At Site Projects, Fellows Light The Way
At first, it was just another version of Billy Strayhorn's “Take The A Train” performed by Neighborhood Music School (NMS) students. On piano, Anton Kot jammed away, grinning as he dug into a new string of notes. Tyler Jenkins bobbed his head to the drums, rap tap tapping away a beat. In bright yellow at the center of the group, Robbin Benefield proclaimed If you miss the "A" train/You'll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem. Silk and honey came pouring from her open mouth.
Except the background wasn’t a classroom at NMS. It was the Route 34 underpass, a sloping wall of red brick and concrete dotted with pigeon droppings, water marks and oil pollution. Cars honked at the stop-and-start of traffic as they passed, oblivious to the musicians.
And yet, the jazz trio was exactly where it was supposed to be.
The performance represents the progress of Sheila De Bretteville’s “Lighting Your Way,” a permanent installation commissioned by Site Projects, Inc. While the installation is not expected to be complete until spring 2018, Site Projects spent the summer working with 14 “Public Art Fellows” to enliven the underpass with spoken word, vocal and instrumental music, and dance.
Tuesday night, the nonprofit held a celebration for those fellows at Gateway Community College, screening three new short films it has made in the past months and awarding the fellows with certificates of completion. Two focus on the history of the underpass and De Bretteville’s vision for the project; one captures the fellows' work and performances over the summer. None were available from Site Projects at the time this article was published.
Mentors for this year’s program included Jesse Hameen II, Tiffany Jackson, Kate Rushin, Regan Stacey, Nicki Vitali, Chaz Carmon, David Sepulveda, and Pete DiGennaro.
At the event, Site Projects Director Laura Clarke said that the organization will be pushing ahead with “what I believe will be the most important public artwork in New Haven.”
"This can change the way people think about our city ... the way people interact with each other and our cityscape," she added.
First proposed in 2012, “Lighting Your Way” is intended to brighten the Route 34 underpass for pedestrians as they walk to and from Union Station, and in the surrounding Hill and Wooster Square neighborhoods. On the west side of the underpass, six spotlights will hang from the high beams above, sending down isolated cones of light under which pedestrians can walk, stop, dance, or vogue if they wish.
“Most arrival points into cities are welcoming,” said De Bretteville in one of the organization’s films on the project. This will turn New Haven’s into something “almost like a proscenium stage.”
It has gained support from the city’s departments of economic development and transportation, traffic and parking, from the state, and from local history nerd Robert Greenberg. He too has done a film for the project, on the location’s history.
The film, which is not without historical errors, is part of his hope to share and preserve New Haven's history, he said in one of its opening scenes. Not all New Haveners know that the area has slowly been dredged, depleted of natural resources, and eaten up by transportation and infrastructure projects. Until, perhaps, now.
Communicating that history to a wider audience is where the fellows have come in. Over the summer, all 14 learned about the history of the area, and then parlayed their knowledge into original poems, jazz performances, vocal interludes and steel drum compositions. All New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) students, many of them grew up close to the underpass, some walking through it five days a week for school.
“I really liked singing under the bridge,” said Benefield, a fellow who graduated from High School in the Community (HSC) in June. “Growing up, it was something that I passed every single day. I never thought that I would be performing underneath it.”
“When I found out the history [of the underpass], all of a sudden I could imagine water around there,” said Hillhouse High School junior Ronisha Moore, who wrote and performed an original poem at the underpass. “I used to live right there, on Howard. Now it feels different when I’m walking down there. More comfortable.”
Not all fellows designed projects for Route 34. High School in the Community students Bryan Piggot and Destiny Jones spent the summer working with artists Nicki Vitali and Regan Stacey on a portable “time capsule” that is part-painting, part-sculpture. Titled Heart of New Haven, the piece is composed of Tyvek and PVC piping, with slots into which New Haveners can drop their reflections on the city.
"Extracted from the larger city map, Heart of New Haven depicts the neighborhood nexus of the Rt. 34 underpass: the Hill, Wooster, Downtown, and Long Wharf," read an artist's statement handed out at the event.
For the next few months, Site Projects will be transporting it to different neighborhoods, collecting as many testimonials as possible.
Then, after the capsule has been closed, the organization will wait until 2038 to open it again, unearthing those memories on the city’s 400th birthday.