18th Century

The Proprietors

Have a drink with: The Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven
Say that one five times fast.

Ask them about: Food trucks, church buildings and underground parking structures

The New Haven Green

There are situations in which you are pleased to find your hometown has made national news. A horrific instance of mass overdose is emphatically not one of them. And as news coverage has attempted to understand and respond to a public health crisis of this particular impact, all but the most local coverage has overlooked one idiosyncratic fact about the administration of the space in question: the city of New Haven, Connecticut is not the owner of the New Haven Green.

The New Haven Green, a city park and green space in the downtown center of New Haven, Connecticut, is unusual among public urban spaces in that it is privately owned: the 16-acre park, famous as the site of a handful of historic churches, centuries of military drills, civil protest, historic jurisprudence and Benedict Arnold throwing a hissy fit, is not actually city property.

For centuries the Green has been the property and responsibility of a self-perpetuating group of five individuals known as the Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven (the Proprietors, for short). The earliest colonial administrations in Connecticut generally empowered the descendants of original settlers with the right to administer public lands, and in New Haven this meant that from the 17th century on, a sort of hereditary zoning committee regularly met to delight themselves with committee decisions about one parcel or another for the self-determined good of the town.

By the dawn of the 19th century it became clear that keeping this role in the family was going to be difficult. In 1805, the proprietors made the decision to restructure themselves as an evergreen committee of five individuals, with the existing members choosing replacements when one of their number should opt out or pass on.

By the 20th century, the Proprietors were still trucking along as a living, breathing tribute to the old Standing Order, though their charge had dwindled to a single parcel of land: the New Haven Green.

The committee essentially acts as New Haven’s eccentric, secretive trustee uncle: it works with city and state government to police and care for the property (a fact that, though reflective of decades of common practice, wasn’t put in writing until 2015), and maintains authority over how the Green may be used. That means keeping the space open for community activity (Occupy protests, historic churches, Ray Charles) and free of interference (Occupy protests, sales activity, parking garages).

Fun Facts:

One of the more remarkable recent occurrences on the New Haven Green occurred in 2012, when a huge old tree known as the Lincoln Oak fell during Hurricane Sandy. Passers-by, who most definitely did NOT think this was going to be how their morning went down, noticed human bones embedded in the root ball of the tree (because of the centuries-long prohibition on construction on the Green, these remains had gone undisturbed since the late 18th century). In addition, archaeologists found a time capsule under the tree, dating to its planting in 1909 to commemorate President Lincoln’s 100th birthday.

Another event within the Green’s remarkable historic heritage occurred in April 1775, when Benedict Arnold, New Haven resident and then still on the side of the colonies, heard about the incipient fighting up in Lexington, Massachusetts. Ready to roll heavy, he mustered his regiment to the Green and called on city leaders to provide sufficient ammunition to get them armed for fighting. The brass were deep in debate about how (and whether) to respond to the fighting and asked Arnold to wait until they’d come to a decision. Arnold said that if they didn’t hand him the key to the powder house in five minutes, so help him he would have his soldiers break the door down and take what they needed. (Basically, a Revolutionary version of this scene from the Princess Bride.) Annual dramatic re-enactments in New Haven commemorate what is now known as Powder House Day.

Rollin Osterweis, an insanely credentialed Yale history professor whose book I’ve cited in writing this, was himself one of the Proprietors – and a novel one at that, being Jewish and therefore one of the group’s first members to exist outside the white Protestant norm.

Additional Reading:

Rollin G. Osterweis, Three Centuries of New Haven, 1638-1938 (1953)

Bill Ryan, “This Green Is Their Green, Make No Mistake,New York Times, November 29, 1998

David Holahan, “The New Haven Green: City’s Center of Public Life on Private Property,” Hartford Courant, April 21, 2016