Last May my partner, Donna Curran, and I moved from downtown New Haven to Fairhaven on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in Connecticut. By car it’s ten minutes away from Yale and the New Haven Green, twenty by bus. Our house, a former oysterman’s, dates from 1880. The garden runs down to a small, oyster-shelled cove with a granite retaining wall and the vestiges of a small dock. A mulberry tree of some antiquity grows at the end of the meadow-rough lawn, shading much of the garden from blasts of the western sky and sun.
You are forgiven if you have never heard of the Quinnipiac River. It runs inland from Long Island Sound for about 70 kilometres, making it surely the shortest river on record. Broader than the Yarra at Southgate, the Quinnipiac is tidal. In the seventeenth century when the palefaces first settled in Fairhaven, the river teemed with fish, oysters, clams and lobsters. Seals were common and their strange barking was, lightly, imagined by the seventeenth-century settlers as the sound of dragons. This prosperous fishing village first took the name of Dragon.
To our right less than 100 metres upstream is the Grand Avenue Bridge, looking to all intents and purposes like a mini version of the Firth of Forth. It’s a swing bridge and opens unpredictably to let the taller fishing boats through from the marina in the basin upstream. The bridge sometimes overheats in summer and its massive steel frame jams, to the irritation of the traffic along Grand Avenue and the amusement of pedestrians who have to hop, skip and jump across the disjointed footpaths and roadway. The bright red fishing boat Rock ’n’ Roll got caught on the wrong side of the bridge and had to stand to, getting redder and redder until the New Haven fire brigade came and hosed down the bridge and cooled it off.
Our immediate neighbour to our left is one of the last remaining oyster farms in New Haven. Its dock runs some 70 metres downriver. From there the S.W. Sheppard, the Kristen Laura and the Mary Colman ply their trade. The Miss Kathryn never seems to leave her moorings. The shipyard mixes cottages and sheds, old and well- used machinery—high tech has yet to make its presence felt—and huge mounds of oyster shells mixed with soil. In July, day after day, earth movers would fill the little fleet of battered oyster boats from these mounds. The boats set off shortly after dawn to fertilise the oyster beds and return frequently to refill. They turn to dock at the very end of our garden as silently as they set off. The somewhat scruffy oyster farm gives the neighbourhood a feel of work and industry and intensifies the charm of Fairhaven. Nothing chichi here.
The first morning I woke in Dragons Reach, for so our house is called, it was barely first light. The river was bathed in mist. It looked like Monet on the Seine in winter. As dawn approached the fog thickened and it changed to Whistler on the lower reaches of the Thames with only three or four lights filtering through from the opposite bank. As the light took control of the world and the sun burned off the fog, two white swans swam gracefully, if idly, by our garden. They made their hide in our neighbour’s well-cut lawn and reedy, muddy beach. They have since gone on vacation, replaced by a pair of cranes that stalk the shallows in search of easy breakfasts and lunches. One morning a flight of osprey dived and soared over our house and the oyster farm, checking out the new arrivals before returning to their nests and perches in the marshes upstream.
Our side of the river is a declared historic district although its precise limits are hard to determine. It includes a mighty 1851 Congregational church, perched half-way up the steep hill behind us. It is a brick, ‘steepled temple’ in the manner of James Gibbs’ St-Martin-in-the-Fields. Wren could have used the gigantic order of Ionic columns on its porch to advantage on the west front of St Paul’s. Most spectacularly it has a gleaming, cone-shaped white spire that shoots out of the trees like a rocket. You can see it for miles around—our campanilismo.
The guardians of the historic district are concerned only with the street frontage. The houses are a strange mix of antiques and the downtrodden. Many post the names of their original owners and the dates of their occupation. Our neighbour lives in the house of Ebenezer Schiavone, 1829. Over the road in a somewhat crumbling state is the Obadiah Dickerman house, 1840. In our shrubbery we found a dismembered gravestone for Henry Ames Died 1864. ‘And though the past I never can forget / Through God’s kind love formed me / I am not of all bereft’ is the admirable if unmetrical sentiment carved in stone. Whether Henry Ames was the previous owner and the present house replaces an earlier one awaits the verdict of history. Further along are some handsomely restored, large Victorian houses. American Victorian in New England means predominantly timber architecture of clapboard and shingle, allowing for freedom in design, decoration and palette. One of our local prides has a circular porch (for so the word and idea of ‘verandah’ is translated here) that encloses most of the ground floor. The house next door to it is abandoned and boarded up. Opposite us a massive beige and burgundy, clapboard and shingle mansion rises to high gables and fan-lights, surrounded by a garden so lush that it’s like an outdoor conservatory.
