NGARMBOONANANT: The city and us

Imaginary Crosswalk

I write to you from Chipotle with a half-finished burrito on my tray. With the line to order almost reaching the door, I am reminded of the passion with which many people regard this place — in the days before the restaurant opened, its fans saw it as a culinary city on a hill, a promised land of gastronomic delights.

The line features an assortment of people. There is the New Haven professional in pea coat and tie, the New Haven teenager in a Pats sweatshirt and finally, the Yale student. He comes in a gang of four or five, huddles around friends while eating and when done, quickly scuttles off in the direction of Old Campus.

During my three visits here, I’ve noticed something peculiar: When Yale students head to Chipotle, they do it in packs of four or more. But why?

No, it is not because the walk across the Green is so cold it requires extensive company. Perhaps it is the novelty of the place. But it’s more likely that we walk in groups because we see Chipotle as being located too far outside the Yale bubble — in a location that justifies the company, and social protection, of at least a few friends for the trek.

There is no problem with walking in a large group around New Haven, except that it reflects our underlying sentiments toward the city. We see ourselves as the outsiders in the town, and every time we pass crowds gathered at the bus stop, we find ourselves speeding up and avoiding eye contact.

In light of Mayor DeStefano and President Levin’s near-simultaneous retirement and Monday’s State of the City address, it is time to rethink whether we want this to be the legacy of our ties to New Haven.

Yale, as an institution, has done its part over Levin’s tenure. Levin has helped revive Broadway and transformed Chapel Street. Levin and DeStefano have become close partners in the revitalization of New Haven, and President-elect Salovey will most certainly attempt to continue his predecessor’s work.

But Yale, as a community, is not there yet. The State of the Yale-New Haven Relationship is not strong.

Many of us came here because we knew that New Haven was a real city with real problems, and we wanted to do our part to help fix things. In many ways, we do that: We tutor in prisons, offer help to small businesses, participate in and cover city politics. We pour our hearts and souls into the work that we do. And we, in our determination to effect change, walk to City Hall, the court and the public library alone without a problem.

But when it comes to spending our free time, we shirk any casual contact with New Haven. Isn’t it a little strange that we come to college energetic and eager to discover, yet draw a fence around College Street — and vow to only leap over it for commercialized Mexican food with friends, or as knights in shining armor, to rescue it from destruction?

We’ve come to perceive New Haven as a permanently damaged place. But that caricature can’t color our interactions with the city.

Just as we have come to love Yale with its flaws, big and small — from Title IX complaints to scalding plates in the dining hall — we must also come to love New Haven in the same way. Yes, New Haven has a crime problem; yes, parts of New Haven are impoverished; yes, the school system needs much improvement. But these flaws shouldn’t detract from the love and admiration that the city deserves.

We cannot embody a “white man’s burden” mindset toward New Haven. It isn’t just a place desperately pleading for our help.

It is just as important to love the city with its defects as it is to want to help it. We must be regular citizens, too, as well as advocates.

So, next time, try walking to Chipotle alone. After you’ve finished your steak burrito, try exploring the city by yourself, and take in all that it offers — its culture, its history, its people.

The grand opening has come and gone, and Chipotle is no longer a distant city upon a hill, a fragment of our idealized imagination. Neither is the city. New Haven is real and flawed. But it is also home; it is here, and this is now.

Geng Ngarmboonanant is a sophomore in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at wishcha.ngarmboonanant@yale.edu .

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