Finding Its Center

The Yale Center for British Art is a shell of its former self. The once-open portico at the entrance has been sealed off and replaced by a single small door. The lobby is a construction zone draped in blue tarp. The museum, closed for renovations this past January, will not reopen until spring 2016. As I walk to the front desk, I feel I’m interrupting a work in progress.

Stripped down to its steel frame, the YCBA is ready for renewal. The conservation project is the Center’s largest refurbishment since 1998. It is a critical upgrade of the nearly 40-year-old infrastructure, but the plan goes beyond routine maintenance. The Center’s staff aspires to return to architect Louis I. Kahn’s original vision, using blueprints, sketches, and notes from the 1974 construction.

“You’ll have to wear a hardhat,” YCBA Deputy Director Constance Clement tells me, “and sign this release form.” The chaotic construction site is the culmination of more than a decade of planning by YCBA Director Amy Meyers and Clement. We climb the stairs to the fourth floor, holding railings wrapped in plastic. The Center’s installation team carefully moves the art to other floors before the construction proceeds, attentive to Paul Mellon’s request that works of art he donated be housed in the building. Much of the building has been torn out—the carpets, the linen walls, the insulation, the movable gallery walls, down to the tubes that drain condensation from the windows. The gruff world of construction has temporarily taken the place of delicate paintings.

Blueprint for the Yale Center for British Art
Blueprint for the Yale Center for British Art

Daphne Kalomiris, an architect with Knight Architecture LLC, explains the logistics as we walk through the Center. The exterior walls will be stuffed with a mineral wool for insulation. The moveable interior walls will be raised slightly off the floor, in keeping with a 1974 Kahn sketch.

The level of attention to the smallest functional detail is reminiscent of Kahn’s own obsessive care for design. “We’ve literally had to get inside of Kahn’s mind,” Kalomiris explains. She describes studying every scrap of planning that Kahn left behind. His vision was grand: a building that would provide the best possible viewing experience and still leave spaces for study, fulfilling the Center’s educational goals.

In a way, the building is the Center’s greatest work of art, a masterpiece whose original materials are part of its ethos. As we continue along the fourth floor, Clement and Kalomiris lift up a strip of wood from the floor to reveal travertine underneath. “It’s less expensive and less effort to replace travertine tiles than to repair them,” Kalomiris gestures to the cracks and worn edges, “but our entire mission is to conserve.”

This notion of conservation extends even to the layout of the galleries and their relationship to the art they contain. The 1998 renovation project divided the fourth floor’s Long Gallery, but the new renovations will reopen the space. It will be filled with salon-style hangings—dense, floor-to-ceiling painting displays, instead of the widely-spaced displays common in modern museums—and will no longer be subdivided. The change will allow the display of a greater number of works. The fact that so much of the Center’s collection has been destined to a life of sitting in storage is perhaps a fundamental pitfall of all art museums: art calls to be seen, yet buildings are inevitably constrained by size and contemporary standards of display. The renovations will allow the YCBA to escape some of those constraints. At the east end of the Long Gallery, a new Collections Seminar Room, similar to the current Study Room on the second floor, will allow students and visitors to work closely with individual prints, drawings, and rare books.

Even while closed, the Center remains dedicated to sharing its work with the public. It recently lent works to the Yale University Art Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Metropolitan Museum of Art. In conjunction with the release of its recent book co-published with the School of Architecture, Louis Kahn in Conversation, the YCBA has also organized lectures at Yale and at the upcoming New Haven International Festival of Arts & Ideas this summer. Linda Friedlaender, the Center’s curator of education, has continued to oversee Artism, a weekend art program for children on the autism spectrum. And the Center’s student guide program has kept up its weekly training sessions.

We descend the stairs and find ourselves once more in the lobby. Stepping over blue tarp, I think of director Amy Meyer’s words that the conservation plan the Center has published is a “living, breathing document.” Never before has it felt more appropriate to see the YCBA as a living, breathing building, one that has reached another critical point in its lifespan.

Catie Liu is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College


Buy The Book


At the beginning of every semester, Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres stands at the front of the classroom and opens his wallet. He pulls out crisp bills and hands them out, one by one, to the passing law students. The students walk out not only with their casebooks, but also with ten dollars from the author himself.

In a 2005 New York Times opinion article titled “Just What the Professor Ordered,” Ayres sparked a national debate when he wrote, “Professors’ incentives in choosing textbooks are in some ways more distorted than doctors’ incentives in choosing drugs.” On average, course book authors receive ten percent of the cover price in royalties for each book sold. Ayres argued that they could abuse their freedom to assign reading for financial gain.

Ayres finds this freedom particularly alarming given soaring textbook prices. In 2013, the National Association of College Stores, a campus retail group, estimated the cost of one new textbook to be seventy-nine dollars, bringing the average cost of a student’s required course materials to over six hundred dollars per semester.

The American Association of University Professors delegates responsibility to individual universities to regulate this ethical quandary. Professors at Virginia State, the University of Minnesota, and Southern Utah University, for example, must have their syllabi screened by committees for potential conflicts of interest. After a November 2014 article published in the University of Buffalo’s newspaper, The Spectrum, exposed professors who assign their own books for profit, the university’s Faculty Senate instated a committee to draft a policy addressing the matter.

Yale, however, does not monitor the texts professors assign. When I scoured the new Faculty Standards of Conduct draft, I found no mention of the topic. When I wrote Stephanie Spangler, head of the Ad Hoc Committee on Faculty Standards of Conduct, she confirmed its absence and directed me to the University’s policy on conflicts of interest, where, again, there was no explicit reference to assigning textbooks.

Regardless, some Yale professors have heard Ayres’s clarion call. Journalism professor Steven Brill promised to give his students a check if they purchased his book, America’s Bitter Pill, at the end of this past semester. Music professor Craig Wright puts a picture of a ten-dollar bill on the last slide of his presentations, prompting students to come forward and “retrieve the money that is rightly theirs.” But most Yale educators are reluctant to make such refunds.

