting people together,” says Laura Clarke, Site Projects’ founder and executive director.

Clarke explains that she is motivated by the way public art can transform physical spaces, making them more engaging or welcoming to passersby. More accessible and place-specific than artwork in museums or galleries, it has the potential to engage with a broader audience and influence the lived experience of an environment.

Felice Varini, the artist behind Square with Four Circles, believes public art can augment a viewer’s perception of a physical space and the meanings ascribed to it. Flat geometric forms superimposed on a three-dimensional space can startle and captivate people who might not otherwise stop to notice the space. For Square with Four Circles, Varini says, “I wanted to create a rapport between the high walls on either side and the parking garage canvas at the center of the frame.” The abstract red fragments on the walls tie the surfaces of the alleyway together, creating a gathering place and cultural landmark where previously there existed only a drab passageway.

Site Projects has commissioned murals, light shows and a multitude of other installations, from a laser rainbow projected from the top of East Rock to abstract sea creatures made out of balloons for the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The group’s permanent installations are almost all concentrated downtown, although there are also two murals in Westville. Occasionally, the organization hosts events like “The Science of Perceiving Color” and “Activism in Art” which bring New Haven artists and residents together for evening discussions about the aesthetics of public space.

“I think it’s particularly important for democratic societies to have these conversations across communities,” William Barnett, the president of Site Projects, said, referring to the city’s racially and socioeconomically segregated neighborhoods. “The content of the conversation is in some ways less important than the fact that the conversation exists.”

Site Projects’ goal of fostering cross-community conversations can seem vague, and staff members acknowledge that their success can be difficult to measure. But for some, even small moments are enough to affirm the organization’s aims. Bennett remembered hearing two strangers debate the role of art in activism on the bus ride home after a Site Projects event they had both attended. Clarke recalled seeing groups of teenagers converge on the huge lightshow they produced on the Green. “Kids on bikes would come through, eight, ten, twelve at a time,” she said. “They would stop and say, ‘What is this?’ and we would say, ‘This is art.’ They would say, ‘What is it for?’ and we would say ‘To look at.’”

With its next installation, Site Projects hopes to combat New Haven’s neighborhood divisions by transforming the pedestrian walkway under the Route 34 overpass near Union Station. The site is a lingering reminder of New Haven’s 1950s-era urban renewal programs, which cleared so-called “slum” areas in the name of modernization and highway expansion. The construction of Route 34 razed the thriving immigrant communities of the Oak Street neighborhood and displaced the area’s predominantly Italian, Jewish, and African-American inhabitants. Those residents moved to new neighborhoods that became increasingly segregated by race. Today, the underpass is strewn with litter, the concrete stained with runoff water.

Robert Greenberg, a New Haven historian and preservationist, knows the detrimental effects of urban renewal first-hand. His grandfather, a Russian immigrant, lost his business properties in the demolition of Oak Street. “Not only did they knock down buildings, they knocked out the entire community,” he said. “Urban renewal created a huge scar on the city.”

Site Projects wants to make the busy pedestrian walkway—which connects the train station and the Church Street South housing projects to the downtown area—more welcoming and navigable. The new installation, Lighting Your Way, will be an interactive light sculpture along the segment of the walkway under the industrial overpass. Site Projects plans to widen the sidewalk and install six spotlights that will create pools of light on the concrete. Motion-activated LEDs along a low wall will light up sequentially as pedestrians walk by, and notecard-sized art pieces about the history of the site, created by local high school students, will hang on the wall.

Slated for completion in March 2018, Lighting Your Way is the brainchild of Sheila de Bretteville ART ’64, a public artist, Yale School of Art professor, and self-described “citizen-pedestrian.” She first imagined the project after many walks under the Route 34 underpass, reflecting on the space’s unfriendly atmosphere and the fraught political history. Professor de Bretteville submitted her proposal to the city, and Site Projects approached her, offering to help fund and plan the projects. “People shouldn’t have to walk through neglected areas,” Professor de Bretteville said. “It shows that the city doesn’t care.”
Of course, it’s not always simple for Site Projects to execute its vision. Even as the organization attempts to bridge New Haven’s stratified communities, its own membership is mostly white and affluent—unlike most of the people who engage with its pieces on the street. Many of the Site Projects board members don’t live in the communities where the group’s public art is being installed, or even in New Haven at all. “We would love to get people on our board that are more representative of the ethnic makeup of New Haven,” Clarke said. “But we are much more worried about getting people who are excited about New Haven art.”

And even if Site Projects’ pieces do help make New Haven a thriving cultural destination, the group’s success is inextricably tied to gentrification––Professor de Bretteville readily acknowledged that the city only gave Site Projects permission to complete the Route 34 installation after a developer made plans to build a large-scale luxury housing complex in the area.
But as he continues to investigate the lost Oak Street neighborhood, Greenberg is optimistic that art can help New Haven return to the lively pedestrian city that it once was. “Everything that got knocked down is getting built back,” he said. “The rainforest is growing back again.”

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