UP CLOSE | With election, town-gown relations at key juncture

University President Richard Levin and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. led the city for two decades. Below, 2013 mayoral candidates debate.
University President Richard Levin and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. led the city for two decades. Below, 2013 mayoral candidates debate. Photo by Yale Daily News.

On Oct. 2, 1993, Richard Levin was inaugurated as the president of Yale University. Though the News’ coverage focused on the celebratory nature of the day — “marked by medieval pomp, bluegrass and rock music, ice cream and bright sunlight” — Levin pointed to the struggling post-industrial city surrounding Yale’s campus in his inaugural address.

“We must remember that we have important responsibilities here at home. We contribute much to the cultural life of New Haven, to the health of its citizens and to the education of its children,” Levin said. Then, staring across the sea of almost 3,000 people including students, U.S. senators and presidents of other universities, he continued: “But we must do more.”

The affluent center of Woosley Hall was a stark contrast to the city’s dilapidated buildings, symptomatic of the city’s slow descent, sitting blocks away. As cause or effect of this decline, or both, the relationship between town and gown was undoubtedly strained by 1993.

Negotiations with Yale’s labor unions frequently devolved into bitter strikes, while the Board of Aldermen refused to let the University build two new residential colleges in the early 1970s. The city’s crime rate had spiked to 3,991 violent crimes in 1990 — the largest number reported in the span from 1985 to the present — which spilled onto campus when Christian Prince ’93 was shot to death in 1991 on the steps of Hillhouse Avenue’s St. Mary’s Church.

But if anyone knew how to bridge the gap between Yale, an institution nearly synonymous with wealth and privilege, and New Haven, considered a gritty and dangerous city outside the gated walls of Yale, it was Levin.

At the same time he was welcomed as the president of Yale, with all the festivities that an elite university had to offer, Levin attended a quiet block party thrown by his New Haven neighbors. As a gift at the party, his hosts gave him a softball, said Charlie Pillsbury, his next door neighbor at the time and a former Democratic Party activist.

The reason for the gift, Pillsbury said, was that his neighbors knew that Levin would play softball, not hardball, with New Haven.

Levin implemented several initiatives over the next 20 years, from creating the Homebuyer Program to funding the New Haven Promise. The programs were heralded by some as the answer to the history of town-gown struggles and dismissed by others as not enough. Levin’s initiatives indirectly questioned whether it is possible to bridge the chasm between these two entities, or whether their inherent differences, combined with their storied history, have left the relationship too scarred to fix.

Today, the city is on the verge of another change in leadership. The dual heads of city and University, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Levin, will no longer be the czars of the city by the end of the year, paving the way for a new era of town-gown relations for the first time in two decades.

On Tuesday, four mayoral candidates will square off in the city’s Democratic primary, and the winner will be one step closer to occupying the head office at City Hall. Whoever emerges victorious will work with newly appointed University President Peter Salovey to usher in the next era of University-city relations.

But while the 20 years that president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven Will Ginsberg called the “DeStefano-Levin era” of city history were marked by increasing cooperation between the two entities, such a relationship is by no means guaranteed for the next set of leaders. Come Jan. 1, 2014, a new mayor will be sworn in — one who has the power to continue bridging the gap between Yale and New Haven or topple the work of the past two decades.

 

A STORIED PAST

The history of Yale-New Haven relations have always been somewhat of a Rorschach ink blot. Some see Yale as the premier institution in New Haven, which has added layers of culture and economic development to an otherwise average northeastern city. Others see Yale as a tax-exempt leech, preying on the poor city of New Haven which staggers along, year after year, outside of the University’s castle walls.

Those who subscribe to the first narrative, which includes many members of the Yale administration, have much evidence to support their view. Judith Schiff writes in “New Haven, an Illustrated History,” that Yale saved New Haven from the brunt of economic depression during World War II thanks to the generous donation of William S. Harkness and the bequest of John William Sterling. Their money was used to build residential colleges, professional schools and Sterling Memorial Library, employing 1,200 New Haven men. During this time, football, baseball and crew stars at Yale were local heroes, and pregame festivities at the Yale Bowl became a worldwide model for tailgating.

Many believe that the recent cooperative relationship is less uncharted territory and more a return to normalcy.

“This was not a departure to something new, but a return to the fundamental truth of the place, a truth that was lost some when there was more town-gown conflict,” said Yale spokesman and former Ward 1 Alderman Mike Morand ’87 DIV ’93. “This is where we are. This is where we live.”