I walk into American Studies professor Matthew Jacobson’s office to discuss one of twelve required texts on his “Formations of Modern American Culture” syllabus, What Have They Built You to Do, a book about Cold War America and the film The Manchurian Candidate. My questions, however, aren’t about McCarthyism or communist ideology. Instead, they are about present-day capitalism. The book, co-written by Jacobson, costs $1.04 on Amazon for a used copy, $10.87 for a Kindle edition, and $17.96 for a new paperback. “None of us are in it for the money,” Jacobson tells me, “People don’t even think of it as income. I can show you stubs from royalty checks that are, like, forty dollars.”

Professor Robyn Creswell assigns his own edition of That Smell and Notes from Prison for the course “Politics and Literature of the Middle East.” He, too, responds to my questions with a shrug. As a translator, his royalties are only one to two percent of the cover price, and only when the book is purchased new. Jacobson hasn’t negotiated for Kindle profits, and professor David Blight says he makes no royalties off A Slave No More “for complicated contractual reasons.”

I’ve been at Yale for four semesters and I’ve been assigned five books written by my professors, on everything from environmental law to poetry. I haven’t asked any professors for a refund. But inspired by Ayres’s insistence, I shyly ask professor Creswell whether he’d consider handing out cash if the profits were greater. “Maybe I would take students out for doughnuts,” he says.

As I speak to professor Ayres on the phone, I pace back and forth in Sterling’s nave, watching students thumb through thousands of dollars worth of readings. I’ve started viewing the books as their receipts, but Ayres snaps me out of it, reminding me that books, above all, are meant to teach students. “I’m hired to transmit ideas I think are of value,” Ayres says. “Assigning a book you’ve written allows you to more officially profess ideas you created and believe in passionately.”

But there’s an inherent conflict of interest here, too. Can—or will—students objectively discuss and critique the author’s argument when their grade depends on their relationship with said author?

When professor Creswell asks my class what we think of his translation, we compliment the rawness of the language, the shortness of the sentences. We don’t find anything to criticize. But, Creswell says, “students certainly have to be made to feel that they are interlocutors,” empowered to participate and respond.

To that end, Jacobson asks his graduate students to write critical responses to the readings he assigns, including his own. “If they promise to be respectful, I promise not to be defensive,” he chuckles. Similarly, Brill assigns the forty-page article upon which America’s Bitter Pill was based, providing students with thick stacks of the photocopied pages. “I told them to find something badly sourced or badly written,” he says.

Some professors circumvent the question of textbook profits by allocating them to a charity related to their field. John Grim, who teaches courses on religion and ecology, donates to Native American groups. George Chauncey, the instructor of “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” donates to groups advocating for LBGTQ rights and researching AIDS.

But Ayres still implores Yale professors to consider returning the proceeds to the students who are there to learn. “I call upon students to ask their professors to join me in disgorging the profits,” he proclaims. “Rather than there being a law, let’s start modestly by just politely asking.” Nowadays, he prefers to let his administrative assistant handle this “disgorgement,” as he calls it. Handing out cash himself has come to seem too dramatic, he says. And besides, he doesn’t always have exact change.

The Panthean Temple’s Occult Community

Nothing seems to shock Alicia. The best anyone can manage is to make her laugh. She doesn’t emit a chuckle, exactly. It’s more a thrum, a trill, always drawn out a beat too long. It’s what I hear when I ask her on the phone if I can join any of the events at the Panthean Temple. Weekly rituals are open to the public, so she sends me a friend request on Facebook and tells me that next Saturday’s gathering will be an “Ostara.” But she offers no further explanation.

The sign outside Alicia’s door reads, “Witches Parking Only, All Others Will Be Toad.” When we meet, her overall effect is handsome: her tranquil gaze, her cascading reddish hair and her wide figure, clad in black velour. We pass through a small kitchen and take a seat in a living room filled with paintings and pagan paraphernalia. To the world, she is the Reverend Alicia Lyon Folberth, president and priestess of Connecticut’s first Wiccan and pagan temple. Her website boasts of its certification: the Temple is a 501(c)3 organization. Alicia is now a neophyte, by oath, in what is called Odyssean Wicca. She is recognized as head clergy by the state, authorizing her to make hospital visitations and perform weddings and funerals. But she also gives psychic readings on a website run out of Luxembourg, and performs tarot readings at cafes.

I let Alicia steer the conversation. She loops in and out of anecdotes—a deluge of leads that I want to follow but can’t, because her stories run on. Soon it becomes clear that there is no temple. There is Alicia’s apartment in Derby, Connecticut. There is Panera Bread, a favorite meeting place. There was a Unitarian church, but only briefly. There was also Alicia’s bookstore in East Haven, but she lost it during the hard years when the recession struck, just as she was divorcing her husband. I realize that the Temple exists wherever Alicia may be.

Wicca is a religion that’s hard to pin down. Developed in mid-twentieth-century England, it draws on ancient and modern conceptions of the occult. Attending public classes is the first stage of commitment; once neophytes have sworn their oaths, membership in the Temple, the Outer Court, and the Inner Court, comes into reach. The Temple’s Articles of Faith could constitute a manifesto of modern liberalism: “Harm none”; religious tolerance; environmental consciousness; gender parity.

But the Panthean Temple’s congregants are not united by any particular tradition. Rather, they share a propensity for free religious thinking, since most having turned away from the strict faith in which they were raised. Asked to explain the difference between prayer and Wicca magic, Alicia tells that me that magic “is an active form of prayer. We’re working directly without deities, there’s not this kind of top-down structure.” Pagans, from what I gather, are people who see the status quo as corrupt. Before the ritual, the conversation winds from the danger of vaccines, to the menace of corporations, to the greediness of Christianity.

Looking back, Alicia tells me that she found divinity in the woods of North Salem, New York. One day, her father began to chop down her favorite tree, and from inside, she could hear her tree screaming. Why couldn’t her parents hear it? In adolescence, she discovered that she was telekinetic, too. “It’s weird when things fall off the wall,” she says, “and you realize it’s because you’re angry.”

These experiences drove Alicia to seek a spiritual outlet. At the suggestion of a holistic veterinarian who had treated her ferret, she started studying Reiki, the Japanese energy-based healing practice. When a guy she’d met on a high school production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show popped up years later at a comic book signing in Philadelphia in full medieval costume, the two began dating and frequenting Dungeons and Dragons gatherings, where she met a woman who became her first Wiccan teacher. She met another at the Department of Motor Vehicles, in the early years of her practice.

