MEHTA: Old elms, new ideas

International Dispatches
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Photo by Madeleine Witt.

In the midst of New Haven’s heyday, 1912, City Hall released a little booklet with a long name: “The City Pocket Guide: A Compendium of Information in Reference to Where to Go and What to See.” The guide mixed sketches of sprawling New Haven mansions, depictions of Yale’s Gothic splendor and images of tree-lined boulevards, proudly proclaiming the city to be “A Great Community Workshop.” The guide projected the self-confidence and assurance that New Haven was a city of innovation with a grand vision for its future, boldly coining the slogan “Old Elms, New Ideas.”

With the announcement that New Haven’s “Oldest Elm,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr., will complete his tenure at the year’s end, the city finds itself in search of new ideas to move forward. But new vision may actually come from reimagining century-old wisdom. By re-embracing the community workshop spirit of social experimentation, the city has the opportunity to recast its trajectory and redefine its character.

DeStefano’s legacy of high-visibility institutional improvements is commendable. But the New Haven that DeStefano will hand his successor will continue to confront a host of problems long ingrained in the city’s narrative. The economic void created by the decline of postwar manufacturing persists. The city’s demographic distribution affirms a de facto racial segregation and class divide that has existed since the Civil Rights movement. Violent crime spikes maintain the city’s position amongst the ranks of the country’s most dangerous.

New Haven remains a city in search of identity.

As the city’s new leadership frames that identity, they should revive the engaged communal workshop attitude that turned New Haven into a true social laboratory for urban development in the past. In writing the script for a new New Haven, incoming officials should turn community-built social programs and development ideas into the centerpiece of the administration. Less-heralded, small-scale but innovative projects under the DeStefano regime, like the Elm City Resident Card, a city ID that enables undocumented immigrants to access municipal services, and Project Storefronts, an initiative to turn vacant real estate into art galleries, are models for facilitating New Haven’s movement towards a progressive, imaginative and humane city.

Last year, New Haven learned how effective incorporating past wisdom into contemporary city management could be, by successfully re-implementing a program of community policing that had disappeared in the early 1990s. Community policing encourages police to engage and empower city residents rather than control and command them. The same type of commitment to active resident engagement and community-tailored frameworks ought to underscore the new administration’s approach to all facets of New Haven life.

At the moment, the city lacks a unified identity in part because resident voices have had little say in defining what that identity could ever be. Though novel programmatic initiatives were rolled out under DeStefano, most, like the Elm City Resident Card, were the result of commandeering leadership by the mayor himself. Ideas dreamed up by community groups and advocates have largely remained confined to their respective neighborhoods, regularly suffering rejection during aldermanic meetings.

The new administration should take care to instill a culture — one that permeates through the entirety of City Hall — that recognizes community-designed policy and program proposals as the most important tools for building a thriving city. Other small cities, like Reading, Pa. — where community volunteers imagined and designed a now-thriving city entertainment district — and Lawrence, Mass. — where planners drew upon insights from weekly meetings with Latina women and youth for the city’s 15-year plan — provide compelling examples of the transformative success of community-sourced, creative policymaking. New Haven should similarly seek to rewrite its narrative with the pens of its own residents.

Whoever enters the mayoral pulpit on Church Street next year should buck the machine politics and cult of personality that came to characterize the present administration. Instead, the city’s next executive should focus on expanding and championing unconventional innovation from wherever it comes — community groups, artists, municipal agencies, Yale — to reinvent the city around engaged, invigorated and proud resident stakeholders.

When the new brass takes office next year, hopefully they will stumble upon that little booklet with the long name and realize that though the city’s elms are older, New Haven continues to be full of new ideas.

Aseem Mehta is a junior in Branford College. This semester, he is working in Brussels, Belgium. Contact him at aseem.mehta@yale.edu .

This column is part of the News’ Friday Forum. Click to continue.

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