On Jan. 20, Yalies of all political persuasions were glued to their television sets, either heckling or cheering — well, mainly heckling — Bush as he delivered his State of the Union address.
Two weeks later, a similar speech was given just a coin’s toss from main campus. But this time, no one seemed to be listening.
On Monday, Mayor John DeStefano laid out his vision of the State of the City to a small audience of aldermen, local media, community residents and about 10-15 Yale students on the second floor of City Hall.
At first this seemed like a decent turnout of Yale students. It is impressive that any student would take the time to inform herself about a city in which she is only a temporary resident. Many who live within the walls of Yale’s ivory tower do not even consider themselves residents of New Haven. Those who were there represented the small, core group of students who have become local activists working for change in a community they have adopted as their own.
Yet as I listened to DeStefano’s short speech, I realized that its content demanded that the room be full of Yale students. We often try to pretend that Yale and New Haven are two separate entities; while they might be geographically located next to each other, they actually exist on distinct planes that do not intersect. Many Yale students never enter City Hall during their four years in New Haven. Most of us are only here for four years, passing in and out of the revolving door of Yale College, leaving New Haven for bigger and better places and things. But while DeStefano’s target audience was arguably not Yale students, many of the reasons why students should make the trip down to City Hall were evident in DeStefano’s speech.
Some policies that DeStefano focused on will directly impact Yale and its students. New Haven is experiencing its first deficit in 10 years, and one solution that DeStefano has consistently proposed — both in the past and in Monday’s speech — is the need for nonprofits in New Haven, which are tax-exempt, to voluntarily pay their fair share of taxes to the city. Here, Yale is obviously the elephant in the room. Whether you believe that Yale shortchanges the city and hurts its poorest neighbors by only paying some of its fair share, or you believe that Yale pays enough of your tuition money to the city, the issue is one about which students should be informed.
Other issues DeStefano highlighted — such as the need for substantive campaign finance reform for local elections — show the possibilities for positive change that can be made when national, abstract issues are implemented on a local, grassroots level where they both make a noticeable difference and serve as a model for larger reforms. While DeStefano failed to mention it in the State of the City, the upcoming Domestic Partnership Amendment is another example of such local legislation that has already brought many Yalies to Board of Aldermen meetings.
Many other facts that DeStefano mentioned may not seem to apply directly to the typical Yale student, but it is unwise for us as a student body to ignore the indirect benefits that accrue from improvements in New Haven. When crime is down, when home ownership is up, when business development is increasing, when schools are improving, Yale students should be asking how New Haven has achieved it and what we can do to keep it on this upward path. Such reforms are valuable to us for many reasons. A stronger New Haven makes Yale more attractive to prospective students and professors, and it gives us a safer and more rewarding environment in which to live and study. Most importantly, it shows a general improvement in the quality of life of our closest neighbors that we as students and as citizens should be glad to see.
Monday’s speech was a tour of the progress New Haven has made, both over the last century and over the decade of DeStefano’s tenure. A lot of good has been accomplished, but the task of revitalizing and renewing New Haven is far from complete. Yale students have already started to show a greater interest in New Haven, evidenced both in the high turnout of the aldermanic elections last November and the number students engaged in activism at the grassroots level. As the city continues to progress, Yale students must stay informed and active; otherwise we do both our city and ourselves a great disservice.
Alissa Stollwerk is a sophomore in Saybrook College.