Two weeks ago, feeling the heat from mobilization by community members, New Haven’s City Plan Commission denied a rubber stamp to a Yale-New Haven Hospital project for the first time in recent memory. Sharing his view of hospital critics who had turned out with concerns about the its development program, hospital spokesman Vin Petrini told this newspaper in a Sept. 23 article that they “can’t have it both ways. Either they support the cancer center, or they don’t.” Petrini’s is a clever rhetorical trick and a shameful political smear: Paint whoever stalls your chosen development approach as soft on cancer. The hospital owes all of us – most of all, those neighbors whose quality of life is affected by every hospital expansion – more candor and less bluster. The hospital’s concerned neighbors, who want to see cancer treated as much as anyone, deserve an honest dialogue about the impact of the hospital’s plans on their access to jobs, housing and health care.
Canvassing door to door in the Hill with Communities Organized for Responsible Development the past few weeks, I’ve found residents eager to share their long-simmering frustration over the hospital’s relationship with their neighborhood and their anxiety over its next planned development. These neighbors want a fair shot at the new jobs an expansion of the hospital will create. They want to see the hospital invest in the education and training – starting with internships for their kids – that would make it possible to hire more of the people with whom it shares the Hill, and they want those jobs to be the good union jobs the hospital could provide. They also want the hospital, after repeated settlements with the National Labor Relations Board over firings of pro-union employees, to commit itself to a neutrality agreement that would let workers demonstrate whether they want union representation without fear of intimidation. As one man told me, “That’s the American way.”
These neighbors want to see the hospital own, rather than abrogate, its responsibility for the impact of its development on affordable housing. They want to see the hospital in their corner in their struggle to achieve and maintain affordable rents. They expect the hospital to replace units of affordable housing it has demolished. “Isn’t that what they’d do for trees?” one man asked me. And they want practical answers to the hospital’s parking problems, which discourage visits to the sick and leave too many of those who do visit parked in front of residents’ homes.
These neighbors are concerned about the hospital’s fidelity to its stated mission and legal obligation as a nonprofit to providing health care to those in need. They’re still waiting for the hospital to make good on its promise to lift the rest of the liens it has imposed on their neighbors with the double misfortune to be sick and uninsured. They’re still holding out hope for a thorough, transparent reform of the hospital’s free-bed policy to ensure that no New Haven family is forced to choose between economic stability and health security. For one woman I met, that would mean finally getting the cataract surgery she’s postponed indefinitely because she simply can’t afford it while raising her grandchildren.
As the hospital has told the media, a significant majority of Hill residents supports the concept of a cancer center. But an even larger majority supports and demands a substantive partnership between the hospital and their community – a partnership which, so far, Yale-New Haven Hospital has resisted at every turn. Instead of leveling and negotiating with the community, the hospital has dodged accountability by relying on automatic authorizations from City Plan, and it has poisoned the discourse by painting community critics as union shills unconcerned about cancer. As one woman told me, “Of course we need treatment for cancer, but we need good jobs and housing we can afford, too. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.” That woman was herself a cancer patient. She recognizes what most of the hospital’s neighbors do realize: The line being drawn isn’t one between allies and foes of a new cancer center. It’s between those who believe in development through dialogue and those who believe in development by dictate.
The Board of Aldermen came down on the right side this summer when it unanimously approved a resolution supporting Community Benefits Agreements between expanding institutions and affected communities. In last Wednesday’s News (“Residents OK cancer center in phone poll,” 9/29), Petrini called the application of the resolution to the hospital “kind of ironic because we’ve been part of the community for 178 years.” Looks like irony really is dead. Unfortunately, the hospital’s community-relations record leaves little to boast about, as too many Hill residents have found their homes taken and their care or organizing rights denied by the hospital. What hospital revelations and reforms have come over the past couple years – from the removal of its constables’ arrest powers to the transformation of its predatory-loan policy – have been the result of the mobilization by labor and community groups that the hospital is once again disparaging.
On Sept. 14, the hospital passed up a chance to engage in a real dialogue with the hundreds of community residents who turned out to its hearing and received only vague platitudes. At its Sept. 22 meeting, the City Plan Commission sent a crucial signal to the hospital that political authorizations should depend on community dialogue. On Oct. 20, the hospital will have a chance to live up to its recent commitment to attend a CORD-organized community meeting and engage in a real discussion about its shared future with the Hill community. That would be a worthy step away from patronizing rhetoric and toward constructive partnership.
Josh Eidelson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.