Late night runs to Mamoun’s. Small talk with New Haven police officers on the beat. Being forced for the first time to look at a map of New Haven. “Off campus” is both a physical and mental state for some students, conferring a sense of independence and self-awareness unfelt on campus.
Living off campus allows you truly to experience the city. If you live in Dwight, you will understand that a few blocks west of campus, Yale does not run New Haven. You will interact with New Haven residents in a new way, feeling less like an invader and more like a neighbor. You will taste New Haven differently as well, as you frequent the less-populated restaurants on Howe Street and the fantastic establishments in Ninth Square. Except for a group of sophomores who tour New Haven as part of the Focus summer orientation program, few students will venture out into Dwight, Dixwell or some of New Haven’s other vibrant neighborhoods.
On the other hand, off-campus life has its limitations. You and your housemates’ grand ambitions of communal meals quickly disintegrate as the reality of preparation and conflicting schedules often forces you to cook for one. I have even heard horror stories of some off-campus students living on Easy Mac for weeks. Also, neighborhoods differentiate themselves, for better or for worse. The gritty Dwight area houses many plaid- and Converse-clad hipsters, as the High Street crowd hovers around the frats and posh Cambridge, Oxford and Taft apartments. While these neighborhoods are unique, you must escape at times to the perfectly blended atmosphere of your college.
But in terms of economic development, Yale makes a different kind of voluntary contribution when it encourages students to experience neighborhoods outside the Yale bubble. Students live alongside New Haven residents, improving town-gown relations on a local level. Students off the meal plan also pump money directly into New Haven’s small businesses and establishments when they eat off campus. While eating on campus also strengthens New Haven, as many workers live in surrounding areas, the money less directly aids the city, since a private food company runs the dining halls. There is also a disincentive to sample New Haven restaurants, as most on-campus students have full meal plans. Why waste the $12.75 for dinner you have already purchased? One balance Yale could strike in encouraging Yale students to eat in New Haven would be to offer a 19-meal-a-week plan or to allow students to opt out of a weekend meal by not swiping. This plan would offer an increased commitment to the city by enabling students to actively participate in New Haven’s economic revitalization.
In addition, if Yale is serious about building new residential colleges in Dixwell, as has been hinted by President Levin, encouraging students to live off campus there would not only foster improved relations with that community, but would also make the new colleges — or whatever the plot of land becomes — more accessible and integrated in student life. And with more living space available, perhaps Yale will be able to let some of our kids into this college.
The problem right now is that it is colossally difficult to move off campus. There is no Yale office devoted to undergraduate off-campus living, and you must find out about openings through word of mouth. In addition, since room draws frequently occur before your off-campus plans are set, there is often a nerve-racking period when you have no housing at all.
If you are serious about off-campus living, you must plan ahead. Start looking now, get on waiting lists for apartments and houses and ask your friends who live off campus how they did it. It is no walk in the park to live off campus — indeed, there is only room for 10 percent of the student body at present — but its rewards and experiences make it worth your while. In the meantime, Yale should realize that one of the best ways to contribute to a stronger New Haven is encouraging more students to experience the city by living outside the bubble.
Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.