Robert Zirpolo’s Flying Machine


Design by Merritt Barnwell.

Most flying machines are undeniably cool. Jets, sleek and swift, play chicken with the ends of runways to earn their ascent. Helicopters, brash and insectile, thump the earth from their skids with blades that whir with lethal intent.

But humanity’s earliest aircraft is different. The hot air balloon has never been much more than a flammable fabric sack, connected to an equally flammable wicker basket, powered by a giant flamethrower and stuffed with passengers whose quarter- to mid-life crises aren’t severe enough to justify skydiving.

As instruments of travel, balloons leave a lot to be desired. They can’t even be steered—or, at least, they don’t come with flight sticks. Learning to fly a balloon begins, as all fun things do, with a physics lesson: hot air rises over cooler air. From their baskets, pilots manipulate the fire burning above their heads; igniting it elevates the balloon, while extinguishing it allows the craft to descend. As the balloon climbs and falls, it gets pushed around by wind patterns that split the sky like layers in a cake. Because open flames and gusts of wind are less-than-exact control mechanisms, balloons don’t have dedicated runways or helipads. Any flat patch of dirt or asphalt has to suffice as a landing spot.

That’s exactly how Robert Zirpolo, a veteran balloonist, likes it. He has flown tours over Connecticut for the past thirty-eight years, cultivating over that time a cloud-gray moustache that overwhelms his upper lip and short gray curls that poke out from the baseball cap covering his mostly-bald head. Zirpolo can fly single- and multi-engine planes, too, but he prefers balloons. He remembers what a pilot friend told him years ago: “The best part about ballooning is, it makes no sense at all.”

———

Perched in his wicker basket, Zirpolo reaches up toward an oxidized metal burner and flicks open its blast valve. Liquid propane shoots from fuel tanks nestled near his knees, through thick black tubes wrapped around arched bamboo rods, and into the burner’s vaporizing coils. A jet of dragon’s breath erupts into the October air, burning blue, white, and orange-yellow as it smothers the surrounding area in soupy heat.

Then Zirpolo shuts the valve, choking the flame. The 7 a.m. air reverts to a biting 38 degrees. His fiery engine, hotter than a thousand ovens, is ready; the rest of his balloon, scattered on the dewy grass of a private airfield in Bethlehem, Connecticut, is not.

Using a ripcord-powered industrial fan, Zirpolo forces one hundred and five thousand cubic feet of air into the massive nylon balloon, which is patterned with gold, scarlet, and dark-green arrowheads arranged against a blue background. The open-bottomed bundle of fabric grows from the ground like a bulbous blister, its ribbed surface rippling in the breeze. Once taut, it looks like a hundred-foot lightbulb turned on its side. Having tethered the balloon to the bamboo rods, he leans his basket over, aims the attached burner into the balloon’s mouth, and blasts fire into it until the entire apparatus stands upright.

Zirpolo has spent the past week studying weather reports, memorizing wind patterns, and staking out possible landing spots. He’s sent up a small test balloon that morning to see where the wind is actually blowing. And he’s watched less-experienced pilots—whom he calls “the real test balloons”—take off from an adjacent airstrip and disappear over the trees. He’s ready to launch.

In the sky, he’ll keep track of a fuel gauge, an altimeter, a vertical speed indicator, and a pyrometer, which measures the temperature inside the balloon. He’ll relay his location to his ground crew, and adjust the open flame above his head so that his balloon doesn’t drift toward a major city or out over the Atlantic. “Nothing is automated whatsoever, so your brain is constantly engaged in what you’re doing,” he said. On different flights in the past, he’s done all this at eighteen thousand feet, at 115 miles per hour, and at 27 degrees below zero. Once, after he landed in a schoolyard in Ireland, a student walked out from the assembled crowd and whispered to Zirpolo, “Tell the teachers there’s no homework today.” The pilot proceeded to announce that, according to American custom, all homework was to be suspended upon the sighting of a hot air balloon. He hit the blast valve as the students cheered and the teachers’ smiles dropped.

There are ways to have fun that don’t involve barreling through the air in a craft cobbled together from fabric and wicker and fire. And there are certainly more efficient forms of transportation. So why become an aeronaut?

Part of the answer might be temperamental. Ballooning is a study in iconoclasm: its history is full of wanderers, thinkers, tinkerers, failures, loafers, coasters, charmers, schemers, pathbreakers, and one intrepid Frenchman who tried to inflate a balloon with combustible gas he had extracted from fecal matter.

But sometimes Zirpolo talks like there’s something transcendent about the whole thing. Like when he was chopping garlic in his central Connecticut home, and I asked him over the phone about the kinds of sensations he can only feel in a balloon. He stopped the slicing, thought for a second, then answered by telling me what he tells nervous potential passengers:

“This is what it feels like to be in a balloon. Sit in a kitchen chair, next to a window. Look out the window, and your eyes can see—but your body does not feel—the ground move away from the building you’re in. There’s no rocking sensation. You just look out the window, and you’re watching the ground move away. You don’t feel that the building you’re in is now moving one way or the other. It looks like somebody just, very slowly, picked it up—you didn’t feel them pick it up, it just happened, and all of a sudden the ground started moving underneath you.

“If I sit you in a balloon basket,” he continued, “and put a blindfold on you, other than the fact that you hear the burner roaring above your head, I can make it so you couldn’t even feel yourself leaving the ground. You can’t get that feeling anywhere else, with anything. Airplanes, helicopters—any other flying machine besides the balloon makes a hell of a racket.”

Zirpolo is flying in the age of Icarus while the rest of us are flying United.

———

Joseph Montgolfier, the inventor of the hot air balloon, was such a layabout that his descendants call toilet paper papier de Joseph the way the rest of France calls hot air balloons montgolfières. “A dreamer and a maverick,” Charles Gillispie called him in his history of ballooning, The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation. “The very type of the inventor, imaginative with objects and processes, impractical in business and affairs.”

