Joel Schiavone

“Mr. Downtown” Dies; Downtown Lives On
By Paul Bass

from The New Haven Independent


Schiavone at 80 performs in the living room of a Chapel Street frat house apartment while fighting an eviction.

Joel Schiavone, the sockless banjo-strumming real estate developer who launched New Haven’s downtown renaissance, has died at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy that will long outlive him.

In remaking the blocks in and around Chapel, College, and Crown streets, Schiavone invented ​“new urbanism” in New Haven before people began using the word nationwide — and copying the playbook.

He died on Monday. He spent his last years ​“penniless” and struggled with health problems in his later years, according to his partner Emly McDiarmid. (“We had an amazing December/December romance over the past eight years sparked by a random run-in one night at the Yale Rep. Have not been apart one day since. It’s brought us both incredible joy.”) She said the cause of death was pneumonia.

To understand the impact Schiavone had on New Haven, it pays to picture what those blocks looked like before he got to work on them in the early 1980s.

New Haven was still recovering from its post-urban renewal hangover. Downtown was often a ghost town after dark. Few people lived there. Few people shopped there. Much of the block on College between Chapel and Crown was empty and boarded-up. Some of the historic buildings that escaped the urban renewal bulldozer of the 1950s and 1960s were crumbling.

Schiavone bought property throughout the district. Then he dreamed up a plan that would reverse mistakes of urban renewal and revive the city’s heart.

He proposed renovating and reopening the block’s two main theaters, the shuttered-Shubert and Roger Sherman. (The Fusco Corporation ended up rebuilding the former, Schiavone the latter, which became the Palace, which is today the College Street Music Hall.) Urban renewal redesigned streets for cars so suburban drivers could zip in and out. Schiavone proposed building wider new sidewalks with antique-style street lamps, focusing on the pedestrian rather than driver. He argued that lots of people — empty nesters and young adults, for instance — would like to come back to live in cities if they felt safe and had fun stuff to do. He fixed up old buildings rather than tearing them down. And he argued that the city should stop trying to compete with the suburbs with generic chain stores. He anchored his new district by convincing distinctive local businesses like the Anchor bar and Claire’s Corner Copia to stay (and expand in Claire’s case).

He envisioned local government’s role as helping — not by investing directly in his projects, but through infrastructure: Building those sidewalks, for instance. Helping to obtain historic tax credits to enable him to afford preserving grand buildings.

A few reflexive business-skeptic voices (ahem, like this reporter perhaps) blasted the plans as an example of misguided trickle-down corporate welfare economics then fashionable in the Reagan era. But even socialist and socialist-adjacent members of the Board of Alders approved the plan. People agreed that New Haven needed a jolt out of its doldrums. And while the ​“new urbanism” phrase hadn’t yet gained currency, Schiavone’s approach, which the evolving concept would embody, made sense to people.

His unconventional nature enabled him to ​“see past city soul-killing development practices. He recognized the value of beauty, fun, comfort, liveliness and variety and built his project on these human-centered experiences,” observed Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell. ​“He saw that the great potential of this place was its human scale, historic character, and gentle density — and worked to cultivate these features as assets rather than destroy them. This was not a conventional approach to development in New Haven at that time.”

“He was the single most important factor in New Haven retaining the ability to recover from the mistakes of the Redevelopment of the 1950s and 1960s and the loss of a downtown economic purpose and activity in the 1970s,” reflected former city Development Administrator and Chamber of Commerce President Matthew Nemerson.

Schiavone (and Fusco) got to work. New Haven became a busy place again. It became the one city in Connecticut people started moving in to, by the thousands.

By the time Schiavone left the stage and economic trends started favoring ​“ed and meds” small cities with lively arts scenes and diverse ethnic populations, city and civic and business leaders grew the concepts over the past two decades to turn New Haven into an urban success story. Small and medium-sized cities across the country were following the same playbook. In New Haven, the DeStefano administration and owners of the Ninth Square redevelopment project added people of modest means to the mix of middle-class and wealthier people Schiavone focused on in his original downtown vision. Like others in public life, former Mayor John DeStefano regularly clashed with Schiavone — and respected and listened to him. ​“He made no allowance for populations that have been marginalized from taking advantage of the future he saw,” DeStefano said. ​“You just accepted the frame for the benefit of the brilliance.” (More of DeStefano’s comments appear at the bottom of this article.)

In the end, Schiavone earned his nickname of ​“Mr. Downtown.” Though that didn’t earn him a permanent place downtown.

Looking For Lightning To Strike

In a twist of fate, Schiavone didn’t personally end up benefiting from being right about how to rebuild cities like New Haven.

During the early ​‘90s recession, he lost all his district properties in foreclosure to the federal government. At City Hall’s urging, Yale bought the properties to maintain the investment. Schiavone maintained an office there — until Yale booted him for nonpayment of rent.

“That he was cruelly financially ruined by the crash of his two banks in 1991 through no fault or default of his own was a sad end that allowed others to eventually take credit for his leadership and foresight. But he remained engaged and unbitter for the most part for the next 30 years — always trying to make lightening strike again,” Matthew Nemerson said.

