Signs of the Time, by Sarah Laskow

Street signs mark the intersection of the city’s past and present.

“On October 20, the two surviving owners of Horowitz Bros., Arthur and Leonard Horowitz, abandoned Chapel Street to its future. Where an ocean of buttons and waves of fabric once flooded every corner, long-time employees waited out the store’s final hour among boxes strewn like driftwood on an empty seabed. In the past few decades as other Chapel Street stores fled the city, Horowitz Bros. stayed on, a community landmark. But now even they were closing shop. One woman walked out of the double doors and onto the street with tears streaming down her face. Her name was Maria Acampora and for thirty years, she had been the Horowitz’s bookkeeper.

That day Suzanna Lengyel wandered through the store, taking it all in. An occasional customer throughout the decades, she had shopped here only when her husband’s suit jackets needed new elbow patches. For the past nine months, however, with utmost dedication, she had collected a library of documents — some mourning the store’s demise, others praising its legacy. She asked a saleslady where she might find the owners and followed the woman’s finger to the figure of Art Horowitz. Worried he might be gruff and nervous about what she had come to tell him, Suzanna introduced herself.

Art seemed happy to meet her (a friend of his cousin Phil, she said) and he listened as she told him about what Phil’s wife Hilda had begun calling Suzanna’s ‘obsession.’ Suzanna could not believe that as an older version of New Haven disappeared behind the facades of luxury apartments and international chains, the city had made no gesture to recognize the commitment of the Horowitz tradition. But if the bureaucrats at City Hall had not remembered the Horowitz brothers, Suzanna’s dossier proved that plenty of New Haven residents did. Now she wanted to channel these collective memories into a physical sign of the city’s esteem. Her plan: to rename the intersection of Chapel and State streets, where the store had stood for so long, Horowitz Bros. Corner.

Horowitz Bros., rooted in New Haven since 1914, had succeeded with the same sales pitch for years, selling quality fabric, various household goods and inexpensive, sturdy clothing — the inventory of a classic department store. Like the last ivory key on a piano, it aged slowly while the surrounding stores were replaced by plastic law offices, nail salons and Dunkin’ Donuts franchises — signs of New Haven’s struggle to survive in a post-industrial economy. The city can not preserve businesses like Horowitz’s for nostalgia’s sake.

Scattered among the newer storefronts, there are vacant ones — the remains of failed enterprises — signs of a brighter future that never seems to come. Yet New Haven’s recent history is not without its successes. Street signs like the one Suzanna envisions memorialize those who have given New Haven hope. Bishop Tutu Corner, Elsie Cofield Way, Steven J. Papa Corner and other signs prove that an individual can impact a city, even one as obstinate as New Haven.

The history of these signs begins at the corner of College and Chapel, the city’s heart. Here, New Haven thrives. Yale’s faux-Gothic buildings share sidewalks with the brand name stores that feed off the University’s economic power. The New Haven Green and the locally famous Claire’s Corner Copia bustle with activity. At the corner, a name famous not only in New Haven, but around the world, presides over the downtown landscape — Bishop Desmond Tutu.

The New Haven tycoon inadvertently started a city-wide street-naming trend.

The Board of Aldermen voted on the name of the corner in 1987. Although this neighborhood teems with activity today, two decades ago this stretch of Chapel, like Horowitz’s struggling lower Chapel neighborhood today, glumly hoped for a more fortunate future. In the 1980s, Joel Schiavone, then a recent Yale graduate, began his career as a developer with a vision of an improved Chapel Street. Remaking, remodeling and revitalizing, Schiavone turned the neighborhood into a capitalist haven; he was lauded as New Haven’s savior.

While Schiavone was scrubbing the dirt off New Haven’s face, he neglected to keep his own hands clean. In 1987, when the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa garnered world-wide support and the United States imposed sanctions on that country, Schiavone flagrantly ignored the world’s condemnation and attended the Young Presidents’ Organization Convention, a forum for young CEOs in Johannesburg, South Africa. New Have was not pleased.

