Two New Havens

Two New Havens

Students and locals should do lots of service, study urban planning, but we should stand by the community when it disagrees with the institutional powers that be.


This opinion piece was originally published in the Yale Daily News.
At 1:50 yesterday afternoon, Assistant Chief of Yale Police Ronnell Higgins finally sent students something they, and their newspaper, wanted: a campus-wide e-mail stating what many already knew. "There was a serious incident involving gunfire on College Street between Crown and George early Sunday morning."

The issue itself, some confrontation involving people with guns, should be left at that. Crime happens in cities. New Haven, despite being, as the Yale Daily News wrote, "a small city with community members spread all across it," is, nevertheless, a city.

What’s wrong is not our police reporting system, but our perspective on the city. On campus, and in our minds, there are two versions of New Haven. One is promoted—and visible, most recently, in yesterday’s banner headline "No campus-wide e-mail about shoot-out"—to the detriment of the town-gown relationship.

This New Haven, the standard view, is one of a city and university mostly united around progressive goals. It identifies, as the sticker on my laptop says, that Yale is "contributing to a strong New Haven," and it emphasizes New Haven’s strengths. It says that New Haven has risen from the recession faster than most of its peers. Though it acknowledges New Haven’s imperfections, it notes our 800-something non-profits.

The biggest and most munificent of these non-profits is, of course, the University itself. In Yale Alumni Magazine, Mark Alden Branch ’86 imputes New Haven’s "urban renaissance," in standard fashion, to "a new era of cooperation between Yale and the city, based on a belated realization by each party that it could not well survive without the other" ("Then… and Now: How a city came back from the brink," May/June 2009). With the anointing of President Levin and the creation of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, the early 1990s saw a real possibility that Yale students would not be shot and killed when venturing off Old Campus.

Branch’s article begins with his favorite moments of realization that New Haven was not the place that he inhabited as a student—namely, the first million dollar home, the first opening of a trendy restaurant without long lines and the first time the Metropolitan Opera played on the Green. In other words, Branch, and the standard New Haven narrative, have an upper-middle-class vision for the city.

Because Yale has done so well for the city, it’s the fringe populations whom we must "help" with our service and the nuisance of crime which demands, in the News‘s words, a "solution." Students can give back in an impressive number of ways through Dwight Hall; I devoted a large part of my sophomore year to homeless advocacy. However, when they aren’t in the community doing service, students are inclined to steer clear of it. Hence the collective shock when the dangerous fringe—the community—encroaches downtown and fires shots. If only we can report and psychologically manage "what happens out there," we can avoid it.

Yet there’s a contradiction here. First, New Haven is doing okay, except for its service-worthy and policeable fringes. Second, we should castle ourselves from the vast surrounding community, because it’s not safe.

And this demands a recognition: that the Yale-New Haven "relationship" is really dictated by our lifestyles, and by our guts. The lessons of the 1960s City Hall slum-clearing consensus machine are timeless in their condemnation of power grabs and prejudice. If only, howls Dick Lee’s ghost, the suburban white population would move in and take over. And if only the community would stop grumbling about being ripped in half and scooped to the literal fringes of the city.

It’s decades of grumblers and activists who speak for the second New Haven. In this New Haven, conflict exists. Though, rather than brewing fear and condescension, conflict ignites solidarity and sustains diversity. Students and locals should do lots of service, study urban planning and support the University and City Hall in their pro-community efforts, but we should stand by the community when it disagrees with the institutional powers that be. We should treat the words of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.—"not everybody’s the same; not everybody cares about the same things"—as gospel. And, though we may not be encouraged to do so, we should rally, strategize and act alongside the everybody who hasn’t emerged from the 2001 recession, let alone the 2007 one, and who makes up most of the population of the city.

First, we have to stop sweating the small stuff—like when the Assistant Chief of Police doesn’t e-mail us immediately about something that’s bound to happen outside a bar in a city. If we don’t, then big stuff will happen to our sensibilities. We’ll wall ourselves in—that is, expand our walls outward—and New Haven will become a gentrified, Yalified, downtownified utopia. That may sound like the ideal Yale-New Haven relationship, but it’s not my New Haven that you’re talking about.

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