People eventually turn up to the apartment, and each offers another variation on Wicca. A man and woman in their sixties are followed by a young mother carrying a two-year-old. Pat, the young mother, says that, during her Catholic upbringing, she always felt troubled by phrases like “God-fearing,” but loved learning about Greek mythology in school. So when her family got Internet access in 1997 and she discovered paganism, she immediately felt it was right for her. It took a decade for her to work up the nerve to go to a festival. Today, she’s one of Alicia’s most committed students.

When we finally begin the ritual after hours of chitchat, it turns out to be a simple affair. We stand at the corners of a small table that holds incense and candles, and we chant, “We are a circle, we are moving together, we are one.” We chant, “Hail, and welcome!” to the north, south, east, and west. We invoke Greek gods and then read a version of the myth of Hades and Persephone. We finish with a sip of grape juice and a bite of cookie. Where was the sacrifice? The spell conjuring? I look at my watch and note that, out of three hours together, we spent thirty minutes on the ritual.

These people have come together half out of a search for alternative religion, and half out of a desire for an accepting community. As Alicia’s wild life indicates, the Panthean Temple is far from just a space for witchcraft. As I look around the room, I remember the words of the older couple, erstwhile hippies who were present at the Panthean Temple’s first ritual in 1995. They are not open about their practice, so they suggest I call them Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And they insist they are not pagan, not really—they have their own nature-centric belief system. But they are here because, as Mrs. Smith mentions, “it gets a little lonely having a spirituality of just one.”

Nobody’s Home

bilgerOne plowed road cuts through the center of Johnsonville, Connecticut, and snow is piled high on either side. Beyond the road’s ragged edges, about twenty Victorian houses stand empty. They’re scattered in this plot of land as if airdropped, randomly spaced and facing different directions, like pigeons that landed in a snow bank. The paint on their walls is chipped and fading, save for a few remaining patches of jaunty red or turquoise. Some of their windows are broken but many are intact. One has a suitcase wedged into its frame. There are security cameras on every door.

For many months, this village was for sale. It was on the market from spring 2013 until late last October, when all sixty-two acres of it went up for auction at the starting price of $800,000. Considering it is part of the town of East Haddam, where single-family dwellings that are not historic Victorian homesteads regularly sell for over $300,000, this asking price was almost desperately low. The auction closed on Halloween and the property sold for $1.9 million to an undisclosed buyer.

Johnsonville’s glory days have come and gone, a few times. From around 1850 to 1930 it was a prosperous milling community on the Moodus River. It was home to the Neptune Twine and Cord Company, owned by the village’s namesake, Emory Johnson. It was never much more than a company town—the mill, the mill office, the mill owner’s homestead, and a few workers’ cottages—but it did well enough. Johnson had the money to carve nice Victorian details into his wraparound porch. The century moved on, though, and as local manufacturing faded, the town went into decline.

Then, in the 1960s, local aerospace millionaire Raymond Schmitt acquired the town piece by piece—starting with the mill—and turned Johnsonville into a Victorian-themed tourist attraction. He brought in period-appropriate structures from other Connecticut towns, including a chapel, a stable, and a steamboat. He refurbished all the buildings and stuffed them with antiques.

“That was the town’s real heyday,” says Luke Boyd, the creator of a website dedicated to Johnsonville. But it didn’t last. “East Haddam hated him. Here comes this carpetbagger guy, rich off the military-industrial complex, and he’s trying to bring tourists into this village.”

Schmitt got into a zoning dispute with the town and closed the attraction in 1990. He died in 1998, and the hotel management company, MJ ABC, bought the property in 2001. They tried to turn it into a 55-and-over community with a health club and spa retreat before the 2008 recession foiled their plans. Now it’s a ghost town, though it has always been a town in suspension—inhabited and declining, alive but only on display, owned and unoccupied, sold and abandoned.

During a blizzarding Saturday afternoon, two friends and I drove up to Johnsonville. The village came into view as we drove down Johnsonville Road. First came the Old Gilead Chapel, the small Victorian church that Raymond Schmitt bought from the town of Waterford, Connecticut, meticulously disassembled, transported to Johnsonville, and put back together. Its door shone bright blue. Then there was the Emory Johnson Homestead, its ornamented porch now peeling and neglected. Signs on doors and windows of every building around warned “NO TRESPASSING” and “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” But there was no graffiti, and the doors hadn’t been kicked in. Some light bulbs were on in front of the stable, a flickering reminder that anarchy doesn’t rule yet in Johnsonville. Boyd says there’s a caretaker who comes by from time to time, but he doesn’t live on the site.

We parked in an empty lot and walked around. We threw up our hoods and tried to avoid the ancient-looking security cameras, wading through a foot of snow to approach the buildings. It was sweet and a little sad to look at the loopy footprints we left around them, signatures in the snow, like some indiscreet trespassers had signed the guest book of the abandoned village. Looking in the windows, we saw the typical relics of incomplete decay—some mossy books, piles of wallpaper, woodchips, dented beer cans. Pity all the antiques had been auctioned off. Outside, it was damp and quiet, save for the occasional car sputtering by. And there was always the muted thudding of the river dam behind the homestead.

The boom-bust cycle isn’t anything new for small communities reliant on a single local industry. But Johnsonville, which seemed to die a natural death when the mill closed, was resurrected unnaturally—a Frankenstein patched together with other villages’ buildings. With the mill gone, its survival can only depend on tourism: the way it looks, and the fact that it’s there. And for now it seems it will be there until it crumbles completely. According to the real estate agency that handles the property, the undisclosed buyer has backed out.