The most amusing pieces are five tall, thin 1880s houses, all on narrow lots with steep wooden stoops running down to the street in various stages of repair that might make even mountaineer Tenzing Norgay pause. Their stiff gabled roofs and plain-faced turrets give them the look of Victorian spinsters, drawing their shawls tightly about themselves, making sure nobody touches them. All have commanding river views and make an eccentric, ungainly vista from the other bank.
Walk past the ‘spinsters’ and you are reminded that you still live in an urban environment. Large white petrol storage tanks, just waiting for James Bond to blow up, line the street before giving way to the natively named Buck Eye Pipe Line Company. Beyond them, hard by the grim 1940 Ferry Street Bridge, lies Buchanan Marine, builders and welders of huge sea-going steel barges. The Ferry Street effort is a drawbridge and opens peremptorily to let the Kristen Laura through to her oyster-farm dock. On foot or by car you can be held up for some minutes at these bridges. They remind you as nowhere else in New Haven does that you live in a seaport town.
Our immediate neighbourhood is a mixture of Hispanic, African-American and white. It’s better to live in the United States in a neighbourhood like that. The western bank of the Quinnipiac River, opposite us, is strongly Hispanic. Indeed much of the area between us and downtown New Haven is African-American or Hispanic. Grand Avenue, which rumbles through it, is largely regarded as a no-go zone by white New Haven. Our local supermarket, C-Town, is a ten-minute walk from Dragons Reach over the bridge and down Grand Avenue. It’s scruffy and rumpity but hardly dangerous. The footpaths are in need of repair. You pass two pawn shops on your way plus a Western Union, the Chase Manhattan of the poor for transferring money. Unlike downtown New Haven, there are no panhandlers.
C-Town itself is a riot. The moment you walk in you realise you’re the only non-Spanish speaker. The produce section has Andean ranges of rutabagas, cliff-faces of plantains and acres of Mexican bread and baked goods. I wouldn’t try asking for an English muffin here.
From our upper deck or porch we look due west to a plain slate spire topped by a useful weathervane. It’s such an accent on the horizon line that I was curious to take a closer look. At first I thought it was derelict but no, what had been the East Pearl Street Methodist church was now the home of a Hispanic Charismatic congregation. Pearl Street adumbrates the theme of urban change. It is lined with Victorian houses with large mansions butting in amid the middle classes. The freshly painted and the grandly restored lie cheek by jowl with the peeling and the patched. At the end of Pearl Street a mansarded stone house apes the manner of an Australian boom-time mansion with fancy ironwork and an elaborate portico.
Pearl Street is only one block back from the river and the grander houses have commanding views. Short, steep streets lead down to the river and a pleasant strip of roughly mown parkland, running along the Quinnipiac River. Here the world’s most optimistic Latinos fish for ‘stripers’ or ‘bunchees’. The favoured evening spot is on the Grand Avenue Bridge under the sign that says ‘No Fishing from Bridge’.
When we moved to Dragons Reach, some of our friends were dubious. Surely I wasn’t going to take the bus back and forth to downtown New Haven along Grand Avenue? You never know what might happen—this from people who never take a bus anywhere. Well, I caught my first bus from a shady spot on the corner of the New Haven Green. A surly white guy stood in everybody’s way as we got on. Not being Rosa Parks, I moved to the back of the bus and it filled up quickly. Two stops down Grand Avenue, all the standing passengers began to shout at the surly young white guy, gesturing with their hands as though taking part in some German expressionist play: ‘Get off the bus! Get off the bus!’ Sure enough at the next stop the driver told him to hop it. After a brief exchange of imprecations, the entire bus fell to questioning each other: ‘What did he do? What did he say?’ How right my friend was: there’s no telling what might happen on a New Haven bus.
I have never lived in such a beautiful or interesting place as Fairhaven. John Brack once remarked that he had always wanted to live where something was going on outside the window (hard to do in Surrey Hills). Living on the Quinnipiac River satisfies that desire, whether it’s the oysterman’s boats loading up and setting out, or Rock ’n’ Roll returning from Norwalk with its clams and lobsters, or small and larger launches tracking down to the Sound for an afternoon’s fishing, or just the tide eddying into our shell-covered cove and flooding the corner of the oyster farm.
There are the usual American amenities. Our end of the Grand Avenue Bridge is guarded by a large nineteenth-century brick warehouse now housing a first-rate wine merchant. On our side of the river, five minutes’ walk from our house, the Grand Avenue Bridge Restaurant caters perfectly to the local taste with ten different kinds of hamburgers and the usual liquor. A lobster shack, Jenelle’s, on the opposite bank lets you sit on the dock and bring your own wine with a view you could mistake for Maine. No doubt the sensation of being permanently on holiday will pass. My elder brother, James, warned us to prepare for Chekhov-like visits with people turning up unannounced, staying for weeks and expecting to be entertained with picnics on the river, dinners and balls. Why not?
Photograph by Denise Appel.