Town-gown thrives under partnership

Richard Levin and John DeStefano Jr. worked closely together to improve town-gown relations.
Richard Levin and John DeStefano Jr. worked closely together to improve town-gown relations. Photo by Emilie Foyer.

University President Richard Levin and Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s historic 20-year partnership, which has been praised for substantially improving the relationship between Yale and the city of New Haven, will officially come to an end this year when the two men step down from their posts.

DeStefano’s decision not to seek re-election coincides with Levin’s plan to pass on the presidency at the end of the academic year, clearing the way for a new era of town-gown relations led by President-elect Peter Salovey and New Haven’s next mayor, who will be elected in November. Those interviewed following DeStefano’s Tuesday announcement said they expect Yale and New Haven to continue to see improved relations after both men leave their current positions.

“New Haven got not only tangibly better under Mayor DeStefano, we got our pride back,” said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, Yale’s deputy chief communications officer. “Governing a fabulously polyglot place is no easy task — John DeStefano has done it well.”

DeStefano was elected mayor of New Haven in 1993, the same year that Levin assumed Yale’s presidency. Their simultaneous assent to the two most prominent positions in New Haven marked the beginning of a long and storied relationship that eased town-gown tensions and benefited both the University and the city.

When Levin and DeStefano took office, the relationship between Yale and New Haven was tense and fraught with safety concerns for students who stepped outside the University’s ivy walls. Levin said half of the storefronts in downtown New Haven were boarded up when he took the reins of the University, adding that he committed to building a strong partnership with the city in his presidential acceptance speech.

Since that speech in April of 1993, DeStefano and Levin have worked together to promote economic development around Yale and New Haven and to strengthen the New Haven public school system. One of the most notable accomplishments to emerge from their partnership  was the creation of the New Haven Promise, a Yale-funded full tuition college scholarship for students who graduate from New Haven public schools and attend an in-state institution. Their economic development work has also yielded tangible results — today, 3,000 to 4,000 people live downtown compared to 200 to 300 when he took office, Levin said.

New Haven and Yale leaders alike praise the relationship as having been mutually beneficial for both the city and the University. Garth Harries, the assistant superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, called the city’s School Change Initiative “as powerful as I’ve seen anywhere in the country” and lauded DeStefano’s “vision” and “inspiration.”

From the University’s perspective, an improved New Haven makes Yale more appealing for prospective students, said Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel, calling the relationship between the University and the city, “historically unprecedented.”

“New Haven is not the place it was 20 to 25 years ago,” Brenzel said. “That has an effect on how Yale students feel about the place and that gets communicated to candidates and admitted students.”

University officials said that new leadership at Yale and in New Haven should not hinder town-gown relationships moving forward. Bruce Alexander ’65, vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development, said that it is important to remember the relationship between the University and the city is more than a partnership between two people — it is a broad commitment shared by many leaders on both the town and the gown side.

“I really have no concerns about continuing in the fashion that we have grown to be accustomed to,” Alexander said. “Over time the partnership is only going to get stronger.”

Salovey has lived in New Haven for 30 years and “loves the city,” Alexander said. Salovey said that he is proud that Yale has promoted the arts, education, a retail climate and New Haven home ownership in the last 20 years and pledged to continue strengthening the relationship. As Levin and DeStefano step down, the path is paved for a new set of town-gown initiatives.

“I very much plan to continue these efforts in the coming years and also focus further attention on economic development and job creation,” Salovey said.

Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and Sundiata Keitazulu, a plumber, have all announced that they plan to run for mayor this year.

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