But others hold that this rosy description of Yale-New Haven relations skims over lingering tensions that often boil to the surface and tell the true story of the University’s relationship with the city.

Gang violence between students and New Haven residents resulted in a knife battle in 1812, Schiff wrote, and in 1854, a mob threw bricks at a group of students, who responded with gunshots. After World War I, Yalies barricaded themselves into Old Campus for three days while rocks smashed through their dorm room windows, the result of insults exchanged between New Haven residents and students about each group’s contribution to the war effort. And in 1959, during a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a struggle between Yalies and New Haven residents ensued that resulted in many injuries and 41 arrests.

Beyond cultural differences and violence, city residents would clench their teeth in anger for many years whenever Yale acquired more property in New Haven, since academic buildings are exempt from taxes.

“In the old days, Yale’s expansion was considered a bad thing for New Haven,” said William Ginsberg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. It was not until 1978 that the Connecticut passed a payment in lieu of taxes program, which partially reimburses municipalities for their tax-exempt properties. Then in 1990, the University and city began negotiations that created an annual voluntary contribution from Yale to New Haven for fire services.

It’s unclear which narrative — that of Yale the savior or Yale the enemy — is more accurate throughout history. One of the few facts that achieves large consensus is that in the late 20th century, the relationship took a turn for the worse.

 

A DOWNHILL TURN

Between 1969 and 2009, failed Yale contract negotiations resulted in nine separate labor strikes with their two unions: Local 35, the union of maintenance and professional workers, and Local 34, which is comprised of clerical and technical employees. During early labor union battles, relations were so contentious that the University threatened to revoke student scholarships if they joined in a picket line with Yale workers, said Debbie Elkin GRD ’95, who wrote her history thesis on the history of Yale labor relations.

In the 60s, relations were so bad that rumors spread that Yale would move out of New Haven, said Jim Farnam, a New Haven lawyer who later worked in Mayor Biagio DeLieto’s administration in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, Yale had hired new personnel managers who instituted harsh work rules for University employees, including the denial of sick pay to any employee who was not home when management called his or her house.

“The University came down on Local 35 like a ton of bricks,” Elkin said.

The feud erupted in earnest in the early 1970s, with an event that many hold is the biggest town-gown failure in Yale’s 300-year history. When the University presented a plan in 1973 to build two new residential colleges, the proposal was turned down twice by a spiteful Board of Aldermen, which denied the city $16 million and scores of new students at a time when the city was struggling financially, just to frustrate Yale.

The News described the episode as “possibly the biggest source of disappointment and embarrassment for both Yale and the City of New Haven.”

That same year, Michael Knight explained in the New York Times that in the 18th century, New Haven outbid other towns for the “privilege” of housing the University. “But ever since,” Knight continued, “many of them have been unable to shake their terrible feeling that it was all a mistake and that invitation had turned into an imposition.”

The Board’s rejection was a real wake up call for the University, Farnam said. Out of mutual necessity, he said, the then-mayor DiLieto and Yale’s then-president, Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, began to forge a relationship that put Yale and its city on a tentatively better track. But the two sides were still far from forging a robust partnership.

“You had a president and a mayor who were friendly to each other,” Morand said, “but it was more cordial, diplomatic relations, rather than true neighborly working relations.”

And in the early 90s, the frailty of the relationship began to show again.

According to Yale School of Management Professor Douglas Rae, who was working for the city at the time, Yale offered to hold a concert in 1990 featuring Paul McCartney at the Yale Bowl and donate the proceeds to New Haven libraries, which were threatening to close branches in the midst of a budget crisis.

But the event had to be approved by the Board of Aldermen, which attached 20 cumbersome conditions to the lease, including regulations on styrofoam cups and the decibel level at the concert. When Rae called McCartney’s management and told them about these conditions, there was a long pause followed by, “Mr. Rae, you must be kidding.” McCartney immediately canceled the performance.

This town-gown failure preceded one of the worst tragedies in Yale-New Haven history. In 1991, Prince’s murder shocked Yale’s campus, awakening many to the deep divide that separated the two entities and started a movement to change the treacherous path.

“The city’s national image and reputation was in tatters,” Rae said. “Had you been 17 in 1990, your parents might well have encouraged you to go to Dartmouth.”

 

AN ERA OF HEALING

A huge step forward in town-gown relations, many would say, was when Levin was appointed president of Yale the same year DeStefano was elected mayor.

Before ascending to the city’s highest office, DeStefano, a New Haven native, did not hold a positive image of Yale. Instead, he described it as a “much more insular place, both in terms of its architecture and in terms of its mission and purpose.”