‘NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED,’ reads the aldermanic resolution, ‘that the New Haven Board of Aldermen proclaims College Street between Chapel and George ‘Bishop Tutu Corner’ to indicate disappointment with Joel Schiavone and signify praise of Bishop Desmond Tutu.’

The Board took a public and permanent action against Schiavone — they named the street Schiavone had loved and labored over after a symbolic figure of the political movement he spurned.

Schiavone’s real estate pursuits were not his only contributions to leave a mark. The New Haven tycoon inadvertently jump-started a city-wide street-naming trend.

If most residents of New Haven do not remember the corner’s story, they certainly recognize its name.

‘Have you heard of Bishop Tutu Corner?’ Romy Drucker, a Yale College sophomore, asked the leather-skinned store owner of the Artistic Beauty Salon. He nodded, although his yellowed eyes remained blank. ‘We want to have something like that for the Horowitz brothers, in order to recognize all the years they were here.’

‘Yeah, sure,’ says the store owner. ‘Mike — ‘ he calls across the room, ‘Sign this for them, okay?’ Mike wore a stained white undershirt and a mustache. The somnolence of these two men contrasted strangely with their surroundings. Even Romy’s feathery pink scarf, normally the brightest color for blocks, paled in comparison with the cloying colors of the salon.

On a wet and drizzly Friday morning in December, Romy and Suzanna petitioned the shops on Chapel Street for support of the Horowitz Bros. street sign. Romy did the talking, while Suzanna added supportive comments. The morning had been fairly successful, but, after the beauty salon, Romy looked as if she was not entirely sure why, in the middle of exams, she was spending a morning in downtown New Haven talking about street signs.

She and Suzanna had met after an article she published about the closing of Horowitz Bros., ‘Endstitch,’ appeared in Volume 37, Number 1 of The New Journal. The closing line of Romy’s elegy implored the city not to let the store’s legacy slip into oblivion. Suzanna, sensing an ally, immediately contacted Romy. Suzanna’s kindness and conviction were refreshing; one meeting in the sterile underground of Machine City turned into weekly pow-wows. The two make an unlikely pair: a librarian with a Hungarian accent and an undergrad with one from Long Island.

Suzanna opened her archive of newspaper clippings, letters and notes to check off the Artistic Beauty Salon on her list of stores. She had been up this block on Monday, and many names on the list had already been appealed to for signatures. Near the corner, she found support from the Vietnamese owners of Nails Plus, who spoke only a few words of English. At one store, she befriended a girl hired to brush the dozens of wigs that lined its walls. She hesitated when she spotted Nu Haven, an adult bookstore, but she pushed herself inside, where a skinny man signed the petition with a pen held in perfectly manicured fingers. The diversity of those who were now throwing their support towards Horowitz Bros. would surprise the housewives who once shopped at the store. But when Suzanna had said her piece, almost everyone signed her petition.

As recently as 2002, there would have been no reason for Romy and Suzanna to brave the cold in search of support. In the past, street signs needed little more than a blessing from the Board of Aldermen. But that was before the street sign craze and the accusations of political pandering.

When the Board named Bishop Tutu Corner, few people (including Joel Schiavone) took notice. But in 1989, after the death of Salvatore Consiglio, founder and owner of Sally’s Apizza, the Wooster Street community petitioned to have a corner named after this cultural icon, famous in local legend both for his delicious pies and his rivalry with pizza-making father-in-law Frank Pepe. New Haven’s residents realized that rather than let history disappear, they could enshrine it in signs bearing the names of their neighborhood heroes. But after Sal Consiglio’s sign went up at Olive Street and Wooster, the Italian societies of the Wooster community, who first encouraged immigration from Italy to New Haven, all wanted their own. The trend spread from Wooster Street into the African-American community, where reverends and bishops of various churches were honored for selfless dedication to their parishes. By 2003, it seemed the Board was voting to erect another sign for a different segment of the city’s population every few months. During the height of the craze, a mosque petitioned for a ‘Nasi Mohammed’ corner, a project that was derailed only when the city realized that the person in question was not a local figure but the prophet Mohammed.

