Nearly Blossomless, Blossom Festival Blooms On
Bands sidled up to one another with brass, strings, and steel. Dancers took the pavement by storm. Bonsai trees shared the limelight with curly kale and Swiss chard seedlings. And even with few cherry blossom trees in full bloom—there was one, under which attendees lined up for photos—the show went on.
That was the scene at the 45th annual Wooster Square Cherry Blossom Festival, organized Sunday by the Historic Wooster Square Association. Over 7,000 attended the event, with peak blossom attendance hitting in the mid-afternoon, when the day was at its warmest.
“This festival is all about the community,” said Wooster Square Blossom Blogger Bart Connors Szczarba, selling his photographs at a table with his wife, Cheryl.
“It really started as a community event to showcase the park and how beautiful it is, and everybody here is all working together. The volunteers, our neighbors, our friends. It’s a really great neighborhood event.”
At the table, early festival-goers pored over his postcard-sized photos of melty Italian gelato, downtown New Haven, and wide pink blossoms from last year. As Szczarba chatted with them, Neighborhood Music School’s jazz ensemble got the audience grooving, with attendees like Gail “Starfire, Queen of the Sock Hop” Chapman rising to their feet before the stage.
A dancer for “all my life,” she recalled dancing at socials in the basements of St. Michael’s and St. Andrew’s churches in the neighborhood, not far from where the stage had been set up. When those opportunities ended years ago, she took her craft outside, to as many public festivals as she could find.
She said she looks forward to the festival each year, because she sees it capturing a lost art—bringing community members together to dance, without the intervention of technology.
“I let the music take me,” she said, before waltzing off to another jazz standard.
Behind the stage, some attendees found themselves wandering, soaking in the first warm afternoon of the spring and checking out food truck finds from coffee and sandwiches to ice cream. The smell of grilled gruyere and gouda drifted over the crowd.
Avoiding a S.W.A.T. BearCat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck) parked on the other side of the square, artist Jacinthe said he was there to get inspiration from the crowd and activities. Like a bookmobile from the New Haven Free Public Library, or demo on Birds of Prey from Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation center.
“It’s always nice to see what draws people out, and how to like … how to make art relatable,” he said, “I’m always wondering what is the best way to reach people, and make the culture that I’m trying to cultivate digestible.”
Around him, community members from the New Haven Museum, Elm Shakespeare Company, New Haven Land Trust, and the city’s Bonsai Society were trying to live out that digestible mission. For dad José Rivera, they were doing a pretty good job.
“My kids always ask me to bring them out,” he said, holding his kids Eva and JoJo close. “And for them, they learn to do things! They made these beautiful flowers. And they made me a beautiful sign!”
Rivera gestured over to staff members from the New Haven Museum, making bright, crepe paper blossom bracelets that resembled the fake “blossoms” community members had wired onto the square’s Sakura trees during the first festival in 1974. No sooner had his kids finished their blossoms than another line formed at the small table, he said.
Helping her granddaughter Gabrielle add a layer of pink “petals” after she’d gotten through that line, New Havener Tamara Prescott said the festival is one of her favorite activities all year, because it brings out New Haveners from the segregated neighborhoods in which they live. Born and raised on Dixwell Avenue, Prescott now lives in the city’s Edgewood neighborhood.
“You get to see other people from around New Haven,” she said. “If you stick to one neighborhood, you just get to know everyone in that one neighborhood. In the city, it’s so nice to see everyone coming together and fellowshipping.”
"It's no longer January," she added, lifting her face to the sky. There may have been no blossoms in sight, but a smear of clear blue sky greeted her, and that was enough.