In 1782, stricken with boredom while attending a “diploma mill” in Avignon, Joseph built a three-by-four-foot thin wooden frame, stretched a piece of taffeta cloth over it, and lit a few scraps of paper underneath. The lighter-than-air contraption hit the ceiling. He immediately wrote to his brother, Etienne, “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world.”

Joseph and Etienne, inheritors of a paper mill, soon became the Wright Brothers of ballooning. They started on their path to national acclaim in the summer of 1783, which they spent terrorizing the French countryside with experimental balloons. Powered by burning straw, their unmanned paper constructions almost always incinerated upon returning to earth. The few that didn’t suffered at the hands of peasants who thought the glowing, zigzagging orbs were the work of the Devil.

On different flights in the past, Zirpolo has done all this at eighteen thousand feet, at 115 miles per hour, and at 27 degrees below zero.

The montgolfières caught the attention of the French crown, however. At Versailles, King Louis XVI, suspecting a flying ball of fire might have some military applications, watched closely as the Montgolfier brothers exhibited their invention with appropriate pomp and circumstance. At the first cannon blast, a sheep, duck, and rooster marched into the balloon basket; at the second, the animals ascended six hundred meters in the air and absconded from the royal palace. Impressed, the king thought prisoners should be sent up next.

One observer of the Versailles test was Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a twenty-six-year-old who had already made his name in science-obsessed Paris, the Silicon Valley of its day. During public lectures sponsored by the king’s brother, he wowed Parisian elites by exhaling hydrogen onto a candle and breathing fire. He also tested a self-made respirator by lying on a pile of dung for thirty minutes. After watching the montgolfière drift away, Pilâtre followed the quacking and crowing to a spot in the Wood of Vaucresson, three and a half kilometers from the launch site, where he found the royal animals alive and relatively unscathed. Soon afterwards, he volunteered for the Montgolfiers’ first manned experiments. Pilâtre hoped ballooning would increase his standing in a nation captivated by scientific spectacle.

———

A hundred ninety-seven years later, in 1980, Robert Zirpolo got into ballooning to impress a girl. He was courting an airplane pilot-in-training, and thought a balloon ride might be his “in.” He was wrong. “It bored the crap out of her,” he said. Their first time as passengers, there was little wind, and lots of heat. They hovered in place, landed in the woods, and had to haul balloon and basket a hundred yards to the nearest road.

Zirpolo was in his early twenties at the time. He worked at an oyster bar in Kingfield, Maine, a ski town at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. Kingfielders didn’t plan their social calls; everyone bumped into everyone else on the mountain. Most mornings, he’d ski down gently curving slopes and take in the beauty of his chosen home, a world away from his native Queens. “I miss that like nobody can understand,” he said.

He kept ballooning after that first flight, learning how to fly from a master in Portland. At least, he tried to. Flying, according to Zirpolo, involves skills and instincts that develop over years, even decades. “When I started flying, nobody told me I was ever going to start landing in cul-de-sacs with below-ground power lines, or on a street, or a backyard, or a front yard. That wasn’t part of the training,” he said. “Good experience is obtained through bad decisions.”

In 1981, Zirpolo injured his knee as a passenger in a single-engine plane crash, and had to recover at a friend’s house in Southington, Connecticut. He brought his balloon with him. Walking long distances was challenging, but he could still stand in a basket and operate a burner. One of the first people to fly over the state as commercial ballooning took off in the ’80s, Zirpolo attracted emergency responders concerned about his fire-breathing flying machine, including, once, a Waterbury cop who arrested him after landing because, Zirpolo remembers the officer saying, “this must be illegal.” (It wasn’t; Waterbury police quickly released him.) Yet the unusual craft also drew plenty of spectators—and a few interested passengers. After enough people asked for rides, the pilot realized he could make a business out of a favorite hobby, and maybe earn enough money on summer flights to afford winterlong vacations on Sugarloaf. Soon after, he founded Berkshire Balloons.

“Robert can land on a postage stamp,” Brighenti tells me.

Few aeronauts joined Zirpolo back then, but ballooning, both as a tourism business and as a hobby, has grown ever since—partly because Zirpolo is around to train new pilots. Now, when he’s floating above the Farmington Valley west of Hartford, his passengers preoccupied with the fall foliage, he can chat on a long-range radio with a few of the Connecticut Lighter than Air Society’s fifty-odd members.

Berkshire Balloons has never really paid the bills. It’s more like a “bad habit,” something he hopes will pay for itself even if it can’t support a family. During the week, Zirpolo, now in his sixties, directs pilot training for Gama Aviation, which charters private jets for corporate clients. (“I fly a desk,” he said.) On weekend mornings, weather permitting, he flies balloon tours, clocking about a hundred flight-hours a year.

“The job is not flying,” he said. The job is attracting customers and repairing balloons. Flying—eyeing the pyrometer and manning the blast valve while passengers FaceTime their children from the sky—is the “cake of the job.”

“The best part about this business,” he said, “is that I get to go every time.”

———

On the airfield in Bethlehem, Zirpolo’s balloon is ready to ascend. Two twenty-something brothers, along with a man celebrating his seventieth birthday, join the pilot in the basket. It’s a snug fit. The balloon could maybe accommodate another person, but Zirpolo isn’t about to offer me a free ride in front of passengers who paid almost $300 for this early-morning flight. He unleashes a burst of flame—the last bit of heat needed to make the air inside the craft less dense than the air outside. The balloon detaches from the Earth.

The free ride I am offered gets fifteen miles to the gallon and remains woefully earthbound. Zirpolo has left me behind with his chase crew: longtime friend Jude Russell and Kristen Brighenti, his partner of almost two decades. The three of us will tail the balloon in a seventeen-year-old, twelve-seat Chevy Express, ready to disassemble the craft wherever it happens to land. With the burner still in earshot, we hop inside, rattle past a turkey, and start pursuing the aeronaut.