In some ways, DeStefano said, the opportunity to change the relationship presented itself with the tragedy of Prince’s death. The incident, he explained, “created a sense of urgency at the time.”

But merging the two entities was not going to be easy.

“There was basically no relationship,” said Jorge Perez, longtime president of the Board of Alderman. “There was very little interaction. The city and the university cooperated only when they seemed when there was no other choice.”

Levin sought to change that and immediately began to work toward the promise he made in his inaugural address, spearheading an aggressive campaign to alter the relationship between the University and the city.

In 1994, Levin created the Yale Homebuyer’s Program, which provides a financial incentive for Yale professors and faculty members to live in the city — more than 1,000 of whom have done so. Two years later, he established Yale’s University Properties, providing a significant boost to New Haven’s tax base since, unlike academic buildings, the property owned by UP pays city taxes. The department now owns 85 retail tenants and 500 residential properties, forking over more than $4 million annually to city coffers.

The organization was also crucial for the development of Broadway and Chapel street.

Fifteen years ago, Broadway was full of “barber shops, liquor stores and vacancy,” said Bruce Alexander ’65, the vice president for New Haven and state affairs.

Now, the street has been “revitalized” with restaurants and retail, said Derek Simpson, the owner of Derek Simpson Goldsmith on Chapel Street. “This place was boarded up when I came in 1970.”

“It’s just a little miracle here,” the manager Jene Dostie added.

Alexander’s appointment in itself was another step forward in town-gown relations. In 1998, Alexander was hired to serve as a constant voice for New Haven in Levin’s closest circle of advisors.

While 2003 represented a low point in Yale labor relations — the University’s unions welcomed the class of 2007 with a massive strike on freshman move-in day that lasted for 22 days, complete with picket lines and arrests, said Local 34 president Laurie Kennington ’01 — the final contract promised to set the tone for a new era of labor relations. Before the 2003 labor contract, 90 percent of Yale workers were making less than $20 an hour, Kennington said, but after the contract was settled, over 90 percent of workers made more than $20 an hour.

“That contract moved people from below the poverty line to above the poverty line,” Kennington said.

The way that Levin and others in his administration handled subsequent contracts and negotiations impressed Kennington. During the strike of 2003, Levin was a target, she said. There were two-faced Levin signs and posters bemoaning Levin’s $42,000 pension when workers were not making that amount in their yearly salary.

In 2004, following a round of budget cuts, an angry mob formed around the office of John Pepper ’60, then the vice president of finance and administration, ready to storm the workplace and demand fair treatment of workers if necessary. Much to their surprise, Pepper said he would be happy to talk to workers. The change in tone sparked a new era of contract negotiations in which both sides were willing to participate in civil discussions.

In Morand’s office, two articles hang framed above his desk. One is a 1973 New York Times article titled “Town-Gown Struggle Intensifies in New Haven,” about the Board’s rejection of Yale’s residential colleges building plans.

Hanging next to the 1973 article is one from the Hartford Courant in 2006 titled “Yale’s Plans Greeted Warmly.” In 2006, Yale’s plans to build two new residential colleges passed without a hitch.

“Those are the bookends of one of the low points of town-gown relations in the early 70s, and a manifestation of the strong partnership,” Alexander said.

 

LINGERING TENSION

Still, some believe the Yale administration’s story glosses over the ever-present resentment toward the University that many feel in New Haven — possibly fueled by the ever-growing divide between the haves and have-nots. Some hold that the initiatives passed by Levin cast only a thin veil on what is still a very troubled relationship.

“Everybody outside of the Yale community knows that the story that Yale tells about itself is a complete joke. The Yale community needs to wake up to this,” said Gregory Williams, DIV ’15. “Yale’s relationship with New Haven will never be fully human until we fix the underlying inequality.”

The mid-career salary for a Yale graduate is $105,000, while the median household income of a person living in New Haven is $39,094. The city’s entire 2012-’13 fiscal year budget, perpetually facing million-dollar deficits, amounts to $486.8 million — a figure dwarfed by the value of Yale’s endowment, which totals $19.3 billion, and made approximately $4 billion in 2011.

“Libraries have been cut back … 55 teachers were cut this year, and Yale gets away with not paying taxes on their property?” asked Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer for New Haven-based immigrant rights advocacy group Unidad Latina en Accion.

Yale’s aggressive property expansion has raised some eyebrows in neighborhoods like the Hill, where Yale is expanding its medical campus.

