Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
On Wednesday, September 28th, at 77 Audubon Street, Eiress Hammond cut a ribbon with large, dull scissors to christen her new clothing store, MINIPNG. Located in the “Whitney-Audubon Retail & Arts District,” a phrase you can be sure nobody has ever used outside of the Yale University Properties office or a lease agreement, MINIPNG joins a roster of artsy establishments on the block: the Creative Arts Workshop, the Neighborhood Music School, and Koffee?.
When I spoke to Eiress, the store was empty. She sat behind the counter in the middle of the store, crocheting a skirt. The walls were filled with squiggly humanoid figures, mushrooms, jellyfish, and other cute miscellanea. Their Euclid-defying dynamism seemed like a statement against the staid red-and-black brick exterior. Of course, she designed them all herself. Hammond grew up in Connecticut and lives in New Haven, but to hear her tell it, she never had any intention of opening up shop in the area. She had her first major breakthrough at New York’s Hester Street Fair on the Lower East Side while pursuing a law degree (her original passion) and had planned to stick around: “I was originally going to open up in Manhattan,” she told me. “During the pandemic… storefronts that were usually around $9,000 or $10,000 were suddenly like $3,500…[and] there was a wave of Gen Z individuals [like myself] opening up stores in Manhattan.” Unfortunately, Hammond explained, landlords in New York were “super unprofessional,” and cared less about business plans than about whether or not the buyers had “$10,000 cash right now.” Comforting.
Yale was, by comparison, easy to deal with. “When I sent over my business plan, it was almost an immediate yes. They fell in love with my idea. Once they realized what I was trying to do here, they were like, ‘Oh, yeah.’” (Lauren Zucker, Yale’s associate vice president of New Haven Affairs and University Properties, confirmed this account in perfect corporate-ese by email: “Our team met with her and based on her unique artistic concept, we recommended the Whitney-Audubon Retail & Arts District. The physical space also met her needs and did not require a major overhaul.”)
As Eiress’ background perhaps demonstrates, the central question of the Audubon Arts District, as it’s more commonly known is: How do you fit New York into a two-block square of New Haven? This is the Escherian task underway in this neighborhood north of Timothy Dwight College. The Arts District is bounded by Whitney Avenue to the west, Trumbull Street to the north, Orange Street to the east, and Grove Street to the south. Its eponymous main drag, Audubon Street, runs east-west through the heart of the neighborhood.
Everyone who’s anyone in New Haven real estate was in attendance at the MINIPNG ribbon-cutting: Lauren Zucker; Justin Elicker, the only known customer of More Amour Boutique on Chapel, when he’s not busy being mayor of New Haven; and Handsome Dan.
I knew that Eiress was an incredibly talented textile artist and designer—the clothing designs are both groovy and technically impressive—but what exactly she was “trying to do here” was still unclear to me. “I am definitely trying to bring what I learned in New York to Connecticut,” she explained. “When something in Connecticut is trying to bring a New York style, it’s always that same hip coffee shop [style]. Like, ok, very New York-y, but not the type of New York I know.”
My mind wandered across the street to Koffee?, a prime example of what Eiress was describing. Not to put too fine a point on it, if MINIPNG and Eiress represent a vision for the future of the Arts District, the other side of the street embodies the ghosts of Audubon Street past. If you were to stroll down Audubon a century ago, you would find a vastly different atmosphere. Instead of tables outside of a café, you’d be greeted by the imposing McLagon Foundry Company, a metal casting corporation that manufactured “Iron Columns, Store Fronts, Noiseless Fan Blowers, Bakers’ Oven Mouths, Tuyer Irons, Hitching and Awning Posts, &c,” according to an 1862 advertisement. Adjacent to McLagon was the Andrew Hendryx Company, which manufactured various wire-based items like bird cages and fishing reels. The north side of the street was occupied by the Driggs Ordnance and Manufacturing Corporation, which churned out delirious machinery like lathes and car engines. This marked the end of New Haven’s reign as America’s corsetry capital and as a thriving hub of carriage manufacturing; this was still an industrial New Haven, but one where priorities were clearly evolving.
Audubon Street’s history, however, doesn’t end with manufacturing. Keep walking past McLagon, past Hendryx, and you’ll encounter another imposing building at the end of the block. This is the Moorish revival-style Congress Mishkan Israel synagogue, adorned with two minarets. From 1897 to 1960, New Haven’s oldest Jewish congregation worshiped here, at the corner of Orange and Audubon. When CMI moved to Hamden, the opening of the new synagogue was celebrated with a speech delivered by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ACES Educational Center for the Arts, a magnet high school, took up residence in the Audubon building.