An hour later, we’re idling on a bridge in a small town north of Waterbury. Zirpolo, suspended somewhere in the foggy south, is checking in with Brighenti on his long-range radio, trying to decide where to land. He wants to know where the chase crew is. Brighenti brings the microphone to her mouth and tells the balloonist that we’re parked by a seafood shack called Crabby Al’s. She knows he has no idea where it is; she just finds the name funny. Russell, helpfully, chimes in with a nearby highway exit. That satisfies the pilot, who goes back to charting his course.

From the title “chase crew,” I’d expected a high-stakes hunt. Instead, I get a tour of central Connecticut, with highlights like Red’s Hardware, Jillie’s Ice Cream Parlor, and the ESPN broadcast headquarters in Bristol. While heat blasts from the dashboard, I learn that Russell is both an electrical engineering consultant and a yogi; I also learn that Brighenti once got a concussion while competing in a curling match. We pass the engineering plant where Russell used to work. There’s a nearby sign reading “Jude Lane”; she’d like to steal it someday.

Above us, Zirpolo looks down on suburban developments that used to be farmers’ fields. Lifelong Connecticut residents, gazing upon their state for the first time, often tell Zirpolo they’re surprised to see so many trees. He tells them to imagine taking an eraser to all the subdivisions built in the last twenty years. “Then you’d say, ‘Wow, there sure are a lot of trees here,’” he said. “I look at it as, ‘There sure is a lot of development here.’”

Not that those developments impede Zirpolo’s flying. “Robert can land on a postage stamp,” Brighenti tells me on our ride. He likes to set targets on his flights, aiming for landing spots other pilots would have a hard time hitting. The other balloonists who took off from the airstrip that morning have all put down near Thomaston, avoiding the fog.

Zirpolo’s nowhere near finished. While we’re by Crabby Al’s, his voice crackles over the Motorola. What sounds like static is actually the intermittent roar of the burner—he’s gaining altitude. Zirpolo says his “declared goal” is to fly over Mount Southington and touch down in a ski area called Panthorn Park, about twenty miles east of the launch site. Russell pulls into the street while Brighenti retorts: “Crew’s declared goal is to get there sometime today.”

———

Pilâtre de Rozier, the man who discovered the royal animals in the woods, was flying with a moron. It was November 21, 1783, and he and François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes, were floating over the French countryside, becoming the first men to fly in the process. All the pair had to do to keep their montgolfière afloat was shovel straw into an enclosed flame between them. But the Marquis wasn’t doing his job; he was too busy waving his handkerchief at the speechless crowds below. The balloon was losing altitude and drifting toward a thicket of windmills. “You’re not doing a thing, and we’re not climbing at all,” Pilâtre snapped, as Laurent later recounted in his journal. “Pardon,” he responded, pitchforking a bundle of straw into the fire.

The launch, from the residence of the royal children, had started off auspiciously enough. Sure, the resplendent blue-and-gold montgolfière, emblazoned with Louis XVI’s initials, developed a few holes that needed sewing on the launchpad. And a few people, upon witnessing the ascension, vomited with anxiety. But thousands simply watched with awe, including Benjamin Franklin, who, when asked about the use of this fledgling machine aérostatique, reportedly answered, “What’s the use of a newborn baby?”

After twenty-five minutes, Pilâtre and Laurent crash-landed in the countryside. When Pilâtre emerged from the half-wreck, peasants fought over shreds of his coat. What contemporary author Horace Walpole termed “balloonomania” soon erupted across France, with balloon-shaped dresses dominating fashion and dozens of amateur scientists imitating the machine’s design. Scholars predicted that the unwieldy montgolfière would soon be followed by fleets of deadly airships piloted by France’s finest aéronautes. Man would soon dominate the air.

French citizens looked at the invention with patriotic pride, seeing it as an equalizer that could bring fame to second-rate papermakers and perennial tinkerers, elevating them above terrestrial aristocrats. As Kim Mi Gyung described the atmosphere of the era in The Imagined Empire: Balloon Enlightenments in Revolutionary Europe, “Everybody was equal in the air.”

The ambitions of liberation partly inspired by this balloon frenzy lasted for years, eventually coming to a head in the French Revolution. But the golden age of professional ballooning ended just nineteen months after it began, when the first aeronaut died a fiery death at six thousand feet.

A national hero, Pilâtre de Rozier had set his sights on a new goal: crossing the English Channel. With a pension from the crown, he designed his own flying machine, the rozière, by placing a hydrogen balloon on top of a traditional montgolfière. (Because hydrogen is lighter than air, hydrogen balloons can ascend without added heat.) People told Pilâtre his invention wouldn’t work. Intent on proving them wrong, the irrepressible entertainer started out over the Channel in the hybrid machine. 

Within minutes, it burst into flames. “For a few moments,” Gillispie wrote in The Montgolfier Brothers, the pilot “hung motionless as the upper module became a globe of fire.” Spectators found Pilâtre’s body as the remains of his rozière washed ashore.

Balloonomania came to a decisive end; balloon bonnets were no longer in fashion. Etienne Montgolfier thought Pilâtre’s death might prove useful, pivoting public attention from spectacular demonstrations to a consideration of the technology’s practical applications. Unfortunately for him, balloons had none. The same craft that mesmerized Paris proved useless for transporting goods, bombs, or soldiers. “Balloons have always moved minds better than they’ve moved bodies,” Jason Pearl wrote in the Atlantic in 2018. France’s balloon dreams died alongside its first pilot.

———

Zirpolo won’t make it to Panthorn Park—the winds on this side of Mt. Southington are too variable. He’ll have to find somewhere in the suburbs to land, and “might have to drop the drop line,” which, if Russell’s hurried driving is any indication, isn’t a good sign. Without a ground crew to help stabilize the hundred-foot balloon as it descends toward grasping tree branches and looming power lines, any number of things could go wrong—especially if the wind picks up.