As signs cropped up in all corners of the city, tension mounted. Some claimed the Board was weighing down every inch of New Haven with meaningless monuments. In 2003, The New Haven Register asked readers to ‘sound off’ on the question, ‘Is the naming of street corners for individuals overdone?’ A related article argued that aldermen used the signs to curry favor with their constituencies by drawing ‘laundry lists of names, some of them arguably questionable.’ Citizens reacted with indignation: The signs were an honor, not as an empty gesture. One woman marched indignantly into the mayor’s office and demanded that even more signs bear the names of locals, arguing that streets named after figures like John Davenport no longer meant anything to the community.

Since then, the Board of Aldermen has drawn up an official procedure for the naming of corners, which Albert Lucas, longtime head of the Board of Aldermen office, calls ‘relatively simple.’ Gathering signatures of local businesses and residents is the first step, after which, with legislative support, the item appears before two committees: Municipal Services and City Planning. If it is recommended, the entire Board votes on the measure. Once the aldermen unanimously approve, the mayor and the city clerk must sign off. Only then does the order make it to Traffic and Parking, where, for 75 to 100 taxpayer dollars, a new sign is born.

These official regulations, still little more than a few handwritten phrases, sit in a drawer in the Board of Aldermen office, the administrative heart of the city. Here, the office’s employees — human encyclopedias of New Haven history — remember the naming of Bishop Tutu corner and every street sign since the more recent craze. While each aldermanic term lasts two years, the historical memory of this office lasts much longer. The employees understand why the regulations were put in place. They know that rewriting history and changing the names of streets can honor one person’s contribution to the city while erasing another’s.

Although she still passes down Elsie Cofield Way everyday on her way to AIDS Interfaith, Elsie Cofield no longer plays an active role in the organization she founded. While others provide medical support and counseling to New Haven’s HIV population, twice a day Cofield makes the rounds in the building, giving everyone a hug. When she started AIDS Interfaith 18 years ago, however, her clients needed much more than hugs. She fought to provide them with basic services — even wheelchairs —at a time when many people shrunk from the taboo of the disease.

Cofield became part of New Haven’s history in 1966, when the Immanuel Baptist Church asked her husband, Dr. Curtis Cofield III, to lead its congregation. The family left North Carolina and settled in the Elm City. First as a minister’s wife, then as a teacher, Cofield began to change the community. She ran pageants, youth groups and soup kitchens out of the church; in effect, she raised half of the city’s children. Her most lasting contribution, though, was her AIDS work, which educated New Haven’s healthy and cared for its sick.

When Alvis Brooker, a former student of Cofield’s, was elected to the Board of Aldermen, naming street signs was in vogue, and he remembered his elementary school teacher. On May 27, 2001, Cofield stood outside AIDS Interfaith, amid the whistles and cheers of friends and admirers. This small alley, once named Gill for a reason its residents could not remember, became Elsie Cofield Way for a reason they could.

Unlike most of the Board’s street signs, Elsie Cofield Way renamed the street in its entirety over the objection of the family of George Gill, whom the street had originally commemorated. Gill, a stucco plasterer and local businessman, was a relic of a previous century. Just as present communities had resented the Register‘s assertion that their icons didn’t matter, the heirs of a more distant past felt slighted by the Board’s disregard for their role in New Haven’s history.

Even Cofield is unsure why the Board changed the street name. She certainly does not lack for recognition for her work. Plaques clutter the walls of her office and spill into the adjoining room, already full of articles, clippings and awards. On her desk, a picture of Cofield beneath her sign is overshadowed by a shot of her standing next to a grinning President Clinton.

