Life and Death on the New Haven Green 

Design by Karela Palazio

“Be careful around the New Haven Green.” “Don’t go near the Green at night; it’s not safe.”  These warnings circulate among Yale students as we face uncertainty about how the network of campus blue lights and dedicated university police reflect on and engage with the city of New Haven.

Early in the morning of August 14, 2018, over 70 people overdosed on marijuana laced with fentanyl on the Green. Nobody died from the incident, though several people came close. The  city’s addiction and drug usage crisis was laid bare that day. The Green, a symbol of New Haven’s vibrant, rich history, instead held up a mirror to the city, exposing the problems it has to solve and the people it has to help.  

Personally, I’m unable to resist the Green. This is a practical and emotional choice: prominently located in the middle of the city, the Green is at once romantic and melancholy, tranquil and alive. When it is quiet and empty, especially at night, it takes on a peaceful sadness, tinged by all the horrors and wonders and change that it has seen. As New Haven has shape-shifted around it, the Green has remained a constant sixteen-acre square of grass and trees that helps the city breathe. 

The name “New Haven Green” is charming, more welcoming than “New Haven Park” or “Central Park” would be. Less regal or grand, it connotes a place that is quaint, personable, and a little mysterious. It takes a visit or two, or ten, to get to know the Green and begin to understand it. 

I start my walk on College St between Elm and Chapel, at a concrete path that cuts straight through the grass. The upper half of the Green where I begin is wooded with old trees covered with hardened wrinkles of bark and wriggling branches reaching in all directions. Most of the upper Green lies behind the three churches—Trinity, Center, and United—that face the lower half. The upper half is cozy; it feels like a backyard. A full block of tall stone-and-brick Yale buildings stand across College St, their red-brown hues and indulgent ornamentation adding warmth and prestige. The soft rush of cars provides soothing white noise. I walk downhill toward Center Church on the Green and pass by a fenced-in stone monument behind it that looks like a grave. Before it was a park, I learn, the New Haven Green was a cemetery.

The Green doesn’t shy away from this chilling fact; it memorializes it. Underneath the Center Church is a crypt, usually open to the public but currently closed for renovations. Carefully preserved colonial-era headstones are enclosed under the crypt’s low ceiling. The crypt is like a time capsule in the middle of the Green; the remains of over five thousand seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Americans still lie underneath the grass and trees of the upper Green. 

Despite my frequent visits to the Green, I am always surprised when I reach Temple St and the scenery suddenly changes. The forested backyard of the upper Green gives way to an exposed lower half, split by a street hissing with buses. The lower half is bordered by a wide, unpaved walkway that creates a moat of slush and mud after snowstorms and rain. Wooden benches line the path, with “New Haven Green 1638-1988” embossed on their iron frames. On one bench sits an unopened can of Campbell’s Chunky Chicken Noodle Soup, and a few raisins spill out of a toppled red Lion Raisins box. I am not sure whether these items were discarded there or carefully left for someone to find. The three churches assert their historical dominance behind me. Trinity Church near Chapel St is thriving: its dark brown stonework is tastefully haphazard, and above each of three sets of bright red doors is an intricate web of stained glass. Center Church has a colonial white-painted brick facade, but its stone front steps are dissolving, and its white trim and columns are chipping. Its steeple, though, is still a crisp white. United Church by Elm St resembles Center Church, minus the disrepair.

In the middle of the lower Green, a flagpole stands tall and is surrounded by a circular fountain. The flagpole is engraved with names of New Haveners who died in World War I. Buildings border every side of the lower Green. City Hall on Church St resembles a gingerbread house, and the stately courthouse next door recalls the Parthenon. On Elm St, the New Haven Free Public Library and a state courthouse overlook the Green. On the southwest side, at the corner of Church and Chapel, in 1825, the last enslaved people in New Haven were sold and immediately freed. A busy bus depot with covered waiting areas and a traditional ticket booth occupies that same corner today. Events are hosted on the expansive lower Green: I’ve seen farmers’ markets appear there every so often and heard about packed summertime concerts. The lower half is where the Green comes to life. 


I’ve learned a lot about the Green by looking at the ground. Larger-than-life yellow block lettering is painted on Temple Street, two lanes wide: “Black Lives Matter.” Despite the brightly colored trash cans that dot the Green’s paths, bits of detritus are strewn across the grass. Observing the trash that doesn’t make it to a trash can reveals a lot about a place. Litter is not just an environmental hazard, it is also a form of reclamation—an exercise of power and opinion in a public space. 

The Green is not a singular place for a singular purpose. It is a symbol of life and hosts vibrant shows and festivals. It has also been home to death and has seen New Haven at its worst. The Green is where New Haven shows itself: its history, its natural beauty, its memory, its strife. I am still new to New Haven, so I go to the Green as often as I can. I surround myself with the city as I try to find my place within it.

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