The golden age of professional ballooning ended just nineteen months after it began, when the first aeronaut died a fiery death at six thousand feet.

Russell rips down suburban streets, slowing at intersections to try to spot the surprisingly hard-to-find balloon. Then, we see it, an upside-down polychrome raindrop in the overcast sky. Russell starts hunting for a route to Zirpolo, avoiding cul-de-sacs and swerving past gawkers braking in the middle of the street.

We come to an intersection that looks to be all dead ends. Russell slows, almost stops—then Zirpolo squawks over the radio: “Make that right.” He’s spotted the Chevy from above. Russell turns down Pacer Lane; a throng of pajama-clad parents and kids, awestruck by the balloon floating a few dozen feet over their heads, come into view.

Brighenti is almost out of the van by the time Russell pulls it to the curb. “Hurry up!” Zirpolo shouts as the crew snatches onto the drop line, a sort of elongated seatbelt hanging from the basket. The balloon, lilting toward a roof, steadies to a hover. When Brighenti runs under the basket to strategize with the pilot, he yells for me to help Russell. I grab the drop line and tug.

Zirpolo lays off the burner for good. His cooling craft alights on the asphalt. “I’m Robert Zirpolo,” he announces to the children inching toward the balloon, whose skeleton and princess pajamas aren’t nearly warm enough for the 10 a.m. air. “How are you all doing?” The giggling kids scatter as Zirpolo opens a vent at the crown of the balloon, beginning its deflation.

The pilot conscripts parents, passengers, and children to pack up the balloon, which transitions from a mythical object to the world’s largest heap of laundry. We all stand in line and wait to stuff our handful of heavy fabric into a large brown sack. Zirpolo and the kids sit on the sack, flattening it so that it can fit in the back of the van. Then in goes the sack, the basket, Zirpolo, Russell, Brighenti, the brothers, the septuagenarian, and me. The doors clatter shut. We drive back to the launch site, retracing the arc Zirpolo flew over state forests and golf courses. “We were only going fifteen miles per hour. I wanted fifty,” the aeronaut says. He reacclimates to life on the ground as the van gets stuck in a narrow Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru. Russell has to turn onto an empty dirt lot to escape.

Back at the Bethlehem airfield, crew and pilot lay out a champagne-and-cheese breakfast, including bread Zirpolo baked at 5 a.m. that morning. He hands me a champagne glass with a miniature balloon etched on its surface. “We don’t care how old you are,” he laughs.

— Robert Scaramuccia is a senior in Trumbull College.

New Haven is a pockmarked city, riddled with reminders of an era when City Hall thought the only way to save it from economic peril was to tear out row houses and typewriter shops and replace them with beasts of concrete and steel. One of those beasts, the Knights of Columbus tower, looms over one such wound: an asphalt wasteland of parking lots, four-lane streets, and fenced-in parks left behind by twenty years of urban renewal.

Richard Munday says it’s not all bad. He likes how the tower scoffs at the surrounding streets, its colossal brown pillars refusing to perfectly nestle into the corner of Church Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But he’s an urban architect, and urban architects typically prefer cities with fabric, their streets and sidewalks and structures all interweaving into a cohesive whole. This area, between Union Station and Gateway Community College, definitely doesn’t fit that definition. It’s more like downtown’s frayed southern end.

The Knights of Columbus tower. Photo by Elinor Hills.

The Oak Street Connector freeway extends westward from the I-95, runs behind the Knights of Columbus tower, and feeds into the base of the former Alexion headquarters a few blocks away. Looking from the tower toward the Connector, it’s hard to remember that this blacktop sea used to be the Oak Street neighborhood, which, according to architectural historian Vincent Scully, was “one of the few [racially] integrated enclaves in New Haven.” Unfortunately for the residents who ran its thriving flea markets and lived in its decaying duplexes, Mayor Richard C. Lee (who served as mayor from 1954 to 1970) considered it a den of “whore houses and gin mills.”

During his tenure at City Hall, Lee buried Oak Street under paeans to the automobile age, like the Connector, the Knights of Columbus tower, and the New Haven Coliseum. A hockey stadium hidden under a four-story parking garage, the Coliseum was demolished in 2007, cheered on by hundreds of New Haveners who thought sparkling new developments would follow. More than a decade later, however, the gash in the city’s fabric remains, stranding residents in the adjacent Hill neighborhood—including the descendants of Oak Street’s refugees—behind the Connector.

More than a decade later, however, the gash in the city’s fabric remains, stranding residents in the adjacent Hill neighborhood—including the descendants of Oak Street’s refugees—behind the Connector.

If Munday and his partners get their way, that will soon change. Munday works for Newman Architects, a local firm that has already designed hundreds of mixed-income apartments and fifty thousand square feet of retail a block over from the empty Coliseum site. Now, they’ve turned their eyes toward the parking lots and barren streets that mark the remains of Oak Street, with the goal of reincorporating this area into downtown. “The development of this area is connected with extending the fabric that you see on that side of George Street, into this area, and then down to the train station,” Munday said. “Suddenly, this becomes not an edge, but a center.” That centering includes extending Orange Street across the Connector and into the Hill, linking it back to the central city.

Newman Architects’ founder, Herbert Newman, has been trying to “knit New Haven’s urban areas together again” for longer than almost anyone else. He has shaped the city’s public and commercial spaces over the last fifty years; the Oak Street revival could cement his reputation for reintroducing commerce and civic life to New Haven. Yet his past attempts to balance the interests of Yale, City Hall, and major property developers suggest that this project could further divide the city rather than putting its pieces back together.

“We proposed—” Newman starts, then stops. He jolts up to snatch some plans off a shelf across the room, walking less like the eighty-three-year-old he is and more like the thirty-something he was when he first opened this office in the nineteen-sixties—no nonsense, impatient to return to his point. Waning November light seeps in through slivers of glass cut into the brick wall, landing on foot-tall foam row houses, new floor plans for a burnt-out church, and a poster that asks, “Can a Public Library Renew Our Civil Society?” Before I can read its answer, Newman is back in his chair, plans on the table. “What we proposed,” he says, pausing for effect this time, “was that we move the city further east.”

