ROSS: The myth of dangerous Dixwell

Gangbuster

When I arrived at Yale as a freshman, I knew almost nothing about New Haven. Even growing up in New York and Connecticut, virtually the only information I had going in was vague cautions from family friends to be careful; New Haven was different and dangerous, they said.

Once at Yale, I got the same warnings, only more specific. Other students who seemed to be in the know warned of New Haven’s dangers and sketchiness.

One word came to epitomize those fears: Dixwell. For the uninitiated, Dixwell is the neighborhood just northwest of Yale often summoned as the epitome of the city’s supposed crime-ridden seediness. It was known as the no-go zone whose warning signs were Payne Whitney and Popeye’s. If you’ve already talked about the weather, chances are that mentioning Dixwell in casual conversation with another Yalie can form a bond of knowing looks, eye-rolls and slow, sad shakes of the head.

It is time to drive a stake through the heart of that perception and put it down for good. Our neighbor to the northwest is not only safer than perceived, but in absolute terms it has become the safest area in the whole city. One of the most common fears for a Yale student is the thought of being mugged. But there has not been a robbery in Dixwell since 2011. This is not to say that there haven’t been plenty in the past or that there won’t be one tomorrow, but the fear is overblown. You’d do just as well to be careful on Chapel or York Streets in the heart of campus, where there were two pick-pocketings and one purse-snatching in January alone.

There have been two shootings this year in Dixwell in which people were wounded — though, like in the rest of the city, no murders yet — and we shouldn’t sugarcoat gun violence. But the shootings and stabbings that can break out at the city’s downtown nightclubs are at least as great a risk as the personal disputes that characterize violence in Dixwell. And those two shootings are Dixwell’s only two violent crimes of any type so far this year.

Dixwell’s low amount of crime owes something to its size: It’s a relatively small neighborhood of roughly 5,000 residents packed into three-fifths of a square mile. But it owes more to smart and effective policing and civic engagement.

Sergeant Donald Harrison is the New Haven Police’s district manager for Dixwell. As he and I walked and drove around the neighborhood last week, we couldn’t go 60 seconds without running into someone he knew and with whom he would discuss community goings-on. We stopped in at the house of a former alderwoman to wish her a speedy recovery from pneumonia and to drop off a gift card signed by the sergeant and his officers. Later, the current alderwoman called up the sergeant to chat. I felt as though I was escorting a local celebrity as Harrison drove down Dixwell Avenue, waving out the windows to residents shouting hellos. There has been much talk citywide of reviving community policing. As Harrison said, “In Dixwell, community policing never died.”

Harrison knows the troublemakers as well. As in the rest of the city, a small minority of criminals — a group that Harrison estimates numbers about 15 to 20 in Dixwell — commit the bulk of the crime. He keeps an eye on them and also gets weekly reports about criminals exiting jail who might be tempted to resume their ways.

A close-knit community and an array of civic and service organizations are another key component. With the help of many Yale volunteers, organizations such as New Haven Reads help provide activities for the neighborhood’s kids, while community management teams and churches bring focus and attention to problems that need fixing.

Part of the area’s bad rep stems from the fact that because Dixwell Avenue runs beyond the bounds of the actual Dixwell District into the towns of Hamden and North Haven, whenever a crime happens on the avenue, it’s easy to associate it with the neighborhood. Another part is that Dixwell fits the image of what most expect of a violent area: poor and predominantly black. But Dixwell actually extends deep into Yale. In fact, if you live in Morse or Stiles, you are a Dixwell resident.

Dixwell is a potent reminder of the truth in the cliché that Yale is a part of New Haven and the fallacy in the perception that New Haven is not a great city. Dixwell and New Haven are great not because of wealth, power or prestige, but because of their people — they’ve got grit. They care deeply about their community and are willing to work hard and sacrifice to help make it better. And as Dixwell shows, that grit can produce results. It makes me proud to be a neighbor of Dixwell and, even if only temporarily, a resident of New Haven.

Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at colin.ross@yale.edu.

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