The foundries and manufacturers too would soon give way to a very different kind of neighborhood. The clanging of the factory turned into the rhythm of jazz; the hum of the assembly line gained a classical vigor. By the 1970s, New Haven had post-war boomed and post-boom busted. Entire communities like Oak Street, largely inhabited by immigrants and Black people, were cleared out in the 1950s as the city engaged in “urban renewal,” a rather neat term for a very ugly process. The city’s efforts were federally funded, as New Haven connected itself to the new interstate highway system and dubbed itself a “Model City” for automobile infrastructure. The whole façade of the city was changing once again, and Audubon Street was no exception. McLagon Foundry turned into the Foundry Café, a hotspot for jazz in New Haven. The Hendryx manufacturing plant was now the Neighborhood Music School (attended, coincidentally, by Eiress’s grandmother). Sandwiched between the two was the Foundry Music Company, a one-stop shop for sheet music, composer biographies, and general musical paraphernalia, which shut its doors during the COVID pandemic. It was the birth of the Audubon Arts District.
An FBI raid in the late 1980s put the Foundry Café out of business after the owner was arrested and charged for using the space to peddle cocaine instead of snacks, drinks, and avant-garde vibes. A couple years later, it was bought by Lee and Tracy Jackson and turned into Koffee?. Around the same time, during a period of financial crisis in New Haven spawned by bank failures, Yale started investing in properties around New Haven, beginning with Chapel Street and then expanding into the rest of the city. Koffee?, Yale’s properties, and the other stalwarts of the Arts District today define Audubon Street. This small neighborhood represents one of my favorite things about New Haven: for such a small city (population roughly 130,000), it has been at the center of so much of American history, from Puritan settlement right through to the current wave of urban gentrification.
This brings me back to Eiress, crocheting peacefully inside MINIPNG’s newly opened storefront. A small dressing room protected by a shower curtain sits in the back corner. I turned around to appreciate a part of the store I hadn’t taken in before. A colorful rug woven from natural fibers, a carved wooden panther acting as the base of an oval glass table, and a very comfortable-looking orange couch occupy the far wall of the store. On top of the table sit three bins of free candy for visitors. The whole setup sits beneath three paintings done by Dahlia Raz, a Boston-based artist who’s a friend of Hammond’s. Eiress continued telling me about her vision for the store; she wants it to be “eccentric, allowing you to express yourself in different ways.” She says she especially has in mind the students at the music school across the street. “They are missing something like this,” she tells me. “It’s affordable, it’s fun, and it’s somewhere where they can just come in and feel comfortable. I don’t want [them] to have to leave [their] hometown to experience something fun.”
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Mayor Elicker proclaimed, “Watch out, Brooklyn!” But the Audubon Arts District (which, as I learned from Zucker, was Yale-ified as the Whitney-Audubon Retail & Arts District for promotional purposes in 2017) has never been Brooklyn, and New Haven should not seek to give its residents a microdose of New York. Hannah Szabó PM ’25, a longtime New Haven area resident, told me as much: “Enough with the New Haven-New York comparisons.” I agree. New Haven, with its small town funk, doesn’t need to cling to New York’s model. New Haven certainly doesn’t need to import culture. The evidence of its own history lives on in the built environment.
Cities, like all ecosystems, have life cycles. This block of New Haven has shifted from heavy manufacturing into arts education and a music scene. Now, along with the rest of New Haven, it faces a future largely backed by Yale investments. What that will mean for the city remains an ongoing controversy. As the Arts District forges a new path into the twenty-first century, the powers that be (Elicker, Yale, and of course, Handsome Dan) would do well to reflect on its history to forge its future: a true New Haven arts identity. Eiress is right. Nobody should have to leave their hometown to experience something fun. How Yale University Properties interacts with Audubon Street’s existing institutions and new, energetic arrivals like MINIPNG will determine the direction of these city blocks for decades to come. I hope it is fun, eccentric, and authentic, the way Eiress imagines it. But above all, New Haven ought to remember its unique past: it is no New York, nor should it be. Only by remembering what was here, from the fishing lines to the bimah-turned-theatrical-stage, can the Arts District develop a future—and an identity—all its own.
MINIPNG is located at 77 Audubon Street. It is open from 12-7 from Monday to Thursday, Friday from 12-5, and Saturday from 11-7.