By “city,” Newman means New Haven’s commercial core, defined by the Nine Squares. The north-south diamond they form has shaped the growth of New Haven, America’s first planned city, ever since colonial surveyor John Brockett cut them into the landscape in 1638. From his brick box of an office on the walkway between Morse College and Mory’s, Newman is trying to add a Tenth where the Coliseum once stood.

Which sounds, well, ambitious—maybe even impossible. But not if you’re someone who has already designed, renovated, or planned half the city, including Union Station, City Hall, and a magnet school in Wooster Square. Yale Law School, Jonathan Edwards College, most of Old Campus—the list goes on, and on. This is a man who “sees cities as sort-of a tableau, a canvas,” as New Haven economic development administrator Matthew Nemerson put it. Newman mentions this city in the same breath as “Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City, or Jerusalem, or Athens, or Corinth,” and over the last half-century, he has made it his masterwork.

Newman mentions this city in the same breath as “Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City, or Jerusalem, or Athens, or Corinth,” and over the last half-century, he has made it his masterwork.

The Tenth Square would be his latest brushstroke. The Knights of Columbus tower and a parking lot the size of a hockey rink now define this part of town, which lies a block southeast of Bow Tie Cinemas and the Omni Hotel. Newman thinks this area, roughly bounded by Union Station, the Ninth Square neighborhood, and the Church Street South housing projects, could become a colony of shops, restaurants, and apartments, all surrounding a new public square. He’s thinking on a scale not typically associated with architects, one at which individual buildings are more like bricks placed in service of a larger whole. “The city becomes the building,” Newman said later. “The city is the architecture.”

A recent model of the proposed Tenth Square. Credit to Newman Architects.

That sense of scale reigned supreme when Newman first trained as an architect. He spent his early childhood in nineteen-thirties New York, a city dominated by a “master builder”—and Yale graduate—named Robert Moses who grafted major arteries like the Triborough Bridge and modernist behemoths like Lincoln Center onto the urban grid. By the time his family moved to Waterbury, Connecticut, four-year-old Newman was obsessed with sketching those structures.

“This is a stretch, but if New Haven is Rome, then Waterbury is Florence,” Newman said, remembering how he marveled at the towns of the Naugatuck River Valley. Their grand city halls and railroad stations, built by men made rich by the Industrial Revolution, entranced him.

“This is a stretch, but if New Haven is Rome, then Waterbury is Florence.”

He enrolled in the Yale School of Architecture on the heels of Richard Lee’s 1954 election as mayor of New Haven. Lee would soon try his best Moses impersonation, razing “slums” with federal funds and replacing them with the Connector, the Chapel Square Mall, and the Elm Haven high-rises. Most city planners and urban architects welcomed these transformative projects—Newman’s professors were no different. Yale president A. Whitney Griswold commissioned renowned modernists like Eero Saarinen to design Ingalls Rink and Morse and Stiles residential colleges, while the University’s architecture professors praised the magnificence of marble cubes like the Beinecke Library. Newman’s teachers argued that the best buildings conquered their streets, proclaiming their uniqueness rather than fitting into a preexisting fabric.

Newman learned those lessons on the fourth floor of one such building: Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery, where the architecture school used to be. Its entrance sits back from the street, perpendicular to and raised above the sidewalk. “That building had a profound effect upon me,” he said. “And, of course, Kahn was there as well.” Kahn’s experiments with “structure, mechanical systems, light, [and] space” amazed Newman. He learned to design and draw from the same men who were constructing “great cathedrals” all around him, testing how far they could go “with these aspirations to build to heaven.”

After graduating in 1959, Newman got a job with modernist architect I. M. Pei, designer of the Louvre Pyramid and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. He commuted between New York and New Haven, where he’d started a family. “I did that by train, early in the morning and back late at night,” he said. “The train was a great place to sleep, but it was [also] a great place to work and read.” In 1961, while Newman had all that time to read, a book came out that would fundamentally reshape how he—and the entire architectural field—thought of cities.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written by a little-known Greenwich Village author, Jane Jacobs. She called her work an “attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” one that denounced the buildings Newman had been trained to build as cold, distant, and fundamentally anti-urban. She thought planners and city officials like Moses in New York and Lee in New Haven were tearing down what cities needed to thrive.

“Essentially, Jacobs and others, they saw the joy and the wonder of growing up in neighborhoods where there were street corners where you could shop, and neighbors could meet, and people could sit on stoops and converse with one another,” Newman said. “And people felt safe because they knew who was in the neighborhood and who was not. [Neighborhoods] were lively, they had texture and they had history.” Urban renewal projects ripped those neighborhoods from the city fabric and replaced them with out-of-context modernist objects. The Knights of Columbus tower and the New Haven Coliseum, for example, were simply less personable than the dense neighborhood they supplanted.

“While European cities were destroyed by bombs, our cities were being destroyed by planners. The bombs [were] being dropped by us.”

Newman brought Jacobs’s distaste for urban renewal with him when he left his job with I. M. Pei to accept a teaching position at the School of Architecture and a job working on Yale’s master plan. “It was as if New Haven was part of World War II,” he said. “While European cities were destroyed by bombs, our cities were being destroyed by planners. The bombs [were] being dropped by us.” Working out of a small office on Chapel Street, then quickly moving to his current location near Morse and Stiles, he started on his goal of “replacing the missing teeth” knocked out by modernist planning.

The offices of Newman Architects in New Haven. Photo by Elinor Hills.