“Yale is the most powerful entity in New Haven. It railroads the city government regularly,” said Mark Colville, a member of the Hill’s Amistat Catholic Worker House. “If you walk through the Hill you will see that Yale is eating our neighborhood, literally eating our neighborhood.”

As a result of Yale’s vast amounts of property, it has also amassed a lot of power. In 2002, Yale and the owners of New Haven restaurant Bespoke disagreed on who owned a small piece of land behind the restaurant. After a lengthy legal battle, Yale pushed the restaurant out of business.

More recently, Yale chose not to renew the lease of Au Bon Pain at 1 Broadway. Yale gave 25 employees only four days notice that they would lose their jobs.

“It’s out of the blue,” said Richard Gattison, a shift manager who had worked at Au Bon Pain for nine years told the News, “It’s a lot of people who are just going to be collecting unemployment for a while, including myself.” He added that he was not given any explanation for the store’s closure.

Additionally, the sale of High and Wall Streets this summer drummed up traditional town-gown tensions as some residents, including mayoral candidates, were horrified that Yale could purchase New Haven’s resources in a one-time lump sum deal.

“If we were to sell the streets, we should have gotten much more than three million dollars,” said mayoral candidate Justin Elicker FES ‘10 SOM ‘10. “We shouldn’t be selling public assets.”

These instances have led some residents to question whether Yale is still in the business of helping New Haven only when it is convenient.

“They make donations when they feel like it,” Colville said. “It is almost like this benevolent dictatorship. You know when the relationship is good because the dictator threw us a few crumbs.”

Without any type of change to the power dynamics in New Haven, some believe that town-gown progress can only remain on the superficial level.

“I think its important that the city always be able to stand up for itself,” said Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, one of the four remaining mayoral candidates. “City government can never wind up in a position where it feels the need to have its hand out and ask for money.”

Another challenge that Yale faces compared to colleges in other cities is that Yale does not accept a large proportion of students from New Haven Public Schools. For this reason, Yale may be considered a bastion of interlopers.

“The young people, they dream of Yale,” Colville said. “I know my own kids have.”

And Yale students, though many of them volunteer, recognize their separation from New Haven youth.

“The image of Yale isn’t going to jive very well with New Haven,” Andre Morales ’14 said. “The image of Yale is a privileged institution. We are always going to be a privileged no matter what our financial aid situation looks like.”

Morales continued, “Providing aid is important and part of our responsibility as residents of New Haven to do so, but I don’t think that any amount of aid is really going to change the perception.”

The walled off gates, which surround a privileged institution that sits on money in a bank while New Haven’s budget limps along, are still symbolic of a selfish and insular University to some.

“People perceive [Yale] as a fortress,” Fountain said.

 

SO, WAS IT WORTH IT?

Though both narratives of Yale’s role in New Haven are alive and will likely persist far into the future, the question remains whether Levin’s initiatives will permanently push the relationship in the right direction or whether the relationship will slip backwards revealing old wounds.

Signs of a real change in the relationship are present at the small stores around campus.

Yale graduates seem more likely to settle in the Elm City now than several years ago. When Johnny Scafidi ‘01 graduated from Yale a few years ago, not many students saw themselves staying in New Haven after graduation, he said.

“Now there’s a much bigger young population in certain neighborhoods and downtown, a different life dynamic,” Scafidi said. “It is a much more exciting place to live as a recent grad.”

The increase in recent grads mirrors a larger trend in the city. According to Abraham, New Haven was home to 11,000 adults age 25-34 with a Bachelor’s degree or higher in 2011 — a significant increase from the 8,600 adults in the same group that called the city home in 2000.

This change has helped make the city safer, New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman said. While graduate students used to live exclusively in communities like East Rock, he said, more people living downtown in recent years has created a safer environment.

“A city block where you see people walking back and forth is a much greater crime deterrent than seeing two police officers walking back and forth,” Hartman said.

There has also been an increase in the number of Yalies volunteering in New Haven. In 2002 there were 60 member organizations in Dwight Hall compared to 90 in 2013, Scafidi said. He added that in 2001 there was an estimated 2,500 student volunteers, increasing to a total of about 3,500 in 2012.

Over the course of Levin’s tenure, Yale’s assets increased substantially, and Ginsberg said that it is only natural under these circumstances that Yale would begin to fill a larger role in the city. Currently, the city has shifted from an industrial center to one whose two biggest employers in New Haven are Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital, and Ginsberg said that Yale’s increased financial strength may have allowed it to financially assist the city more readily.

Alexander said that though the tide of town-gown relations was turning before Levin’s appointment as president, Levin’s role was to keep that sentiment alive and execute a successful strategy.

