Matthew Feiner sits in his makeshift office on the second floor of the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop on Orange Street, leaning back in his folding chair. His desk is piled with random notes, and an array of cycling suits is tacked to the wall. Since 2001, he has designed and printed his own t-shirts and stickers, in addition to fixing bikes and selling gear. Feiner loves making things, but making them in New Haven, he says, is especially rewarding.
“Ugh, God. It’s colossal,” he said. “I mean, New Haven’s the home of the bicycle.”
The Elm City claims to be the birthplace of a lot of things: the Frisbee, the hamburger, and planned cities, to name a few. (Technically, the bicycle’s city of origin is disputed: A German aristocrat invented the first human-powered, bike-like machine in 1813, but pedals weren’t added until a French immigrant to New Haven patented the design for use in “improvements of velocipedes” in 1866. Feiner never mentioned the German model.)
Outside, pasted next to the large orange Devil’s Bike logo and some sale notices is a sign printed in black and gold, featuring a large box with the words “Made in New Haven” and “Est. 1638” printed in simple lettering.
Devil’s Gear received its sign last month, joining the ranks of New Haven stores that have been granted the designation as a part of the city-wide “Made in New Haven” campaign. The New Haven Office of Economic Development and Project Storefronts, a city program that encourages entrepreneurship, started the initiative this summer and awarded the distinctive logo to New Haven stores that sell products manufactured in the city. The project aims to create a directory of small businesses that New Haven residents and visitors can use to shop locally, uniting the small bike-fixers, jewelry designers, and cheese mongers, and highlighting stores that aren’t just selling things in New Haven, but making them here too.
New Haven has been making things for a while. The city witnessed nearly two hundred years of industrial prosperity, starting in 1798 when Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin and promoter of interchangeable parts, opened up the rifle factory where Samuel Colt would later invent the automatic revolver. By the time the smoke cleared from the American Civil War, New Haven was humming with activity. Throughout the late nineteenth century, thousands of Southern European immigrants arrived each year (see: New Haven’s famous pizza tradition) to produce not only rifles, but also brass hardware for Sargent, cigars for Osterweis & Sons, and the nation’s first lollipops for the Bradley Smith Company. During World War Two, the city supported the nation’s “Arsenal of Democracy” by housing factories founded by the legendary arms manufacturers O.F. Mossberg and Oliver Winchester.
Though New Haven experienced growth during the war, by the nineteen-fifties, urban decline set in as residents flocked to the suburbs and factory after factory shut its doors. In 2006, the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory was one of the last of the factories to shut down its giant assembly lines. The plant had once employed upwards of fifteen thousand people; its closing marked the end of an industrial era.
The “Made in New Haven” campaign aims to highlight the small businesses that have emerged in the wake of the city’s industrial collapse. But the participants include t-shirt printers, independent video game designers, and restaurateurs—small shops that stand in stark contrast to the huge employers that sustained New Haven’s economy for much of the twentieth century. Those factories provided jobs, supported families, and fostered a community identity for the city. Should we be expecting tangible economic results from a campaign centered around boutique businesses? Does New Haven need a government-sanctioned sticker to reaffirm its local identity?
Mark Sincavage, one of the family members who co-owns Skappo Restaurant and Skappo Merkato, is selling a line of sandwich spreads in Big Y supermarkets with the “Made in New Haven” logo attached. He stands behind the spread counter proudly wearing the family polo shirt, waving often at friends and community members out the window. His father is from New Haven originally, and his grandfather had a small grocery store on Dwight Street in the early seventies.
“You know, it’s not just Brooklyn that’s the only neighborhood that’s creating interesting products,” he says. “[In New Haven], you meet the people that are working on it, that are getting their hands dirty, that are creating, that are networking. I think it could work inside out: Like let’s establish ourselves first, let’s create a bond and community of people.”
For Sincavage, “Made in America” is simply too big. Big corporations can claim they are “Made in America,” appealing to shoppers’ patriotic sensibilities while concealing the fact that the label could mean “made two thousand miles away.” Being made in New Haven means being made by “small people, by small businesses.”
Of course, a small business like Skappo doesn’t have the capacity to employ thousands of people or sustain a whole city’s economy as the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory once did. Skappo has just three employees, and the “Made in New Haven” list features very few such industrial production centers. Fiber optics manufacturer Radiall and aerospace contractor Space-Craft were included in the launch only as advisors, not participants, and the pharmaceutical company Alexion, which moved to New Haven last year and brought with it twelve hundred new jobs, was not listed.
“Made in New Haven,” though, is neither equipped nor intended to fill this economic hole; instead, it’s using the language of production to rekindle a sense of former glory. For Sincavage, it seems to be the small-business owner’s anthem: the launching of community, perhaps even an attempt to escape New Haven’s past problems through enterprise and sweat.
