The fragile renaissance of a city

“As the New Haven economy remains stagnant, businesses like Dakota J’s Ice Cream Cafe have [left] rows of vacant storefronts lining the street — In this town at this time, it’s hard to maintain a business, any business.”

When you first told friends “I’m going to Yale,” you probably had people telling you that New Haven resembled the above quote. Then you got here and found out that it wasn’t really like that.

But quite recently, it really was like that. The above words come from a 1995 Yale Daily News article. Though the tide had already started to turn by the time I arrived as a freshman seven years ago this fall, many of the amenities that Yalies now take for granted — the club scene on Crown Street, the trendy restaurants downtown, the cool off-campus apartments in Dwight — did not yet exist.

New Haven’s renaissance has happened quickly and dramatically. If you talk to people involved in urban redevelopment, you’ll find that such rapid turnarounds in American cities are the exception and not the rule. What has made New Haven different?

Traditionally, the politics of a city focus inward — who gets to be mayor, which neighborhood gets the new school, whether to allow a new housing development. This myopic vision worked in the 1950s economy of large, captive industrial employers but fails miserably in an economy where every city is constantly competing nationally, even globally, to attract people and businesses.

In this new economy, the cities that succeed are the cities that realize that the real competition lies outside of city borders. Thanks to a combination of leadership from city government, Yale, and neighborhood leaders that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago, New Haven has spent the past several years focused on the big picture.

The two people who always get credit for this vision are New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Yale’s New Haven affairs guru Bruce Alexander. Indeed, DeStefano, since casting off his old patronage-pushing days, has updated decrepit school buildings, renovated neighborhood parks, and built a new downtown train station. And Alexander has, for the first time in Yale’s history, forged great partnerships with surrounding neighborhoods like the upcoming police station/community center in Dixwell and used his substantial real estate acumen to transform Yale’s commercial holdings into a 24/7 shopping and restaurant district. While both leaders have their faults, few cities in America have mayors and university leaders of comparable vision.

But the story of New Haven’s renaissance goes far beyond Alexander and DeStefano. It is also about people like Linda Townsend Maier, who pulled together what, at the time, looked like an impossible deal to bring Shaw’s to New Haven and revitalize the Dwight neighborhood, and about the dozens of Yale union members who have expressed their confidence in the city by fixing up homes in the city through Yale’s Homebuyer Program.

All of this coordinated work by people in the city has attracted more and more outside investment that might have gone elsewhere into New Haven. Go talk to the people who opened Bentara or Ivy Noodle. Or talk to one of the six people who bought a house in the last two years on my block of Winchester Avenue, largely run-down a decade ago but now a great place to live.

But I’m afraid that all of this hard work could come crashing down. The main focus of the city is now back on an internal squabble — the strike. And those people who worked so hard together are digging in on opposite sides. The union members who bought homes in the city now march on the picket line; their leaders ridiculously deride the Homebuyer Program as racist and insignificant. Mayor DeStefano spends his days trying to mediate the conflict instead of trying to bring new businesses to New Haven.

Most damagingly, Bruce Alexander and his colleagues at the Office of New Haven and State Affairs have shifted suddenly from unifying the city to running a petty political machine. Alexander e-mails students and staff the University’s spin on the strike. The office cancels a grant to a Little League team in New Haven’s impoverished Hill neighborhood because the area’s alderman had voted against Yale on a piece of legislation. And most shockingly, Alexander campaigns like a party hack with incumbent Ward 22 alderwoman Maeola Riddick, a union opponent, handing out cotton candy at a campaign party and attending a fund-raiser in a sketchy local bar.

And those potential investors who read last year in The New York Times about New Haven’s renaissance read this year about labor strife.

Yale got involved in New Haven not out of altruism, but out of its own self-interest. It had begun to lose students and faculty to other universities with better locations, and needed to revitalize New Haven to compete. New Haven is now a better place, but newly rejuvenated cites are as fragile as sandcastles. Let’s hope that President Levin, Bruce Alexander, and the union leadership settle soon, before a long strike inflicts collateral damage on New Haven. For as Jimi Hendrix once wrote, “castles made of sand slip into the sea eventually.”



Adam Gordon ’00 LAW ’06 is editor in chief of The Next American City, the magazine about the future of America’s cities and suburbs, which is available at the Yale Bookstore and online at www.americancity.org

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