Although she passes her sign every day, ‘I don’t think about it,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think about it then.’

Even with guidelines in place, the controversy over public memorials lingers. With New Haven’s many honorable citizens both past and present, the Board must somehow decide who deserves to see his or her name, if not up in lights, at least in municipal green and white.

To Suzanna, there is no question that the Horowitz brothers deserve recognition. She has been friends with Hilda Horowitz for years and found her husband Phil to be a ‘wonderfully, exceptionally nice man.’ When he died a year and a half ago, Suzanna was among the crowd who listened as the rabbi claimed, ‘If there were Jewish saints, Phil would have been one of them.’ It was then, that Suzanna began to wonder how the city could pay the family tribute.

Street sign proposals often begin with an individual simply looking to honor a friend or colleague. Such grassroots sentiment gives street signs their power as symbols, but has also been the most common source of their controversy. Those in power can more easily honor the people they care about.

Without an initial connection to the Board, Suzanna struggled to push her idea forward. At one point, she said, someone whom she had tried to contact seemed hostile to her proposal and had vaguely suggested that the family was making a hefty profit on the sale of the building. Bitsie Clark, the Alderwoman for Ward 7 — lower Chapel Street — was supportive, but as she wrote Remy in December, ‘There is a need for a groundswell of people to push for some way to honor the store. Suzanna Lengyl and I did not seem to have the requisite clout to get the city to pay attention.’ In this city, even erecting a street sign requires hefty political clout.

Stephen J. Papa, Sr. has some ideas about how to make politicians notice him. He’s been doing it for years.

One day in October, Papa came home and found that thieves had broken through the backdoor and taken some of Mrs. Papa’s jewelry with them. But they had also disturbed Papa’s most treasured sanctuary — a room full of newspapers. (‘My name was on the front cover of the Register two days ago,’ he chortled.) The thieves shuffled through decades worth of newspaper clippings, became frustrated and hit the wall so hard it cracked. Papa doesn’t know what they were looking for. Amid the pile of New Haven’s history in headlines: ‘Papa founds the Dwight Redevelopment Agency,’ ‘Papa wrangles with a teacher’s union ready to walk off the job,’ ‘Papa is appointed to the Board of Education of New Haven,’ to the Welfare Department, then to the housing authority and to the Livable City Initiative. In the photos his face changes with the years, but also with the seasons. Traditionally, he plays Christopher Columbus in the Columbus Day Parade, George Washington on Presidents Day, and, of course, Santa Claus — every Christmas for the past fifty years.

‘I am Santa Claus,’ Papa chuckled. Come December, children start ringing the doorbell, seeking out Santa in the days before Christmas. Had the thieves found Papa at home that October, they would have still found Santa — an octogenarian with a scraggly beard, sitting with his cane and bum hip on his easy chair. But Papa is rarely at home, ‘My schedule fills up so darn fast,’ he said. ‘All volunteer, thousands of hours, and when I tell you thousands, I mean many many hours.’ Most recently, Papa has been spending time talking to patients at St. Raphael’s Hospital. In his opinion every corner of the city could benefit from what his grandmother called ‘constructive criticism — which you should always give, so long as you’re right.’

After all these years, Papa has learned how to make people listen to him and his criticisms. Papa is the model of a street sign honoree: an individual who believes he can single-handedly change the city. A ruthless self-promoter, he has in abundance what Suzanna lacked.

‘I was here one day and my grandson called me up, ‘You have to come down to our store,’ he said. When I went outside, the mayor, the congress lady, the president of St. Raphael’s were all there. I thought something had happened!’

It had. In the middle of the crowd standing outside his childhood home, on the signpost for the corner of Chapel and Orchard Street, a green beacon floated. ‘Stephen J. Papa Corner,’ it read. ‘I actually cried,’ Papa said, but then he sat back, thoughtfully. ‘I don’t know how they kept it from me… I have so many connections!’