There’s a neatly symbolic picture of Johnsonville that’s easy to find on the Internet. It’s of a short, weather-worn gate bearing a sign that says “Village Closed to Public.” We found this sign in front of a small cottage facing the road. Approaching the house, I noticed a Christmas tree through one of the windows, draped in illuminated white lights. Closer still, I saw that the inside of the house was fully furnished, with a runner on the table and little doilies on the armchairs. We even heard music wafting from the back. Excited, we knocked on the front door, and when no one answered, we tapped on all of the windows. We walked all around the perimeter of the house, trying to catch a glimpse of someone. Vandal deterrent, caretaker’s secret home, domestic ghost residence—it’s not disclosed. No one in in the empty village came to tell us.


It’s Showtime!

steinberg“This is our comeback,” said Andy Wolf. It was January 14, 2015, and the College Street Music Hall had big news to share. The theatre, after being shut down for thirteen years, announced plans to reopen in May. Formerly known as the Palace, and then as the Roger Sherman, it had shut down in 2002 after nearly eighty years at the center of New Haven’s cultural scene. Even though it passed almost immediately into the hands of the New Haven Center for the Performing Arts, it has remained vacant since then. Now, recent changes in the small nonprofit’s leadership have sparked an effort to bring the property back to life.

For Wolf, director of New Haven’s Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism, this is about more than an old property regaining functionality. It’s about revitalizing downtown through the performing arts. And although it isn’t technically the city’s project—the funding has come from a private company—the idea behind it came from City Hall.

Both Wolf and Mayor Toni Harp envision a complete transformation of College Street. Instead of just a few blocks with restaurants and theatres, City Hall wants to create a scaled-down Times Square, complete with neon marquees and throngs of pedestrians. The comparison with New York is not accidental. In recent years, musical acts have skipped over New Haven, moving straight from the Big Apple to Boston or Providence. Wolf wants those groups to stop at the College Street Music Hall. “Soon, New Haven’s going to be the sixth borough,” he said.

To most, the idea that New Haven could sparkle like Times Square seems far-fetched. But when the venue opened as the Palace Theatre in 1924, New Haven was a major stop in the American performing arts scene. Everyone from Marlon Brando to the Marx Brothers passed through. For much of the twentieth century, the musicals and vaudeville shows performed at the Palace Theater made it a cornerstone of New Haven’s cultural life. And with the Schubert Theatre just across the street, the image of College Street as a mini theater district wasn’t so far off the mark.

New Haven real estate mogul Joel Schiavone, whose company owned the Palace Theatre, renovated its façade and lobby in 1984. But when the company went bankrupt in the early 2000s, the Palace shut down. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation then acquired the building and stipulated that a nonprofit organization become the next owner. That organization was the NHCPA.

The only problem was that the NHCPA did not have the funds to reopen the theatre. Consequentially, the theatre languished. Then, in 2014, with a new mayor for the first time in twenty years, the city approached commercial real estate investor Keith Mahler to start working on the project.

The impetus came partly from Matthew Nemerson, New Haven’s director of economic development. “Our first question when something is empty is: ‘What are the steps necessary for getting it back to life?’” he said.

Mahler, who also works as a concert promoter, convinced Elissa Getto to move to New Haven from Stamford to direct the NHCPA. The nonprofit’s director since last May, she has experience at the helm of struggling arts organizations: her previous position had been at the Stamford Center for Performing Arts, which she had helped rescue from bankruptcy.

The city chose not to allot any funds for the project. Instead, Mahler made a significant private investment and will be the theatre’s promoter. He is working with the NHCPA to run the project.

It is unusual for theatres to undergo drastic change without city or state funding, said Getto, but her team is determined to pull it off by taking a new approach. “Just because we are a nonprofit doesn’t mean we don’t act like a business,” she explains. The College Street Music Hall project is part of a new trend in of urban development: collaboration between nonprofit organizations and private companies. Aside from the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, the College Street Music Hall is the only regional concert venue developed in this kind of partnership.

With 2,000 seats, the College Street Music Hall is already attracting the talent it needs. On May 1, The Machine will perform the music of Pink Floyd along with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. A ten-day film festival is in the works, as is a “Count Up to 400” extravaganza—the first annual celebration anticipating the city’s four-hundredth birthday in 2038, which will include a number of concerts.

The hope is that the shows that are planned for the College Street Music Hall will attract Elm City locals, suburbanites, and students from the University of New Haven, Yale, and Gateway Community College. With plans underway to find a replacement for the recently closed Anchor Bar, and a renovation scheduled for the Schubert, College Street is decidedly in the midst of a makeover, even if the comparison to Times Square might seem ambitious.

“Ever since the original nine-square grid, New Haven has been a city designed for culture,” said Wolf. If you ask him if the new College Street is focused on restoring faded glory, he will correct you: “Not restoring history, reimagining history.”

Haunted Haven

Madeleine Witt
Madeleine Witt

“Point five’s nothing. In New Haven, we get sevens.”

Chrystyne McGrath stands outside of the Starbucks at the intersection of Chapel and High Streets, surrounded by a crowd of about forty people. She holds up a black box the size of a graphing calculator. It’s an EMF meter, a scientific instrument that measures changes in electromagnetic fields. A small screen displays a single number. If the number is at least 0.5, McGrath says, then the machine might be detecting a ghost.

The EMF meter is one of a ghost hunter’s primary tools, but McGrath is less of a hunter and more of a guide. On this cold Friday night in early November, she’s leading us on a ghost tour of New Haven. McGrath is wearing a silver down coat and a hat with a leopard-print band. By day, she works at the Health Options Center for Wellness in Guilford, which offers a smorgasbord of alternative medicine options including herbal treatments and hypnotherapy. By night, she leads tours for the New Haven division of Ghost Walks USA, which also offers tours in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Palm Beach, Florida.

Before we get started, McGrath gives us a crash course in ghost physics. When we die, there’s a light. If our spirits go into the light, they pass on; if not, they stay here and haunt the living, hovering one foot above the ground and feeding the local ghost tourism industry. In a symbiotic relationship, the tourism industry feeds the ghosts. Ghosts consume electricity, according to McGrath, which is why EMF meters can detect them. She warns us our phones are likely to go dead, but to keep them ready anyway: Ghosts can be captured on camera as glowing orbs or bright streaks of light. Often, orbs appear in the photos the morning after – charging your cell phone overnight feeds the spirits, who then decide to grace your pictures with their presence.

