So much energy has gone into writing, testifying on and making accusations about the future of the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center that it often seems like the project is the only issue at stake in this city. It’s not, of course, but the debate has sapped attention from any number of the city’s other problems and successes — and from neighborhoods other than the Hill. I’m by no means suggesting that the question of how the cancer center is built is unimportant, nor do I want to imply that the challenges the Hill faces aren’t worth our attention, given that how the project proceeds will likely set development precedents for decades to come.
It’s time to turn our attention to other neighborhoods and to other issues in search of strategies not just for a single economic development project, but for comprehensive means of enriching the lives of all New Haven residents. One of New Haven’s greatest liabilities is the bad reputation it acquired in the early 1990s. Though the city has made great strides since then, that reputation continues to linger because of selective coverage like the New York Times’ October story on a rash of crimes committed by teenagers on bicycles, and to acquire new dimensions and associations with greed thanks to events like the misuse of free bed funds by Yale-New Haven Hospital.
But it’s surprising how much good news a closer look at even one of New Haven’s neighborhoods can yield. Take, for example, the Dixwell area.
In September, construction finished on a house on Orchard Street that will use only electricity provided by solar power. The model home doesn’t look substantially different from other houses in the neighborhood, but it’s designed to take maximum advantage of the sunlight using solar cells that are supposed to be maintenance-free for 30 years. The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund picked up the tab for the solar system, and the house’s success may prompt modeling in other neighborhood homes and development projects.
New Haven Reads, a literacy project that tutors 90 city students and gave away 129,000 books last year to New Haven readers, opened its new offices on the corner of Bristol and Ashmun streets in December. The Rose Center, which provides educational and social programming for the Dixwell neighborhood, also opened on Ashmun Street early in January. Both of these moves expand services from the center of the city into one of the neighborhoods that will make the best use of them, whether it’s to supplement the books and computers available at the Stetson Branch Library or to provide more space for community organizations to meet and hold events.
And in the last two weeks, New Haven Action, an ambitious new non-profit that’s tackled a wide range of issues including clean energy and safety in the Dwight neighborhood, moved its offices into a space above Ward 22 Alderman Reverend Drew King’s car detailing shop.
This isn’t even a comprehensive list of the changes Dixwell has seen since September, and it’s true that not all of the news is good. But even these few items are evidence of a neighborhood on the upswing. And they all have something in common.
The solar house on Orchard Street was designed and built by students from the Yale School of Architecture. Yale donated new office space for New Haven Reads. The Rose Center is also the new home of the Yale Police Department. And New Haven Action, founded by Yale undergraduates, is working to bring in students from the city’s other colleges. All of these projects happened because Yale and Dixwell residents came together to address the neighborhood’s needs.
Yale isn’t responsible for everything good that happens to Dixwell — for example, the organization of the Dixwell Plaza merchants happened without the University’s help — and there’s no guarantee that if Yale development continues into the neighborhood some of the same issues that currently plague the cancer center won’t arise. But as far as town-gown relations go, it’s better to be from Dixwell than from the Hill right now. The relationship is working well so far because the University has recognized that it’s in its best interests if the neighborhoods near Yale are in good shape.
It’s past time to share Dixwell’s news. The University is stronger whenever any neighborhood in New Haven blooms, and the community that might benefit from a negotiated agreement on the cancer center includes both Yale and New Haven.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.