Unlike Papa, a New Haven man about town, for most of her life, Suzanna was not involved in city business. But once she started, she was determined to effect change by seeing Horowitz Brothers Corner become a reality.

‘Why shouldn’t I accomplish it?’ she asked. ‘People are able to make changes. Why shouldn’t I be able to make this little change?’

In January, when Romy returned for spring semester, she and Suzanna presented their collection of signatures — the ‘groundswell’ they needed — to an excited Bitsie Clark. Her hefty political clout paid off. Faster than they had believed possible, considering the original resistance from City Hall, their measure jumped through the requisite hurdles and committees with Clark’s enthusiastic and seasoned hand behind it. On February 21, 2005, more than a year after Phil Horowitz’s funeral, Romy and Suzanna sat in the Board chamber itself for a preliminary approval hearing before the Municipal Services Committee.

Under the hall’s sweeping ceilings, they waited as a bustling crowd of middle-aged ladies gathered towards the rear of the Aldermanic Chamber. Suzanna flitted about, cheeks flushed, chatting with friends and strangers who had all come to speak in support of her proposal. Bitsie Clark, raving about the positive feedback from other aldermen, looked impressed by the turn-out. Romy kept a hand on Suzanna’s shoulder as they rehearsed her lines, encouraging her to enunciate so the board could hear her touching tribute through her thick Hungarian accent. Suzanna’s wiry husband, a Yale scientist, smiled as he watched. Even Hilda Horowitz had snuck in ‘incognito,’ to witness the realization of her friend’s obsession.

One woman after another rose to speak on behalf of the Horowitz brothers. A long-time employee commended the brothers for a strong tradition of women’s employment, another lauded their kindness to animals, another, nearly in tears, told the committee she had bought the fabric for her wedding chuppah at the store. Suzanna and Romy spoke last. Visibly moved, Alderwoman Rose Ferraro Santana, the chairperson of the Committee, effusively thanked the well-wishers.

A month later, Bitsie Clark’s proposal is number 12 on the docket. Stuffed among other municipal suppliants, the small Horowitz contingency — Romy, Suzanna, Art and Hilda Horowitz and friends — is clumped together, eagerly awaiting their item. Romy whispers to Suzanna, ‘This is it.’ A nervous Suzanna hugs her. Four aldermen besides Clark speak in favor of the measure, and when Carl Goldfield, Ward 29, concludes with, ‘This shirt, this tie, this belt: all from Horowitz Bros.!’ he takes his seat to a roar of applause.

Waiting for silence, President Jorge Perez asks for a vote: ‘All in favor?’

On April 29 at 5:30 p.m., a small sign will be unveiled, and a crowd of well-wishers including Mayor John D. Stefano and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, will see Horowitz Brothers Corner’s inauguration. With a chorus of ayes that night in March, the Board of Aldermen made Suzanna’s dream a reality. The sign will be at the head of a long list of names that line Chapel Street: not only Stephen Papa and Elsie Cofield, but Evelyn Schatz, a community activist; Sidney and Libby Glucksman, Holocaust survivors and long-time owners of Sidney’s Tailoring; and the Reverend Curtis Cofield III, Elsie’s husband. Chapel Street has a particularly high concentration of signs — but signs can be found all over New Haven. They weave a web of names and history around the cars and pedestrians.

No map or comprehensive list of signs exists, and most likely no one knows for sure how many there are. But for the communities and individuals that the signs honor, they are badges of New Haven’s best faces — the citizens who believe in the city. While New Haven’s past recedes and new faces change the city, the street signs will stand above our heads, a gentle reminder of the people who care for New Haven, and the people who care about them. This is New Haven’s Hall of Fame, and the Horowitz Brothers Corner sign will mark not just the brothers’ place, but Suzanna’s.”
-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library, The New Journal, No. 44, V. 37, “Signs of the Time,” by Sarah Laskow, April 2005

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