McGrath asks if anyone has experienced a ghost before. Most people stay silent, but one man in a black jacket raises his hand. Later, he’ll volunteer to knock on the door of the Skull and Bones tomb, the first stop on tonight’s tour.

We stop at about a dozen places, including secret society tombs, Sterling Memorial Library, the Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s visitor center, and City Hall. On the way, we get a good dose of New Haven history, everything from the Amistad uprising to Hurricane Sandy. This history is full of ghosts. Some are historical figures like Cornelius Vanderbilt, and others are prominent local legends.

Mary Hart, better known as Midnight Mary, haunts Evergreen Cemetery, near the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. The tour doesn’t stop at Evergreen Cemetery, but McGrath tells the story anyway: According to legend, Midnight Mary was buried alive. And then there are the nameless spirits, like the murdered girl with long red hair who haunts the basement of the New Haven Free Public Library.

At Sterling Memorial Library, McGrath shares two stories. The first is of a kindly librarian named Auntie, who still helps students out with their studies, despite having died decades ago. The second is about an entity that called itself “Seth.” Back in 1963, a poet named Jane Roberts was possessed by this spirit. While channeling Seth, Roberts went on to write many books, known as the Seth Material. The manuscripts and letters, along with some recordings of Jane Roberts, ended up in the Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives collection, taking up a total of 498 boxes.

After that, we spend some time huddling in front of the gates of the Grove Street Cemetery. There, the ghosts of soldiers killed in the Revolutionary War greet McGrath, she says. McGrath tells us to take pictures, and if our intentions are strong, the ghosts will show up for us, too. I guess I’m not sincere enough, because I don’t get any orbs, just a glowing white blotch in between the bars of the gate. It might just be my camera flash reflecting off another participant’s cellphone, but I can’t be sure. I do feel a cold patch as we walk along the gates of the cemetery—I mean, the entire East Coast is a cold patch, but it seems to me that the left side of my body is a little bit chillier than the right.

The Union Trust Building on Church Street now houses Wells Fargo. But, almost a century ago, a nasty bank teller named Eli Wilson skimmed money off of other people’s savings. He died in accident, trapped in the bank’s airtight vault. Later, phantoms of laughing children terrorized the men who tried to paint the walls. That’s a sure sign that the building was once an orphanage, McGrath says. Following her instructions, I put the EMF meter that McGrath had lent to me on the ground to see if it will pick up signs of any ghosts. Some of the tour’s participants had downloaded an app that allowed their phones to act as EMF meters, so they put their phones on the sidewalk.

I had been carrying the EMF meter for much of the tour, and it had been fluctuating wildly throughout the walk. I’m surprised that it doesn’t beep in front of the Union Trust Building, even when I lay it on the sidewalk. But it goes wild when we’re crossing the street. I wonder if it’s a fluke, or if it’s picking up the spirit of an unfortunate pedestrian.

As we head over to the New Haven Green, a man on the tour approaches McGrath. He’s got a photo with an orb in the window of one of the city hall buildings. Can she tell if it’s the real thing? This is it, I think: confirmation of the supernatural, or at least of… orbs. McGrath looks at the picture. She says it looks like a light fixture.

We stop in the middle of the New Haven Green and stand by a plaque that marks the ground in front of a sapling. It replaces the old Lincoln Oak that came down during Hurricane Sandy, skeletons and a time capsule tangled in its roots.

“The vortex is right here,” McGrath says. A vortex is a place where energy is concentrated, and McGrath said later that all high-energy locations—including burial grounds like the New Haven Green—have a vortex. McGrath explains that the people burying the time capsule a century ago had found the vortex using dowsing rods, divination tools that pick up electromagnetic signals. (Today, there’s an app for that.) She invites us to step onto the vortex, and one at a time, people do. One woman feels a tingling in her hands. A man starts to rock back and forth, slowly.  I’m swaying too, where I’m standing, and I know it’s because it’s late and I’m tired and naturally unsteady on my feet, and I wonder if they’re swaying for the same reason, but I don’t take a turn on the vortex hotspot. Maybe I’d rather not find out.

 Libbie Katsev is a sophomore in Davenport College.

Rarer Than Fiction

The quest for the Holy Grail. The legend of the Sword and the Stone. The founding of the Knights of the Round Table. These, and other tales, fill the illustrated pages of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory, an English knight and Member of Parliament, wrote the book while imprisoned in the 1470s. Since then, the book has become one of the most well known collections of the heroic deeds and chivalric romances of King Arthur’s reign.

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library owns a special 1838 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur—one of just three hundred ever created. Its handmade paper is fragile. Its edges are torn, interrupting the patterns of pears and leaves that line the pages’ borders. Some pages have come loose from the binding. The book creaks as I flip through its pages. But even in this condition, the book is valued at over $10,000.

Yet, until very recently, it sat in the shelves of the open circulation stacks of Sterling Memorial Library, available for anyone to check out. The book finally found its way to the Beinecke in September when junior Katie Stoops checked it out, for pleasure reading. One of the book’s first pages says that it is “of superior issue.” Intrigued, Stoops researched the book’s history. She learned that the Dutch paper the book was printed on makes it extraordinarily valuable. To make the paper, fine linens were steeped in water and dried between different coatings of salts, liquors, and acids of fermented rye or buttermilk. The linens were dried and re-wetted for weeks until they were white and sturdy enough for printing.

When she discovered the book’s value—a UK bookshop lists the volume on AbeBooks, an online book marketplace, for $11,711.10—she felt uncomfortable being in possession of a book with such “historical and monetary” value. After contacting Sterling Memorial Library, Stoops gave the book to Brian Kiss, who works in the circulation department there. Kiss quickly brought Le Morte D’Arthur to the Beinecke through the basement tunnel that connects the two libraries.

Stoops’s story is unusual, but not unheard of at Yale. About once a month, someone discovers a rare or very old book, potentially worth more than a thousand dollars, in the Sterling collection. It is then moved over to the Beinecke. Though old and fragile books still turn up occasionally, Kiss said that it’s uncommon for books as rare—and as valuable—as Le Morte d’Arthur to be found in the stacks, available for circulation.