Believing “streets are the most important places in cities,” much of his work in New Haven has involved substituting classically urban buildings, like apartment complexes with shops on the ground floor, for the hulking monoliths and vacant lots characteristic of urban renewal. His firm’s design for Arnold Hall on Broadway, for example, provided space for Belgian café Maison Mathis on the bottom floor, while extending the street’s characteristic brick curtains above. Newman buildings meld into the streetscape, and are often “spectacular when you see them, but invisible when you don’t,” according to Nemerson, the city official.

“He’s not a polemical architect. He’s not about staking out positions,” said Alan Plattus, director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop. “It’s like Herb is right in the middle of things, but not conspicuously.” Over the years, Newman earned a reputation as a “citizen-architect,” one who showed a “genuine commitment to the city” by paying careful attention to history and context rather than trying to build something grand on every street corner.

That reputation was fully established by the time Karyn Gilvarg became New Haven’s city planner in the nineteen-nineties. “Herb and [his partners] will pick up the phone and call you if they are curious about something, or if they think they can help, or if they’re concerned about something they see in the paper,” said Gilvarg, who left the City Plan Department in 2017. The phone line also worked in the other direction, when city officials needed to consult with someone who knew the city’s built environment inside and out.

That’s essentially what happened with the Tenth Square proposal. The Coliseum was a sports and entertainment arena with a garage suspended above it; rusting and poorly maintained, it not only overshadowed Orange Street, but also blocked views of the sky from the surrounding sidewalks. When former Mayor John DeStefano condemned the structure in 2002, Newman saw a chance to reweave the streets it had suppressed into a more cohesive fabric.

When former Mayor John DeStefano condemned the structure in 2002, Newman saw a chance to reweave the streets it had suppressed into a more cohesive fabric.

Many of his ideas for the site had been tested just a block over in the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties, in the Residences at Ninth Square development. On four blocks near Elm City Market, south of the Green and north of the Oak Street Connector, Newman had applied his style to an entire neighborhood for the first time—the Ninth Square was his first large-scale attempt “to put the smile back in the mouth of New Haven.” His love for intimate sidewalks and storefronts mixed with the flair for grand gestures he’d learned as an architecture student, leading to a project that some “wish we could keep repeating” throughout the city. Others think it only deepened New Haven’s economic divisions.

“This is a drawing of the Ninth Square,” said Munday, Newman’s colleague, showing me a computer-generated skyline with the Ninth Square lit brightly orange. Newman, now wintering in Florida, had sent me back to his firm’s office to look at plans for the neighborhood. “It was mainly warehouses and small businesses,” Munday continues. “Then, during the period of the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies, it emptied out. All those businesses disappeared. What was left were largely empty buildings, or very underutilized buildings.”

Newman Architects’ rendering of the Ninth Square. Credit to Newman Architects.

Before the neighborhood’s decline, five-and-dime stores like W. T. Grant and Kresge’s sold everything from parakeets to dish soap, while Horowitz Bros. sold zippers, fabric, and other sewing materials. One store sold only buttons. “It had this faded museum quality that might’ve been very charming, but was not economically very viable,” said Gilvarg, the city planner.

The displacement of Oak Street’s residents, along with white flight to the suburbs, cost those stores many of their shoppers. Facades fell apart and vacant lots cropped up. “New Haven was in pretty bad shape,” Munday said. “There was a pretty strong sentiment that cities were on their way out, that there was no future for cities, really.”

“New Haven was in pretty bad shape,” Munday said. “There was a pretty strong sentiment that cities were on their way out, that there was no future for cities, really.”

In 1989, Newman and his firm produced a master plan to guide real estate developers McCormack Baron and The Related Companies in their revitalization of the Ninth Square. The plans called for the renovation of existing facades and the construction of infill apartments and garages that would unify the streetscape. Altogether, they built 335 mixed-income apartments, with fifty-thousand square feet of ground-floor retail. All the new buildings—including the garages—were covered in orange brick and green window frames to create a unified aesthetic. “They fit in,” Gilvarg said. “They don’t look like fake, plastic copies of historic buildings.”

The ideals driving Newman’s design, however, ran up against the realities of modern-day development. To remake the urban fabric, the area’s stragglers needed to leave, at least according to the developers and the city. Twenty-five businesses were forced out, leaving “an eyesore of graffiti, soaped windows, and boarded up storefronts,” according to a Yale Law School paper written by law student Christopher Miller.

Written in 2011, Miller’s paper captures how difficult it is to create community-oriented living through idealistic design. On one afternoon, Miller saw three middle schoolers playing in a courtyard in the new Ninth Square development, their parents watching them. “After about five minutes a manager came over and walked between the parent and her sister to castigate the children in front of them. ‘No, you are not supposed to play out here, you are not allowed to play ball out here!’”

The development’s sidewalks have plaques that memorialize notable community members, but many of the shops, “designed with the downtown office crowd in mind,” are “prohibitively expensive for the average subsidized tenants,” according to the paper. Restaurants like Barcade and 116 Crown price lower-income tenants out of the city fabric that Newman wove back together.

The Ninth Square today. Photo by Elinor Hills.

Influenced by Jane Jacobs, most architects and planners today would prefer Newman’s contextual, street-based designs over the monumental modernism of Mayor Lee. His designs were meant to welcome all kinds of residents. “I would argue for diversity,” he said. “I would argue that we should not just have shops which have national recognition, which can afford very high rents, and make it a classy place like Rodeo Drive or…Palm Beach.”

And yet it’s impossible to separate Newman’s redesign from the gentrification that followed. This paradoxical relationship, between inclusive designs and somewhat exclusive results, is even more apparent in the firm’s follow-up to the Ninth Square: Broadway.

Broadway, in many ways, is the quintessential expression of Newman’s architectural philosophy, which boils down to three words. “It’s path, it’s place, and it’s portal,” he said. “At the confluence of paths, you can make great places. At those places, you can make portals, which create special points of squeezing people to come together to enter a place.”

