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.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    “that gated communities carry a high hidden cost.”

    I speak as a native of New Haven. Yale isn’t a gated community. It is a moated fortress. The entire residential part of the campus is architecturally structured as a fortress, with the, “ass outward” to the New Haven residents.

    It is elitist myopia of the most obtuse sort, which cannot understand how offensive the “ass outward” architecture is, if only on a sub-conscious level, to New Haveners. And now you are going to repeat the pattern with two new structures, as I understand it.

    Let’s be blunt: The “moat” surrounding these structures is Yale flatulence.

    In your face, New Haven.

    Paul D. Keane

    (born at and maintained by what is now Yale/New Haven Hospital.)

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Paul-Keane-Independent/355332381206168

  • Devaghost

    You’d think a Yale student would be able to read crime statistics.

    The national median for crimes per square mile is 39.3. In New Haven it’s 505.

    You are four times more likely to be the victim of violent crime in New Haven than you are in a randomly selected US city.

    98% of US cities are safer than New Haven.

    What a dangerously stupid article.

  • bytheway248

    Shame on the YDN for printing this.

  • HanktheYank

    I was a student here in the late 60′s at a time when Mayor Lee was using Great Society money from the federal government to construct low-income housing. This encouraged a move by many low income people up from New York, and has resulted in change far beyond those neighborhoods, and thus the mean streets of today. I remember wandering out to Edgewood Park at night through a neighborhood I would never walk through after dark today. So much for social engineering and good intentions.

  • yellowasp

    New Haven is a decrepit ghetto. Yale should raze as much nearby housing as possible. I want a deeper moat, more guard dogs, and students with guns who can defend themselves. As it stands, we are defenseless targets. How about instead of talking about how Yale-NUS is violating certain “rights” we point out that we are not allowed to exercise our 2nd amendment rights on campus.

    • Devaghost

      “Yale should raze as much nearby housing as possible.”

      No. Yale should move. Go somewhere else. Take privileged little pricks like you with it.

  • phantomllama

    Freshmen should ignore this dangerous piece.

  • ldffly

    Brewster’s interpretation of the presumption of innocence in the legal system is more literary interpretation than accurate history. .

  • ethanjrt

    From start to finish, it’s never really clear what this “hyperbolic narrative of danger” is. That “Dixwell is dangerous”? Dixwell IS dangerous, and by implying that it isn’t, you’re doing just as much disservice to readers as any senior spinning hyperbolic tales to freshmen. The reality is that if you walk the city streets in the daytime, in well-traveled areas, you’re probably going to be fine. But there are ways to make the odds less favorable – like wandering alone at night, openly displaying valuables, paying little attention to your surroundings, and yes, even walking empty streets in Dixwell (night or day). Perrotti & Higgins e-mails will give you an idea of how, when, where, and why students usually fall prey to criminals; don’t exaggerate their significance, but don’t ignore them either.

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