Implosion Or Erosion
On January 20
th the New Haven Coliseum was imploded. There was a crowd of about 20,000 watching from the Parking Authority Garage and other locations. Although miss-timed, two kids not from New Haven who’d won some sort of contest pushed a pair of detonator plungers and, with an impact that rumbled through the valley and rattled in the dell [
never pass up a chance to quote from
Casey at the Bat], the Coliseum was no more.
In about a minute and a half a major piece of New Haven’s sports and entertainment history disappeared. The windows at Tahlia Restaurant had been boarded and were unscathed. Presumably the Swiss Guard exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum suffered no ill effects. But of course the implosion left a gap. There are plans, of course-there always are-to replace what’s disappeared with something better, but tell that to the old timers who lived on The Hill or where the Oak Street Connector runs to the Air Rights Garage.
This disappearing act, thanks to modern technology, was swift. Others, over the years, disappeared in less dramatic fashion. But they’re gone. There are a lot of, for want of a better word, institutions missing from New Haven that contributed to the city’s character. We still have the Wooster Street pizza barons, Sally’s and Pepe’s, and Consiglio’s. There’s still Louis’ Lunch and the Yankee Doodle. Hull’s Hobbies is still around up on Chapel Street. And the Anchor Bar and The Owl Shop, in its new iteration. J. Press is still there, too. But there is a lot missing.
I didn’t grow up in New Haven. I lived in the sticks. But New Haven was for me, “The Big City.” It was the pre-mall place to go for shopping, doctors or, heaven forbid, lawyers. Many of its buildings and businesses made a big impression on me when I was growing up. Most of those are gone and I miss them.
J. Johnson and Sons on Church Street. Besse Richey. The Alling Rubber Company where you bought sporting goods. Malleys on Chapel and Temple. The National Shirt Shop at Church and Chapel, then the very center of New Haven. The Waldorf Cafeteria where they would sell the Sunday papers late, late on Saturday nights. Hillhouse High School and Wilbur Cross on Tower Parkway. The Marshall House where the Gold Building now stands and the Toddle House up on Chapel Street, both open round the clock [before we adopted the “24/7” shorthand] where there was breakfast any time of the day or night.
What I miss most, though, was the old New Haven Arena. I remember it as a two-story building on the corner of Grove and Orange. That’s where the FBI building now sits. It was the home of high school basketball and hockey games and the venue for Barnum and Bailey when it came to town. Mostly for me it was the home of the Blades, New Haven’s entry in the Eastern Hockey League.
On the Orange-Grove corner was The Arena Grill right by the Arena entrance to. I remember tiled walled tunnels on ground level around the rink, punctuated with occasional concession stands. There was no plexiglass on top of the boards. Then it was wire mesh. And if you sat close enough, players would get checked into the boards, grunt, and skate away with the mesh pattern tattooed on their faces. The visiting teams-the Johnstown Jets, the Clinton Comets, the Hershey Bears-were not treated kindly, of course, but that’s what made it exciting. There was a wild, unpredictable and electric atmosphere that gave you something to talk about for weeks.
You could never see the ceiling, of course, because clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke rose from the noisy and often profane fans that were squished into the seats. For a kid not old enough to drive, coming into New Haven for a Blades game was entering another world. It’s gone but the memory lingers, now periodically revived by watching the Hansen Brothers in
Slapshot on late-nite TV.
Many of the landmarks which contributed to the character of New Haven are gone. The replacements inevitably are spiffy and modern and efficient and sterile as a scalpel. There’s a reason why they built the ballpark in Baltimore to replicate an old time stadium.
Rowan’s Toy Store is gone and Shartenbergs is a distant memory but, tired, dingy and dilapidated, 121 Elm Street reminds us who we are and where we came from.