In the past eleven years, Yale’s libraries have made an effort to move all rare and fragile books to the Beinecke. The library’s staffers combed through the Sterling stacks in 2004 as part of a major project to move thousands of books into their collection. Sarah Schmidt, head of printed acquisitions at the Beinecke, said they were looking for everything published before 1800. At any given time, four staff members and two students were assigned to the project. They methodically went through the library catalogue, finding the call numbers of rare books and collecting them from the stacks. George Miles, a curator of Western Americana at the Beinecke, says that he knows the project didn’t find all of the rare books, but “we felt pretty confident that we got most of them.”

In 2006, the former Cross Campus Library was renovated to become today’s Bass Library. During the construction, its books took up temporary residence in Sterling. Kiss helped re-shelve Sterling’s books to make room for the Cross Campus collection. It was, he says, “the first time in a long time that people had put their hands on literally every single book in the entire library.” While moving the books back to the newly opened Bass in 2007, Beinecke staffers were instructed to put aside any book printed before 1800 so that these books could be moved to the Beinecke collection. “They found tons and tons of stuff,” Kiss says. Many of the books were small, pages numbered with Roman numerals. Most were not written in English. Hundreds were transferred to the Beinecke.

Kiss explains that books printed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries circulating in Sterling were not part of the project. The scope of the transfer was already so large that including newer books in the search would have added an enormous amount of work for the librarians. That may be one reason that the Dutch paper edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, which was printed after 1800, remained in the stacks.

But books are moved to the Beinecke for reasons other than old age. Some are very fragile—for example, historical political pamphlets and booklets. Others might be particularly difficult to replace. Even so, if the Beinecke already has a copy of a rare book—even if it is worth a significant sum of money—multiple copies are allowed to stay in Sterling so that library patrons can access them. This could be a second reason why Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was overlooked in Sterling: the Beinecke already held two older copies of Malory’s book when Stoops discovered the 1838 edition. However, because of its Dutch paper, this 1838 edition was even more valuable than its counterparts in Beinecke. Only by flipping through its pages could someone realize its significance.

So, some rare books still linger in Sterling. While Yale’s librarians want to make its collection of over fifteen million volumes available for research, they also want to ensure that the books are properly preserved. Though books in the Beinecke collection are not in open stacks, students and researchers can read them in the reading rooms. “The library system at large is looking to balance security with accessibility,” Miles says. “It’s one of the hardest questions that libraries face. They want to serve today’s readers as well as tomorrow’s.” As a result, books like the illustrated Dutch-paper Le Morte d’Arthur may continue to wind up on the desks of students who are unaware of their value.

“I would imagine,” Miles says, “that there will always be a few books in Sterling that we are surprised to discover are still there.”

Abigail Schneider is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

Into the (Connecticut) Woods

Before we crossed the gate into Hamden’s West Rock Ridge State Park, Michael Richardson pulled a bottle of mosquito repellent from a backpack stuffed with hiking supplies. “I have two separate infections of Lyme disease, so I make a point of bringing the bug spray every time I come out,” he explained to me as we stood near the park’s entrance. “It’s just one of those things you have to deal with, I guess.”

Richardson knows nature, ticks and otherwise: he has spent the past four years compiling a comprehensive guide to native species of plants and animals across the state. In 2010, the 37-year-old Connecticut native founded the educational website; today, the website features nearly 900 creatures, from Sphyrapicus varius, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, to Notophthalmus viridescens, the Eastern newt.

Even on this sunny Saturday morning in September, when people in hiking boots and canoes dot the sunlit Connecticut landscape, Richardson said his thoughts often turn toward darker visions. “Every time I’m out, I’m always sort of thinking from a survivalist standpoint,” he said as we headed down the trail. “You have to think about it in terms of what would happen if there was a zombie apocalypse or a nuclear bomb went off.”

Richardson knows this eschatological vision—the undead swarming the parking lot, the woman on the red canoe paddling through hellfire—is improbable. Unlike so-called “doomsday preppers” obsessed with the apocalypse, Richardson is ruled by a more practical motivation: he’s simply fascinated by how nature abounds with resources for survival. His extreme thought experiment—and the attention to detail it requires—has afforded him a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Connecticut species he now catalogs online. The man behind is part Bear Grylls, part botany teacher—and determined to get his visitors to rethink their relationship with nature.

Richardson discovered his love for the wilderness as a teenager, tucked away at summer camp in the New Hampshire woods. There, from the camp’s counselors, he learned about vegetables that came from the ground, not the grocery store: wild plants that you could pluck straight from the dirt and eat. The first he tried was a slender white root called Indian cucumber. With just one bite, he was hooked. “I knew you could pick blackberries and blueberries and all that stuff, but the Indian cucumber, that was cool,” Richardson said. Later that summer, he decided to draft an exhaustive map of the campground’s edible plants, a feat for which he won Camp Pasquaney’s nature award. “That was sort of the first iteration of Connecticut Wilderness,” he said.

He built the current version of the website about four years ago to share his knowledge. By day he is an IT professional, and the project has offered him an opportunity to learn additional computing languages and skills. Richardson uses everything from vinyl records of birdcalls to Wikipedia to guide his work.

“The best way to get proficient is to spend a lot of time studying,” he said. “You have to be really careful and know what you’re looking for.” To illustrate his point, Richardson motioned me over to a cluster of black and yellow insects, buzzing menacingly around a clump of purple blooms.

“Come down low on these guys,” he said, squatting down with his camera. He let one of the fuzzy critters climb his finger. “That’s a syrphid fly,” he said. “They look like bees. They’re mimics.” But unlike bees, they’re harmless. Syrphid flies’ resemblance to a more dangerous doppelganger helps them ward off predators—plus freak out inexperienced hikers like me.

But those familiar with the wilderness, my guide included, have an easier time than predators at recognizing the many mimics that live in Connecticut. Richardson cites another common local example: two plants, mountain laurel and wintergreen. The former is poisonous, while the latter lends a minty taste to chewing gum. But both have red stems and blue-green leaves. When we found a plant that fit that description, Richardson used a pocketknife to slice off a portion, then plucked off its leaves, tore them in half, and gave the fragments a sniff. Pressing the leaf fragments to his mouth, he took a taste to confirm his identification: wintergreen.

