SKILTON: Twenty years later, a stronger New Haven?

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Photo by Madeleine Witt.

Since Tuesday, when Mayor John DeStefano announced that he does not plan to seek an eleventh term this fall, New Haveners have been rapidly converging on some conventional wisdom about 2013. It’s only February, but their verdict on the year is already clear: One chapter in New Haven’s history — written mainly by DeStefano and President Levin — is concluding. Another, with characters we’ve yet to meet, will open in 2014.

In some ways, it’s hard to argue with that judgment. The DeStefano administration has exercised enormous influence over political and economic events in New Haven for the last 20 years. Since DeStefano became mayor, the city’s economy has changed almost beyond recognition. Old factories, previously symbols of the death of the New England manufacturing industry, have been redeveloped into offices for technology and bioscience companies. A once-crumbling downtown has been refashioned as a zone for retail and upscale housing. Expansion of the Yale medical campus has transformed the landscape of the Hill neighborhood.

DeStefano, a skilled politician, has been careful to assume the maximum of credit and minimum of blame for the changes the city experienced under him. In a speech Tuesday announcing his retirement, he compared New Haven’s economic health today with that when he took office. Remembering the empty storefronts that lined Chapel Street in 1993, DeStefano declared that he and others had “changed the face of our city” over the last 20 years.

I don’t doubt that the DeStefano administration’s relationships with developers and Yale were instrumental to the last two decades’ economic development. He deserves praise for his efforts to establish détente between the university and its workers, and to convince Yale to contribute more to the city’s needs. Yet the mayor’s version of history glosses over real problems in New Haven’s economy.

The expansion of the knowledge economy in the city has had its benefits: increasing the property tax base and creating jobs for high-skilled workers. But these benefits have mostly accrued to the people and neighborhoods who were already most prosperous. New Haveners without college or graduate degrees still often struggle to find work in a city glittering with new university, hospital and science facilities. When they do find jobs, they are still likely to work in the service sector, to have minimal job security and, unless they work at Yale, to be paid less than a living wage.

Redevelopment under DeStefano has also changed the face of the city in some ways profoundly harmful to its poor and working-class residents. Last year, New Haven had the lowest apartment vacancy rate of any major metropolitan area in the country. As science and technology-based businesses have come to the city, the demand for housing suited to the taste and income of professionals has grown rapidly.

This demand has placed further stress on an already tight housing market, leading to gentrification downtown and driving up rents around the city. Subsidized housing is relatively abundant here compared to other cities. Yet it is still far too scarce to absorb the thousands of New Haveners who have been displaced from their home neighborhoods by foreclosure, redevelopment of affordable homes into upscale ones or the expansion of Yale’s medical campus.

In a word, DeStefano and his administration governed New Haven with prosperity as their organizing principle. They envisioned a prosperous city — one that had excellent schools, where all children could go to college, where high-paying and high-status jobs were abundant — and guided development with that vision in mind. DeStefano has taken some steps to acknowledge the distance between prosperity and reality in New Haven, creating programs like the Prison Re-entry Initiative and the city’s youth summer employment program.

Yet over his career as mayor, DeStefano has focused far more on burnishing the image of prosperity — on constructing a city which can be home to the wealthy and successful — than on building a New Haven where people who have minimal resources can live with dignity. His reforms have created an illusion of opportunity without providing the wrap-around services necessary to deliver real opportunities for New Haven’s most vulnerable people. New Haven is much different than it was when he took office, but it may not be much better.

Amalia Skilton is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact her at amalia.skilton@yale.edu.

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

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