Downtown must serve needs of diverse city

The next chapter of New Haven’s history began this weekend, its opening scene colored by the shouts and shivers of 20,000 people gathered downtown Saturday morning to see the demise of the concrete hulk of the Coliseum.

The decision to demolish the Brutalist building was the right one. The major concerts the arena once held have moved to Bridgeport’s and Foxwoods’ concert halls, and the recent redevelopment of the Ninth Square emphasized small-scale, mixed-use construction instead of the grandiose architecture of the monumental projects of the mid-20th century, of which the Coliseum was one. Richard Lee, the mayor responsible for the midcentury redevelopement that included the Coliseum’s construction, was at first lauded but eventually reviled for his efforts to rebuild the city’s physical structure, which had required the displacement of hundreds of small businesses and homes.

The demise of the Coliseum is another repudiation of Lee’s brand of urban renewal, and the plans for a new downtown will, ideally, emphasize the community engagement that was not prioritized under Lee, who not only ignored, but literally flattened, entire neighborhoods.

But whether the plans will succeed in getting the whole city to unite in embracing the new downtown remains to be seen. The scene on the top of the Temple Street Garage, the city’s official viewing station, spoke loudly of the potential, and potential pitfalls, of the Elm City’s newest chapter. Twenty thousand people were there, but while suburban residents from places like Hamden were well represented, residents of New Haven’s mostly minority neighborhoods were not. Two children from Guilford, a suburb east of New Haven, pushed the demolition plunger.

The enthusiasm for this new beginning was palpable, as was the sense of community among those who woke up for the pyrotechnics. New Haven is often praised as a “big small town” in part because of events like Saturday’s that brought together residents and politicians, middle-aged parents and hung-over Yalies to share in the spectacle. But the unrepresentative nature of the crowd is worrisome. The planners working on the redevelopment need to consider how to build a downtown that will serve the needs of the entire city. While the city will benefit from an infusion of suburban money spent in our restaurants and theaters, the downtown should also serve as a centering point for New Haven itself, providing jobs and entertainment and services to people not just from Hamden and Guilford, but also from Dixwell and Dwight. The city’s trolley lines no longer converge on the nine squares, but the ideal of the downtown as a hub for an entire city does not need to change.

The redevelopment is an opportunity to create in the downtown a place of common ground for New Haven apart from the class- and race-based divides that exist among the city’s many neighborhoods. Saturday’s enthusiasm showed that people are at least aware of the city’s plans, and we encourage the politicians and planners working on the downtown’s next incarnation not to forget that for a downtown to serve as the city’s heart, all of the city needs to feel invested in it. The demographics of Saturday’s turnout make us worry that is not currently the case.

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