Richardson rarely checks the analytics that would tell him how many people have visited his website. Just 51 Facebook users, including myself, “like” the website’s fan page. Still, it’s important to him that the website expand, both online and off. He hopes to develop a mobile version of his site, and he recently hosted a mycology walk under the banner attended by a dozen people eager to learn to identify wild mushrooms.

In Connecticut, a state better known for its country clubs than its national parks, the challenge isn’t taming the wilderness, but finding it. Here, foraging for wild edibles is a hobby, not a matter of sustenance. “You’re never really going to be anywhere in Connecticut where you can’t get rescued,” Richardson said. “Even in the deepest of forests, you really can’t get more than five to ten miles away from a road at the most.” But even a short distance from the pristine lawns of suburbia, he can point at nearly any plant and tell you whether you can eat it.

On our hike, Richardson identified dozens of other species that can sustain hungry foragers, from sheep sorrel, a lemony herb that goes well in salad, to common mullein, a fuzzy-leaved plant that grows close to the ground and is said to have medicinal effects. Some plants have multiple uses, too: take mullein, for example. “Its best use is as toilet paper in the woods,” Richardson said. “It works.” While you may never find yourself wiping with a leaf, the point has been made: there’s an abundance of treasures in the forest, if only you learn to find them.

Marissa Medansky is a senior in Morse College.

The Miniature Holy Land

The grounds of Holy Land, USA, in Waterbury, CT have been closed since 1984. Photos by Libbie Katsev.
The grounds of Holy Land, USA, in Waterbury, CT have been closed since 1984. Photos by Libbie Katsev.

“WARNING: Travel at your own risk. Holy Land U.S.A. under construction.” A headless statue of Jesus watches over a path of broken asphalt. The path winds past the sign, through the entrance arches and around the hill, which is ringed by a low wall. People break off from the crowd. Even the girls in flats and skirts climb the wall and begin picking their way through the remains of a miniature Bethlehem. Under fallen trees, I catch of a glimpse of broken steps leading up through the rubble.

This Bethlehem is nestled in the hills of Waterbury, Conn. It marks the beginning of Jesus’ life, which Holy Land USA traces from birthplace to tomb. The park has been closed since 1984, but a restoration effort is now underway. There’s no set timeline for the park’s reopening, but board members expect it to take years. In September, Holy Land opened to visitors for one afternoon.

In the 1950s, John Greco, a local attorney, built Holy Land USA on eighteen acres of land near his hilltop home overlooking the city.

“No matter how much money he had, he devoted every penny into Holy Land, and he lived like Mother Teresa did. Everything was for God,” says board member Rebecca Greco Calabrese, Greco’s great-niece. “When you were with him, you felt holy…you felt it, coming out of his pores.”

The park’s buildings, constructed from old appliances, chicken wire, and plaster, are just a few feet tall, placed in clusters to depict different Biblical events. Most have collapsed. Those that still stand are pale, with little arched doors and windows. They cover the hill, competing with the twisted pines, birches, cattails, and thistles that have overrun the park.

“It was beautiful for a while,” says a white-haired woman dressed in black as she waits for a shuttle to the Mass. “There was almost a reverence about the place.” In the park’s heyday, buses brought forty thousand visitors a year from all over the U.S. and around the world.

The cross at Holy Land, USA was lit last year for the first time in decades.
The cross at Holy Land, USA was lit last year for the first time in decades.

When Greco died, the park was entrusted to a group of nuns, the Religious Teachers Filippini. The nuns eventually put the property up for sale in 2013, and Mayor Neil O’Leary and local businessman Fritz Blasius bought the property, planning to restore it. The restoration progresses in bursts, as its limited funding allows.

They set their milestones based on the liturgical calendar. First, they restored the cross in time for Christmas. Then they focused on clearing the overgrowth in time for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which commemorates St. Helena’s discovery of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Chuck Pagano, president of Holy Land’s board of directors, tells me that in the days leading up to the my visit, over 7,500 trees were cut down.

A friend and I still stumble uphill over shrubs and fallen branches until I reach Solomon’s temple, also in disrepair. A sign proclaims: “YOU HAVE MADE IT.” The temple is just a cement cylinder split in half to reveal a green interior. The cupola lies in the center of the wreckage, as though launched by a catapult. Next to it, other cubic parts of the structure deteriorate under their domes. We walk around the bend to find a sign that says: “JESUS IS LAID IN THE TOMB.” Unlike most of the structures, the building here is human-sized, and in relatively good repair. Mounds of pine needles weigh down the corrugated roof and the supports are more arch than wall, but the mother and daughter poking around the tomb don’t seem too worried about its structural integrity.

Despite the recent improvements, Holy Land USA still feels like it’s stuck in an abandoned past—except for the cross, which stands at the top of Pine Hill, surrounded by a fence that reads “Our Lady of Peace.” The cross is 52 feet high and 26 feet wide, illuminated by thousands of LED lights, which change color with the liturgical season. A little way down from the hilltop, another, identical cross lies face down on the ground next to its support system. “That one didn’t work,” I hear someone explain. From the outside, it looks like a fully functional piece. Like the other cross, it would have been a spiritual symbol visible for miles around—if it weren’t for some serious flaw.

From Pine Hill’s summit, the town of Waterbury looks like another small diorama. There is St. Anne’s, the Neo-Gothic church where the shuttle picked us up, and there is the interstate.  On December 22 of last year, the road overlooking I-84 was closed, and thousands of people gathered on the bridge to watch as the cross was lit for the first time in decades.

holy land 1“I’ll be honest, that cross lit at night says it all for me,” Pagano said, recalling a recent flight back to Connecticut. “I’m looking down at Connecticut when we’re starting to come down. The first thing I recognize, I see that brand new cross lit…you know where you’re at from twelve thousand feet up.”

As we make our way to the park’s chapel, we stop in front of the “HOLY LAND U.S.A.” sign, white letters with blue edges, outlined with drooping Christmas lights. Comparisons to the Hollywood sign are both unfair and unavoidable. At the foot of the sign, concrete garden edging spells out “HONOR GOD,” forming a trinity with the sign and cross in the background.