The son of a scrap metal yard owner, Schiavone always played the role of dreamer more than hard-nosed businessman. (He gave up his inherited half of the family business to his brother after a fight.) He chased many dreams and took controversial stands, clashing with people along the way.

He ended up getting crushed in a quixotic 2001 GOP mayoral campaign he was sure he could win. He camped out on the top level of the Coliseum Garage in an unsuccessful bid to convince New Haveners to buy season tickets to save the New Haven Nighthawks. A skilled banjo performer — his pronounced stutter disappeared when he sang into the microphone — he launched a chain of Dixieland-style music establishments called Your Father’s Mustache; it went bust. So did an ambitious eatery-nightclub he opened on Chapel (the current Shake Shack spot). The ideas had promise; the timing was off. But nobody questioned the spirit and intentions and good times he promoted along the way.

As president of an international corporate presidents’ organization, Schiavone defended South Africa’s apartheid government in its waning years. Apartheid fell; New Haven’s Board of Alders christened Chapel and College ​“Bishop Tutu Corner” in response to Schiavone’s advocacy.

In 2007 Schiavone sought to recapture his redevelopment magic by buying up properties along the eastern coast of the Q River and create a new neighborhood within Fair Haven Heights. Financial markets crashed in 2008, Schiavone’s plan along with it; others eventually stepped in to reap the rewards when the timing became right.

In his 80s Schiavone continued speaking out and waging fights. He sought to help revive New Haven’s dormant Redevelopment Commission with a plan to revive the widespread use of eminent domain with a grassroots edge. (It provoked interesting debate; it didn’t happen.) He blasted Yale for ​“malling” the city’s distinctive downtown. He moved back onto Chapel Street, into a house owned by a fraternity he joined back in his Yale days. The fraternity ended up serving Mr. Downtown with eviction papers (then agreed to a two-year reprieve).

But people remembered him and what he accomplished.

“Despite being penniless, progressively weak and disabled, he continued to care passionately about the downtown (not happy with where it’s going), a fierce supporter of New Haven neighborhoods, and (as I am on the board) the best possible teacher and counselor regarding the management of University Towers,” Emly McDiarmid wrote in an email message.

“As I pushed him around downtown in his wheelchair, people would come out of the woodwork. ​‘Mr. Schiavone!!! Remember me? I worked for you, met you, talked with you … You helped me …’ Garage attendants would let me park free. Every hospital stay produced some ambulance driver, doctor, nurse, aide pushing the gurney, roommate, who knew him when. He is still imbued into every corner of the city.”

A private burial for Joel Schiavone is planned for next week in Grove Street Cemetery, according to McDiarmid; so is an as-yet-unscheduled ​“New England version of a New Orleans jazz funeral with a parade in and lots of the traditional music he loved so much.”

Schiavone is survived by his children Allyx, Josie, Bryan, and Maxim Schiavone; and grandchildren Penn, Josie and Ripley.

He is survived as well by the enduring legacy his left on this city. The summons servicers and property-poaching profiteers don’t shape history. History is shaped by those who dare to dream — even if they stumble or fumble or guess wrong, even when some dreams inevitably turn into nightmares. Sometimes the dreamers guess right. Joel Schiavone guessed right about what would make downtowns work again. And that made all the difference.

Strumming To His Own Beat

John DeStefano, who served as mayor from 1994 through 2013, offered the following thoughts about Joel Schiavone’s role in rebuilding New Haven.

To me Joel was a walking, talking contradiction. Brilliant and stubborn. Showman and antagonistic. Innovator and a poor listener.

Brilliant. Joel wrote me a 5 page or so single spaced letter a few years after I took office as Mayor. (Located at SCSU today). He described a mixed use Downtown, a knowledge based economy and the critical purpose of the arts in building community. He absolutely outlined a vision of much of what has positively emerged as the New Haven of today. Stubborn because he made no allowance for populations that have been marginalized from taking advantage of the future he saw.

Showman. Ah, camping out on top of the coliseum to sell hockey tickets! Who else does stuff like that! The late Steve Wareck, a friend and mentor, offering me some constructive advice once told me that I didn’t suffer fools lightly! Square that and you had Joel.

Innovator. The Shubert, the Palace, upper Chapel, narrow walkable streets, de-emphasis on cars. Joel not only saw it, but he got it done. Poor listener. Very often if it wasn’t his idea, it wasn’t a good idea.

All this to say that Joel could be hard. He loved New Haven through and through. I have absolutely no doubt about that. But sometimes he may have loved it so much, that he didn’t leave room for others love to be valued. But he had so much that was valuable to say that, like all of us you just accepted the frame for the benefit of the brilliance.

One last thing. Last fall Kathy and I saw that the Galvanized Jazz Band, of which Joel was the organizer and long time banjo player, was playing at Aunt Chalida’s in Hamden. I called his partner Emly MacDiarmid (a longtime friend) and arranged to see Joel playing for the first time. Now I’m no music critic, but it seemed to me that Joel was mostly strumming along with the band, to the beat playing in his own head. It was classic Joel — persevering, one of a kind and absolutely entertaining! He made New Haven a better place.