CityScape showcases Elm City community

Freshly-minted Yalies will spend much of the next week scouting out their future New Haven haunts, mostly within a few blocks of campus. But each September, Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs tries to show students that they need not blindly pledge themselves to Starbucks and Gourmet Heaven. The office’s three-hour orientation program, CityScape, now in its ninth year, aims to broaden newcomers’ horizons beyond the streets lining their dorms.

CityScape, to be held Sept. 3 this year, introduces new college and graduate students to the surrounding neighborhoods of New Haven. Since its inception, the program has gradually evolved from a day-long examination of New Haven’s history and community service into a crash course in the practical necessities of city life — a change several former attendees say deprives students of a comprehensive view of the city.

This year, air-conditioned bus tours guided by Yale sophomores will expose students to the University’s neighboring communities, including Dixwell and Wooster Square. A 45-minute Power Point presentation will cover material left out of the tours, such as Yale’s role in New Haven. The goal, said Reggie Solomon ’98, program director of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, is to familiarize students with parts of New Haven that they might not discover on their own during their first few months here.

“We try to introduce people to the city before they get too involved in their work and sort of forget to check it out,” he said. “We just want to make sure that they feel a part of the city as much as the University.”

One tour highlight is Lighthouse Point on the Long Island Sound — a surprise to some new Yalies who are not aware that New Haven is a harbor city, Solomon said. Another favorite site is East Rock, featuring a view that “literally and figuratively opens your eyes to what New Haven has to offer,” tour guide Rob Nelb ’08 said. In case the tour is not convincing enough, a reception after the tour provides a few more reasons to love New Haven, including free food, T-shirts and a raffle for a mountain bike.

The program is designed to cut to the chase on a number of practical questions pondered by Yalies, such as “What’s the best place for gelato?” and “Where should I go running?” (Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop and Whitney Avenue, respectively). The guides also provide new Yalies with the answers to classic New Haven trivia questions, such as “In which city was the American pizza invented?” (Answer: the same city that invented the hamburger, the lollipop and the Frisbee).

But aside from fun facts about culinary innovations and a brief description of New Haven’s revitalization over the past decade, Solomon said that handier advice plays more of a central role than issues of history and urban development.

“We show people the most mundane things,” he said. “We’ll even swing by IKEA.”

Solomon said CityScape’s use of short, practical tours has been honed by years of student feedback. Some former participants, however, said the program does not adequately reflect New Haven’s complexities.

“[CityScape] gave you enough to know what living in the town around Yale is like, but it skimmed over the town outside the Yale box,” Jameelah Calhoun ’08, who took the tour last year, said.

CityScape’s current emphasis on the practical is a departure from its original format, which “was meant to be a little more academic than it is right now,” said Chi-Young Tschang ’98, the program’s founder. Tschang, then an undergraduate, began CityScape in 1996 as a day-long orientation that focused on urban history and community service. After a shaky start, the program attracted over 50 freshmen in its first year, leading the Office of New Haven and State Affairs to invest in it and two years later take it over. Student feedback has since led CityScape to shed its information packets in favor of a more hands-on tour that attracts 275 to 300 students. About 75 percent of the participants are freshmen, Solomon said, the rest are graduate students and their partners. A large proportion of the students are from parts of the country where New Haven would be considered a big city.

Solomon said the evolution and popularity of CityScape indicates that Yalies are more interested in making the city a part of their daily lives than they were a decade ago. Incoming students now see New Haven as an asset, he said.

But some previous tour attendees and tour guides lament history’s diminished role in CityScape. Brad Hargreaves ’08, who attended the program last year, said he would have liked to see more emphasis placed on New Haven’s broader historical and economic background.

“It would have been better if they discussed some history while we were driving rather than just labeling everything we passed,” he said. “You don’t understand the relevance of a lot of the places you’re seeing if you don’t understand the history behind them.”

Christine Slaughter ’07, who attended the program two years ago, said CityScape understates the city’s less glamorous aspects in favor of more tourist-friendly sites.

“[The tour is] pretty ‘ra-ra’ in terms of not showing the warts of New Haven,” she said, suggesting that CityScape did not provide its participants with a realistic view of the socioeconomic problems plaguing some of New Haven’s citizens. As a result, Slaughter said, she did not feel the tour motivated students for involvement in community service.

Josh Eidelson ’06, who has not taken the tour, said he thinks the Office of New Haven and State Affairs has ulterior motives for leaving the city’s problems off its itinerary — namely, that the University does not plan to support any new community service in the city. Eidelson is a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

“[The office] supports a range of great programs that benefit Yale and Haven. Unfortunately, it also discourages students from pushing for an expansion of those programs and the creation of new ones,” Eidelson said.

But Solomon said students come to Yale more than willing to become involved in community work, citing a day of service the University is organizing where freshmen can volunteer with local projects. The tour, Solomon said, intentionally does not focus on New Haven’s problems because new students have often already developed negative conceptions of New Haven.

“If you’re coming to New Haven for the first time, you might have the perception of New Haven as being America’s urban stepchild,” he said. “What we try to do at CityScape is really close the gap between the perception and reality of New Haven.”

The CityScape program seeks to broaden Yalies’ views of New Haven with bus tours through areas of the city less traveled by students.
Timothy Polmateer
The CityScape program seeks to broaden Yalies’ views of New Haven with bus tours through areas of the city less traveled by students.

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