Sitting at the intersection of paths like Whalley Avenue, Goffe Street, and Elm Street, Broadway is a place that straddles the divide between Yale’s central campus and Dixwell, a historically black New Haven neighborhood. Properly designed, Newman argued, Broadway could act as a portal through which city residents and Yale students could be introduced into one another’s spaces.

It definitely wasn’t serving that role when Newman set up shop off Broadway in the nineteen-sixties. New Haven was struggling with poverty and crime, the fruits of urban renewal and deindustrialization. Yale had built most of the residential colleges in the thirties; its twelve gated courtyards, including a few right across from Broadway, choked the connection between the campus and Dixwell.

But by the nineteen-eighties, the city’s reputation had deteriorated to the point that Yale started to worry about admissions numbers. Administrators concluded that since the university could not close itself off from New Haven’s problems, they needed some kind of buffer zone between the campus and the city. So a new tactic arose: investing in properties adjacent to the university.

Broadway still had several thriving businesses in the nineteen-nineties, including the Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop and Cutler’s record shop. But, according to Newman, the relative lack of shoppers made the presence of panhandlers across the street from undergraduate housing more obvious. Students in the architecture school had been reimagining Broadway as part of their coursework for years. Yale took those ideas, and hired Newman to run with them. “It was Yale turning its face, rather than its back, to the city,” Newman said. “We were the instrument.”

His firm seemed the perfect team for the task, having been located just off Broadway for thirty years. When Newman was hired, you could still conceivably claim his offices were on the dividing line between college and city. The fact that Nemerson, the city’s economic development chief, could characterize the neighborhood today as “the epitome of Yale” speaks to how effectively Newman’s redesign rebranded the street. Widened brick sidewalks, narrowed roads, cast iron fences and lampposts, American elms that hid a central parking lot—with these modifications, Newman Architects facilitated the creation of “The Shops at Yale.” Sprucing up the street made it much easier for Yale to rent out Broadway properties it had bought up, which in turn brought more pedestrians to the area.

“It isn’t that there’s less panhandlers there now than there were in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies,” Newman said. “Many of them are the same people that I’ve known for fifty years on those streets.” He says the number of panhandlers, “fundamentally safe” people “trying to make a living,” has stayed the same, but the increase in shoppers has improved the street’s reputation.

Broadway isn’t a sort-of urban utopia, the kind of thing Jane Jacobs might hold up as a model of dense, integrated urban living.

That may have truth to it. But the street isn’t a sort-of urban utopia, the kind of thing Jane Jacobs might hold up as a model of dense, integrated urban living. Shoppers from the suburbs, having parked in the elm-lined parking lot, don’t often stop to speak with the locals waiting under the newly painted bus shelter. And any panhandler would be hard-pressed to collect enough money to buy anything at most of the stores on the street, as Barbour, Lou Lou, and a dozen other “unique boutique[s]” have replaced the diners and record shops.

“That is a danger, no question about it,” Newman said about Broadway’s gentrification. “The university is in a unique position to be able to balance the aspirations of its real estate holdings with those of its students, and all of the citizens and people who live in New Haven.” It has failed so far, in the eyes of those who consider the street an extension of the “Yale bubble.”

Maison Mathis on Broadway. Photo by Elinor Hills.

Munday, the partner at Newman’s firm, pointed out that Broadway has always been a shopping street, and that “commerce is at the heart of cities.” And there’s an argument to be made for high-end shopping districts, whose properties can be taxed substantially to fund public services for struggling areas. But a gentrified city street doesn’t quite live up to Newman’s inclusive vision. His brick sidewalks effectively claimed the street for Yale, making it less of a portal and more of a boundary.

Newman’s role in Yale’s conquering of Broadway seems almost like the payment of a debt, whether the architect intended it to be or not. The University not only gave him his degree, but also offered him his first job in a city he reveres. It invested $12.5 million in the Ninth Square redevelopment, which Newman says “wouldn’t have happened without Yale.” If Newman has his way, something similar could happen with the Tenth Square.

“That’s an opportunity here,” Newman says, hitting the table in his office for emphasis. “Some people at Yale would argue that, ‘Well, the Coliseum site is a little far away’…I don’t believe that. New Haven is a small town. Each of these tendrils, they reach out and they call to each other.”

The Tenth Square project has been mired in delays since 2011, when Newman officially signed on to create a master plan. The original plans for the site stretched across six city blocks, including a new community college on Church Street, residential, retail, and office space on the Knights of Columbus and Coliseum parking lots, and infill buildings on the other side of George Street. Newman’s designs called for a grand, tree-lined avenue parallel to George St., the kind of public street that “make[s] you proud of being a citizen of a city like New Haven, because you’re there with everybody else,” he said.

Importantly for the Hill, the plans also included an extension of Orange Street over the Connector and into the detached neighborhood. It would become a path that connected residents of Church Street South to the new civic hub, and downtown as a whole.

Yet, in 2018, nothing has been built. The developer, LiveWorkLearnPlay, has had trouble financing the project. Delay after delay has forced the firm to rein in its plans. Gateway Community College went up on Church Street in 2012, but it wasn’t designed by Newman. The Knights of Columbus have backed out of building anything on their lot. Most of the residents of Church Street South were relocated after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development judged it uninhabitable. The Tenth Square now only includes the lot on which the Coliseum once stood.

The Tenth Square could be the last floor he adds to the building that is his city, a final statement of what New Haven should look and feel like, of how its residents could interact with one another.

That lot is still big enough to host almost one-thousand apartments, along with thousands of square feet of retail space. But Newman has gone from his late seventies to his early eighties since signing onto the project. The Tenth Square could be the last floor he adds to the building that is his city, a final statement of what New Haven should look and feel like, of how its residents could interact with one another.

And it’s hard to know what that statement will ultimately be. Newman is known—even loved—for helping rebuild New Haven after the ravages of urban renewal. Yet for all his adoration of Jane Jacobs’s sidewalks and storefronts, there’s evidence of a modernist streak left over from the days of Kahn and Moses and Lee, one that compels him toward the creation of modern-day “cathedrals” even as he acknowledges the failures of the old.