When the city announced the “Made in New Haven” campaign this May, the program was only thinly defined. It featured online promotions for businesses, community networking, and a newly designed logo for product packaging, but it was unclear if the city had any concrete goals beyond boosting spirit. Fashion designer, business owner, and “Made in New Haven” participant Neville Wisdom displays the logo in his shop window, but he says that besides the sticker, the campaign organizers haven’t yet “talked [with him] about anything specific in terms of a collaboration.”
The campaign’s graphic designer Kelly Bigelow Becerra told the New Haven Independent that she drew inspiration for the logo from New Haven’s own design history, choosing a border that once lined the 1845 Postmaster’s Provisional stamps. The botanical look—two Elm trees standing on opposite, shrubby shores, with running water in between—is meant to market New Haven as a “place where innovators come to be mindful.”
But this tranquil scene does not carry the feeling of other origin labels, like the iconic “Made in the U.S.A.” mark, which seems to radiate pride through its patriotic stripes. The “Made in New Haven” sticker lacks any real indication of New Haven’s economic history or potential. The city just looks calm.
Matthew Nemerson, the city’s Economic Development Administrator and a key player in economic strategies like the “Made in New Haven” campaign, doesn’t envision the project changing New Haven’s economy drastically, but rather increasing city morale. At the very least, he told me, it couldn’t hurt.
“People forget history and don’t have a good sense of the past,” he says. “It would surprise people today, but at the World Columbian Expo in Chicago [in 1893], we had one of the largest displays. What other city would have won the prize for best hardware, best horse drawn carriage, best rifle innovation?” Those prizes, though, aren’t attached to New Haven like automobiles are to Detroit.
Elinor Slomba, a New Haven entrepreneur, sees “Made in New Haven” less as a way to bolster big companies or famed products and more as a way to export “a perception of New Haven as a place where creative people can be supported and can realize their ideas.” Slomba is the founder and CEO of Art Interstices, a company that creates opportunities to unite creative arts and entrepreneurs, and is the current head of Project Storefronts. The campaign is partially piggybacking off of the success of Project Storefronts’ 2009 program to fill vacant commercial space, or even special sections of occupied space, with pop-up concepts that are usually artistically inspired. To that end, the “Made in New Haven” campaign also includes producers of digital design and media goods as well as physical products.
Nemerson doesn’t care what the goal is as long as it boosts prosperity within the city. In the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century, “New Haven had agents in Europe—Italy, Germany—literally signing people up, bringing people, whole families, to a manufacturing center of the world,” he says. “We can’t recreate that, but we can recreate the ideal. It shouldn’t be surprising that people would move their business here, that we would make something.”
A company that exemplifies Nemerson’s ideal—a company that makes something on a relatively large scale with world renown—is Vespoli, a producer of crew racing shells. With roughly forty employees, the company produces between three hundred and 360 boats per year, selling them all over the country and internationally, as far away as Japan, for anywhere from eight thousand to forty thousand dollars per boat.
Dave Trond, Vice President of Sales for Vespoli, described that the sense of community that New Haven businesses provide (“if we need a new roof, a Connecticut company does it for us”), but also the sense of pride in holding out as a “last stronghold” of the heavier manufacturing of the city’s past. Vespoli has long been a subscriber to the “Made in America” movement, and their boats will now feature a “Made in New Haven” sticker prominently alongside the older seal.
Founded in Hamden in 1980 before moving to New Haven in 1987, Vespoli has seen a lot of changes in the Elm City. Trond himself arrived about twenty-five years ago, after growing up in Pennsylvania and coaching crew at the University of Massachusetts, though he “never thought [he’d] move to New Haven in a million years.”
Today, he is even more impressed with the city’s cosmopolitan spirit and its reputation as the new “restaurant destination of New England.” This is good because, as Trond pointed out, Vespoli probably couldn’t leave even if it wanted to. When we spoke in June, the company was only about a week removed from its first anniversary of transitioning into an employee-owned company. And with all of its new shareholders—employees and their families living in and around New Haven—Vespoli has intertwined itself within the fabric of the city, fully tied to its economy.
According to Sincavage, the co-owner of Skappo, there is a poem by Saint Francis that reads something along the lines of “No man can escape the inevitability of death.” Maybe the same applies here. “Made in New Haven” isn’t an antithesis to “Made in the USA” but rather an expression of the post-industrial city, reborn: We are still here, and, like our grandfathers before us, we are still building things. Not necessarily things of steel, but of community, of originality, and always with our hands.
This story was also published in the September 2016 issue of the New Journal at Yale.