Profile of Joel Schiavone, by Steven Mufson

“Dixieland banjo player, 1950s style rock-and-roll crooner, Republican gubernatorial candidate and multi-millionaire real estate developer — Joel Schiavone thinks he can help resuscitate Connecticut’s ailing cities. He has plowed millions of dollars into New Haven and is about to launch an even more ambitious 19-block, 1.5 million-square-foot redevelopment project in Bridgeport. A lesser, or saner, man might have his doubts, especially in New Haven, where so many others have failed.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, no other city in the country received more federal development funds per resident. Approximately $450 million was showered onto this city of 126,000 people. Yet, today, this one-time showcase of urban renewal ranks among the nation’s Top 10 cities in rates of infant mortality, poverty and AIDS infection. Between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, assessed property values plunged about 60 percent in the small section of the city across the street from Yale University. Although a prime location, the area was all but abandoned: a vacant hotel, two lifeless theaters, empty offices. Chapel Street served as a kind of moat dividing the university and the city.

In 1979, Schiavone staked a claim on that block. At first, no bank in town would lend him money for it. But in the last decade he has transformed it into one of New Haven’s spiffiest areas. Instead of undertaking 1960s-style demolition of run-down buildings, Schiavone rehabilitated structures. He converted the vacant Taft Hotel into an apartment building. He turned the abandoned Union League into a sumptuous corporate office.

He redesigned storefronts, turned a back alley into an outdoor dining area and persuaded the city to install historic-style street lights and flagstone sidewalks. While retaining favorite old spots like Claire’s Corner Copia and the College Spa, Schiavone wooed new stores with names like the Glass Slipper, C’est Magnifique and Seven Country Ducks. Laura Ashley opened a branch there. He also reopened the 1,450-seat Schubert, once a leading regional theater. He turned the derelict Palace Theater into a popular music hall.

Performers range from George Benson (playing this weekend) to Joel Schiavone himself, who, clad only in boxer shorts, once rode onto stage on the back of a camel while singing to the accompaniment of his regular seven-member Dixieland group called the Galvanized Jazz Band.

‘Urban renewal was a euphemism for a tearing-down strategy. Though they supposedly tore down slums, in retrospect they tore down functioning neighborhoods,’ says Schiavone. A Jewish neighborhood torn down near Yale-New Haven Hospital is a parking lot today. A black neighborhood was demolished to make way for a highway extension. Downtown parking lots cover a former Italian neighborhood.

Schiavone says he is trying to re-create an urban neighborhood, with a combination of apartments, shops, offices and entertainment. ‘To re-create an effective downtown, you need people to work and live and play downtown. We don’t do shopping centers. We do neighborhoods and try to re-create day life and night life,’ he says.”
-excerpt from the Washington Post, “Profile of Joel Schiavone,” by Steve Mufson, October 29, 1929. Image (top) courtesy of the Union League Cafe photo collection, undated.

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