The Mass begins at 3:30 p.m., and the small chapel is packed with hundreds of people. It is a long white room with a low ceiling, wooden pews, and stained glass awning windows—all of them with the same design: a crown and cross. There are parents with children and elderly couples, community leaders and students from the rival Catholic high schools. A sort of Christian pop-punk music plays as we walk in. Then the Mass begins: prayers, songs, a homily, and Communion. Holy Land, the priest explains, is a testament to the power of community. After the service, Mayor O’Leary gives a speech, thanking the hundreds of Waterbury residents who have supported this project.

It wasn’t that surprising to me that a cross glows in the hills overlooking a Connecticut town, or that there’s a Christian theme park with a sign modeled after Hollywood’s. That just seems like one natural development of religious observance in the U.S. What caught me off-guard was how handmade Holy Land is: the carefully lettered signs, the chicken-wire buildings. The decay. Sixty years ago, one man wanted to create something holy, so he built a replica of Bethlehem out of plaster and scrap materials. And when other people saw what Greco was doing, it became sacred to them, too.

After the mass, a group of Catholic high school students ends the festivities by releasing a flock of white doves into the air. Members of the crowd turn their heads to watch before piling back into the buses and heading down the hill.

Libbie Katsev is a sophomore in Davenport College.

Classical Counterpoint

Hannah Lash is an award-winning composer and professor at the Yale School of Music. Photo by Jennifer Lu.
Hannah Lash is an award-winning composer and professor at the Yale School of Music. Photo by Jennifer Lu.

Hannah Lash’s first love was Bach. She remembers the first time she heard his music: “I wanted to create it. I wanted to figure out how it worked,” she says. It didn’t matter that she was only 4 years old and that she hadn’t yet learned proper music notation in her Suzuki violin lessons. “I had this little system of X’s, dots, and dashes and things, and they meant various notational things for me,” she explains.

Decades later, Nash continues to compose; she teaches composition at the Yale School of Music, where she is the only female professor of composition alongside four men. The situation is similar in universities across the country, where fifteen percent of the composition faculty is women, according to WQXR, New York City’s classical music station. Historically, the disparity has been even starker. Ask readers to name female authors, and they’ll probably be able to name some—Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen, at the very least. But most classical music listeners would have trouble naming a single female composer. Virtually all of the canonical composers are men.

So Lash, like most female composers, often encounters what she calls the “dreaded question”: “What is it like to be a female composer?” The best response she says female composers can give: “What is it like to be a male composer?”


Lash grew up in upstate New York. Her parents, who were both librarians, educated her themselves instead of sending her to school. “Their philosophy was to give me free rein in the library,” she says.

At 16, Lash began studying at the Eastman School of Music, under the instruction of composer Augusta Read Thomas. At the time, Thomas was the only woman on Eastman’s composition faculty, and her music challenged stereotypes about female composers’ work: essentially, that it was less ambitious. But Lash simply took Thomas’s music for what it was: great music.

Even today, those stereotypes persist. Lash says that audience members and even some musicians believe—whether consciously or not—that women write intuitive, emotional music, while men write grandly orchestrated, intellectual works. For her, this idea is preposterous. As she puts it, “Music transcends the idea of gender.”

And misconceptions about women’s compositions have hardly stopped Lash from coming into her own as a composer. She has won awards ranging from the Charles Ives Scholarship from the Academy of Arts and Letters to the Fromm Foundation’s the Naumberg Prize in Composition, as well as a scholarship to the Yaddo artists’ colony. Prior to the 2010 premiere of “Blood Rose,” the chamber opera she based on the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” The New York Times wrote: “Ms. Lash has created an impressive body of work, combining avant-garde techniques with a post-Romantic expressiveness.” In 2014, The Los Angeles Times praised her as a “sensitive orchestrator [who] applied vibrant dabs of color to an essentially Messiaen-like sound world,” for a composition entitled “This Ease.”


Lash entered Eastman to study harp performance, before moving on to composition. Most of her friends were men, because the composition students were predominantly male, though many of her fellow harpists were female. She says people found her “less aggressive,” and her playing “picturesque,” largely because harp is generally considered to have a more delicate quality. But for her, this image has nothing to do with musicians’ real work. She insists that her male classmates never approached her music with preconceived notions based on her gender.

While studying, she came to emulate the academic style of her male teachers. She found much of her identity as a composer through this kind of imitation. But she worked to maintain her individual style: “I also wanted to feel that I could establish a persona that would feel comfortable to me,” she says.

Her compositions—and the way she talks about them—are marked by a streak of defiance. When Lash was a composition student in the Ph.D. program at Harvard, she insisted on writing a fugue—a composition in which the melody is introduced and then repeated, while intertwining with other parts. Fugues were popular 350 years ago, in the age of Bach and Handel. Today, most composers do not even consider writing in the form. Martin Bresnick, a colleague at the Yale School of Music, explains that it was “like someone writing an oration in the style of Cicero” today.

Even when her music does seem to follow the stereotype of the serene harpist, she won’t let you think that for long. She remembers a man telling her that he thought her music was very feminine because “the textures are just so beautiful,” to which she responded, “Does the Impressionist movement seem feminine to you because the textures are beautiful?”

Sexism, she says, doesn’t really affect the way she composes. “It’s more about numbers for me, and feeling as though I want to teach by example and be a good colleague,” she says. Just as Lash was allowed to shape her own musical education, she believes that her students find themselves better when they are not explicitly told what to do. “A composer needs to have a very solid sense of himself or herself,” she says.

One of her students, Tiange Zhou, explains that Lash’s focus on students’ individual identities is what made the Yale School of Music such a special place for her. The school gives students “this very big space to do things for themselves. Not only to imitate someone, but to be a person.”

And it is through music that Lash and Zhou have formed a lasting relationship. For Zhou, Lash is “not only a teacher, but a friend.” More than that, though, Lash is the role model for Zhou that Augusta Read Thomas was for her. When Zhou thinks of Lash, she tells herself, “That is a possibility. That is how a female composer can be.”

Eric Lin is a freshman in Morse College.