The shift in culture, though not necessarily caused by leadership, but encouraged by it, is how DeStefano sees the change in the relationship taking place.

“What was breathtaking and risky and strange 10 years ago is a yawner now,” DeStefano said, “because it’s been part of the culture.”

This culture can be seen in leadership throughout the city. The new superintendent of New Haven Public Schools is a Yale graduate, along with three of the four candidates running for mayor. The first mayoral debate was held at Yale University, and mayoral candidates have spent much time in the days leading up to the election on campus, courting the student vote.

For relationship is to be maintained, it must transcend the leaders and become part of the new attitude of residents. Alexander, at least, said he believes that type of bond has developed in the Elm City.

“What’s important is the whole range of partnerships that we’ve developed,” Alexander said. “There’s a virtuous cycle that takes place in cities, just as there is a vicious cycle down, there is a virtuous cycle up. We’ve reversed that, every time we add a piece of improvement to the city, helps build a stronger city.”

Max Rolison ’15, the new membership coordinator at Dwight Hall, expressed a similar sentiment.

“It isn’t about Yale helping New Haven,” Rolison said. “It’s about Yale being a part of New Haven.”

 

PREPARATION FOR THE FUTURE

And now, the town-gown relationship is primed for a new process of transition. This summer, Peter Salovey moved his belongings into Woodbridge Hall, and DeStefano will soon vacate the city’s top spot.

Though most people are confident that the new normal of town-gown relations will stick, the precarious relationship is only a few years away from disastrous struggles of the past.

Those interviewed were not concerned about Salovey’s continued efforts in New Haven. Salovey has lived in New Haven for 30 years, and most believe he embodies the natural continuation of Levin’s town-gown policies.

“I very much plan to continue [Levin’s] efforts in the coming years and also focus further attention on economic development and job creation,” he said the night DeStefano announced his retirement.

Tomorrow, New Haven will face the choice between four different candidates in the city’s democratic primary. The future of Yale’s relationship with New Haven, to some extent, hangs in the balance.

Elicker’s philosophy is that when negotiating with Yale, the city will “get more with a carrot than a stick.” He proposes finding areas where both the city and the University can benefit, with his proposals including merging the Yale shuttle system with Connecticut Transit to allow for better transportation around the city and trying to keep Yale entrepreneurship and business in New Haven.

“I’d love to say yes, I will force Yale to give New Haven more money,” Elicker said. “But to be honest and realistic, I think we’re going to get more by finding areas of positive collaboration.”

Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 is another mayoral candidate who, like Elicker, opposed the sale of High and Wall streets to the University. He said that the best way New Haven and Yale can have an equal partnership is to strengthen the city financially, so that the town does not have to come to the gown, “hat in hand.”

Fernandez said that he already spoke to Yale School of Management Dean Edward Snyder about creating a premier program at the SOM for school principals. The program would include clinical work in New Haven Public Schools, with the goal that some participants would remain in the Elm City, Fernandez said.

Programs like this, he explained, will succeed because they do not treat New Haven as a charity case but rather bank on Yale’s investment in future leaders.

Toni Harp ARC ’78 praised Yale’s relationship with New Haven when it came to programs like the Payment-in-lieu-of-Taxes program and the New Haven Promise, but said that New Haven needs more support in its surrounding neighborhoods. She said that the city primarily needs financial support from Yale and that Yale’s “intellectual expertise” could help creates jobs in New Haven.

The final mayoral candidate, Hillhouse High School principal Kermit Carolina, said that Yale can continue to support New Haven by helping youth in New Haven as mentors or with after school activities. He added that he would like to piggyback off of Yale’s Homebuyers Program and extend it to policemen, firefighters and educators in the city. In his opinion, Yale could “certainly” do a “lot more” for the city financially.

Salovey declined to comment on the mayoral race, except to say the he is “looking forward to working closely with whomever the people of New Haven elect as their new mayor.” The city and University, he said, are “lucky” to have four “thoughtful and energetic” candidates in the race.

The festivities may be just as revelrous as they were 20 years ago, but Salovey will face a remarkably changed Yale and New Haven when he is inaugurated this October. Like Levin, Salovey said he will speak to the University’s relationship with its city, but he will do so after a decades-long mending process.

While reflecting on his efforts to improve relations with the city, Levin sat in a chair just a few feet from where he made his own opening speech pledging to bridge the gap between Yale and New Haven. He smiled when asked whether town-gown relations improved the way he wanted.

“Even better,” Levin said. “It turned out better than I would have hoped.”

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