Many Yale students characterize the relationship with New Haven as “complicated,” but few can explain exactly why. This marriage actually has an interesting history.
As a world-renowned educational institution, Yale’s location in New Haven seems riddling, even paradoxical — just compare its financial robustness to New Haven’s economic recession. Yet this trend is not just a recent phenomenon. Yale began to expand precisely when New Haven began its downturn in the 1930s. While establishments began to flourish on the college frontier, the vast expanse of city was crumbling under the fist of the Depression.
New Haven shares Philadelphia’s suburban preponderance; areas such as Hamden, North Haven, Orange, Branford and Woodbridge all suburbanized before the mid-20th century. Given the historic economic stability of suburbs and New Haven’s decline after the turn of the century — as a result of the rise of the automobile coupled with the Highway Act of 1950; the demise of small retail stores; and the fall of Winchester Repeating Arms, an international gun enterprise — it seems as though the city is at the center of its own downward spiral. By 1931, a total of 27 buildings had been built and more were under construction after a $15 million donation from John W. Sterling to an up-and-coming Yale University, according to Douglas Rae’s book “City.”
The simultaneous urban dichotomy of rich and poor is certainly grounds for a complicated relationship, furthered as the city fights to assert its financial independence; Yale is still the largest employer in New Haven. Dean Peter Salovey, among others, calls Yale a “progressive” institution, a term that implies that more can always be done. President Richard Levin has created the Yale Homebuyer Program specifically for New Haven residents employed by Yale to jump-start the mortgage fiscal process. Yale is responsible for bringing vitality to parts of the downtown area. According to the Yale University Office of New Haven and State Affairs, discoveries in Yale laboratories have spawned 29 startup companies in the greater New Haven area, which have provided jobs and taxes to the city while attracting over $1.5 billion in private capital investment to the New Haven region. But these programs are a product of the overshadowing influence of Yale as an economic machine contained within the larger city — one that seemingly lacks its own self-sufficiency, which should be the foundation of any established city.
The size of New Haven reinforces its economic dichotomy with Yale. Walking past the Yale Bookstore and past Payne Whitney Gymnasium leads directly into project districts. The new Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center is also nestled in projects, not within the University’s premises. These communities are also primarily black, in contrast to Yale’s diversity. The immediacy of poor black communities next to Yale evinces the stark reality of the city’s fragility, which, as many students have advocated, requires the aid of the university. Yet, cities are meant to be engines of their own wealth, not parasitic bodies. To add the final touch, Yale aesthetically dominates the skyline of New Haven, a visual metaphor of New Haven’s inability to define itself — rather, it is defined by Yale.
Although Yale defines New Haven, its students lack true social capital with the residents and lack a relationship with the city. Though over 50 percent of students are involved in service projects through Dwight Hall, the connection of Yale students to urban residents often seems trivial. This might be demonstrated by the lack of interaction between dining hall staff and students on a daily basis. Students of Yale are essentially tourists of New Haven, primarily because they fear it as a city and all the implications of the contemporary city — violence and crime. This fear impedes the possibility of a relationship developing between the students and the city; furthermore, it places a special emphasis on the University’s economic developments in New Haven.
While housing units are being added downtown and the Dixwell learning center continues to attempt to bridge Yale students to New Haven residents, Yale ultimately has become the defining feature of New Haven. A city is meant to define itself; yet, New Haven has failed to do so without the assistance of the University. This is grounds for a “complicated” relationship.
Adler Prioly is a sophomore in Pierson College.