For all his emphasis on inclusivity, his two largest projects have contributed to gentrification. This citizen-architect, earnestly trying to build the city for all, has been caught up in Yale’s incursions into nearby neighborhoods. Spaces like Broadway and the Ninth Square are well-designed, civic, and enjoyable, but often only if you make enough money. If the Tenth Square gets built, only to be filled with more “unique boutiques” and Barcades, then the philosophy of path, place, and portal will fall short of filling the holes created by urban renewal.

— Robert Scaramuccia is a junior in Trumbull College.

Hundreds of refugees scrambled into the United States in early February after a Seattle judge halted President Donald J. Trump’s ban. While the Trump administration decides whether to appeal to the Supreme Court or rewrite the executive order altogether, people fleeing violence and persecution will continue trickling into the United States, seeking to build new lives from scratch.

But what will the more than two hundred and fifty thousand refugees already living here tell these newcomers about American life? Where can they pray, buy familiar food, or obtain the proper job certification? What is here to help recent arrivals feel welcome?

According to Yale College senior Elena Hodges, not enough. And the resources that do exist are hard to find.

Hodges, a Political Science major, started working with an Iraqi refugee family, the Al-Mashhadanis, in Fair Haven in late 2015 through the Yale Refugee Project. She quickly became close with the family’s seven children and saw up-close the obstacles they faced. The children, who range in age from one-and-a-half to twenty years old, felt socially isolated. They struggled in school, finding it difficult to learn English along with algebra and American history. The family didn’t have a car, meaning the nearest Islamic center was forty-five minutes away instead of fifteen.

Hodges thinks RAMP has the potential to change the way people think about refugee resettlement in addition to connecting refugees to the resources they need.

“That relationship just kind of got me thinking about why it is that people fall through the cracks in terms of accessing social services,” said Hodges. “New Haven has hundreds and hundreds of NGOs. But there are still a ton of people who aren’t getting access to those services.”

Part of the problem is that Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), the nonprofit that resettled the family Hodges knows as well as hundreds of others, has only six months to integrate refugees into new communities. After that, federal funding dries up quickly. IRIS receives 60 percent of its revenue in the form of federal grants, meaning it must adhere to federal guidelines that prioritize short-term resettlement over long-term support. IRIS executive director Chris George described the government’s traditional philosophy as hasty.

“Just get them off to a good start, then pivot and welcome another family that’s coming tomorrow night,” he said.

Hodges considered the problems facing the Al-Mashhadani family and others like them more urgent than anything she could address by writing a research paper. So for her Human Rights Scholars capstone project, she decided to develop something that the Al-Mashhadanis could use to find services.

She came up with the Resource Access Mapping Project (RAMP), a tool that refugees and other service-seekers will eventually access on their smartphones. Inspired by similar projects in Berlin, Vancouver, and New Orleans, RAMP marks the location of every service provider relevant to refugees in New Haven, from soup kitchens and Goodwill stores to domestic violence shelters and mental health clinics. It tells users whether a provider’s location is wheelchair accessible. It lists the documents users should bring with them in order to receive services. It comes in English, Spanish, and Arabic, offers a community rating system, and integrates with Google Maps so users can add a food pantry to their daily bus route. It even maintains a FAQ page on topics like community farming, as well as information about family-friendly recreational activities.

At least, Hodges hopes it will do all this eventually.

“As of now, this is all kind of conjecture and theory,” she said. “It’s not real yet.”

RAMP is still in its spreadsheet phase, sprawling across twenty-three columns and 447 rows. Hodges and a team of volunteers, including Yale undergraduates and members of the Law and Medical schools, are working to make it a reality by the end of the semester using Kricket, an app aiming to create a crowdsourced, worldwide map of resources for refugees.

Although the map’s first iteration will only come in English and will only display provider locations rather than integrating with other apps, it still reflects a semester’s worth of research. Hodges and her team combed through New Haven’s prisoner reentry guides, consulted with experts at Yale Medical School, and called provider after provider to confirm their hours, services, and accessibility.

“My whole approach has been mostly to reach out to people who do the work in the community already, and to have it be made in communication with the people it’s targeted at,” she said.

Hodges admits her project is limited: it can’t reverse restrictive immigration policies, for example. But she thinks RAMP has the potential to change the way people think about refugee resettlement in addition to connecting refugees to the resources they need.

A guiding principle of RAMP is that, beyond having food in the pantry and clothes for the family, refugees deserve to live fulfilling lives. “‘Do I have employment that excites me? Am I leading a life that I actually care about, rather than just getting through another day?’…That’s not something that there’s really support for,” Hodges said. She hopes making refugees more familiar with available resources will allow them to focus on other aspects of their lives.

RAMP is welcome news to Joseph, a Congolese lawyer and refugee who arrived in Connecticut last October. (He did not want his last name to be published.) After five years of interviews and security checks, all while bouncing between Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, and Kakuma, its second-largest refugee camp, he now has a permanent home in the U.S.

With his IRIS-provided smartphone, Joseph is ready to use RAMP whenever it becomes available.

Halfway through his six months with IRIS, Joseph has the basics down. IRIS shuttled him, his wife, and his three children to their new home on their first day in New Haven. His kids are in school, and he just got a job at a packaging supply store. He feels safe—even welcomed. He’s amazed that strangers on the bus say “bless you” when he sneezes.

Yet his mental map of the city has holes. He wants to find cassava, a staple food in the Democratic Republic of Congo that’s hard to come by here. His children want to visit a zoo. With his IRIS-provided smartphone, he’s ready to use RAMP whenever it becomes available.

“It’s a good idea, a good idea,” he said. “Yes, yes, yes, yes. Because, you know, you have children, sometimes [it’s] not only good to bring them just to [the] library. The children like to know, to see animals, to see the mountains. It’s very, very good.”