MAGDZIK: Assume the best of strangers

When you first came to tour Yale, your guide probably emphasized just how safe you would be in this place. With a private police force, blue-light outposts never more than a drunken stumble away and our friendly neighborhood Predator drone, affectionately dubbed M.A.M.A (Miller Always Monitors Adolescents), how could you not feel protected?

That last example is in jest, but the point should be clear — we go to great extents to build up the image of Yale University as an impenetrable castle. This is not only for the sake of architectural comparisons to Hogwarts, but also to instill a strong sense of personal security in students. Maybe that emphasis is necessary to persuade some to matriculate, those who would otherwise be swayed by sensational lists ranking the most dangerous cities in America. But it is worth reflecting on the trade-offs we make when we consistently approach the world beyond our walls as one filled with danger, not opportunity.

University President Richard Levin’s belief in opportunity led to a decision that will endure as the defining aspect of his legacy. At the time he became president in the early 1990s, New Haven was awash in violent crime. A Yale student had just been murdered on Hillhouse Avenue. Levin understood that Yale could — no, had to — meaningfully engage with a mistrustful and beleaguered city instead of building Yale’s walls ever higher.

Security was stepped up, yes, but Levin also set in motion the work of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, a department that has spearheaded a number of initiatives designed to revitalize the city. These have included partnerships with local schools to provide enrichment programs, subsidies to University employees purchasing New Haven homes and real estate investment strategies designed to create an attractive and active downtown environment. These days, no one questions that the fates of the University and city are inextricably tied.

Countless students have joined the administration’s efforts by working tirelessly through the programs of Dwight Hall and other student organizations to improve neighborhoods and assist residents. Ultimately, it is in large part thanks to Yalies that the city has seen such a drastic renaissance from its 1990s nadir and continues to blossom today. This is the view of New Haven as a place of opportunity — a space where we can create our vision of what the world should be, if we set our minds to it.

But the allure of that other narrative, the one that sees danger instead, is still strong. It grows more powerful every time an upperclassman abuses his standing and warns a naïve freshman that “Dixwell is dangerous” and that they should stay near campus to be safe. Many of us peddle fear with little thought of the mentality the narrative of danger inculcates in our student body.

Sadly, fear-mongering is not unique to Yale and New Haven. An increasing number of neighborhoods across America are turning to video surveillance, security guards and electronic gates in a bid to promote social isolation from anyone they perceive as dangerous. Often, this means immigrants, minorities, the poor, the young.

Residents claim this is the price of safety but fail to realize that gated communities carry a high hidden cost. Gates promote a full-fledged retreat from civic responsibility. Residents are less likely to pay for more municipal police or parks if their own needs are being met; it is harder to care about social ills when you only see perfectly manicured lawns.

When we avoid New Haven and keep to our castle, we run that same risk. True, contemporary American cities are frequently plagued by drugs and crime. But these cities are ours to inherit, and they are populated by our countrymen: people of character and strength, sometimes in need of assistance, sometimes simply in need of understanding.

When we concoct Conradian tales about cities and crime, we demonstrate our failure to learn one of the most important lessons the liberal arts try to teach. As another Yale president, Kingman Brewster, Jr., cautioned, “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In commonplace terms, it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”

So behave responsibly, but stop fueling the hyperbolic narrative of danger. Carry less money and shed the J. Crew threads for a day. Explore the culture and vibrancy this city has to offer. Assume the best of your New Haven neighbors.

When we never walk outside them, our gates become our cages.

Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at michael.magdzik@yale.edu.

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