DAPONTE-SMITH: From outside to inside

There’s a certain archetypal structure to the first few weeks of college. Hordes of students arrive from all over the globe, and shortly after initial bewilderment they gradually learn their way around the campus. They memorize each college’s location, figure out the quickest route from the Whitney Humanities Center to Starbucks and back again and find their favorite seascapes in the Art Gallery. This is how it is supposed to be.

I consider myself a local here. I grew up in Stratford, a short train ride down the coast. My high school sits a scant two miles west of my L-Dub suite. Most of my friends from the last four years hailed from New Haven; I could walk to their houses and say hello if I wanted to. I’ve spent countless hours with them walking through nearly every neighborhood in the city and exploring the incredible communities contained within. I follow New Haven politics and local news closely. I’ve never lived here, but I know this city as well as an outsider can.

I should emphasize that word. Until last Friday, I was an outsider — I lived elsewhere, I couldn’t vote in its elections, I could never call myself a proper New Havener. My experiences of the city occurred entirely during the day and the early hours of the night, meaning that I had only ever seen one side of life here. I had never experienced the eerie emptiness of downtown streets early on a Sunday morning and I had never been woken by trucks revving on High Street. And the gates of the Yale colleges remained locked to me, so while I knew the streets and the outlying areas well, the colleges had always appeared as a mystery in my mind. Walking through them for the first time was a surreal experience — sitting in the middle of a city I claimed to know well were areas entirely unknown to me.

That has all changed now. I am, of course, still wary of calling myself a New Havener, but I can confidently and proudly say that this city is now my home. Living in New Haven has brought a heightened sense for detail: a way to make the quotidian less mundane, perhaps, or maybe just the result of starting to see past the aspects that once commanded my full attention. I was formerly captivated by the structure of buildings as a whole; I now focus on the small bits — minute differences in columns, the gabling of the roofs, the reliefs and inscriptions that dot so many surfaces in the colleges. And as my classmates explore the streets, I find myself wandering through the tunnels, finding them inexplicably captivating.

Moving into Yale has also effected another shift in my perception of the city. When I lived in Stratford, New Haven — compact, dense, diverse and vibrant — epitomized all that is great about Northeastern small cities, which their larger counterparts often overshadow. But as I have begun to experience the city as a resident, that satisfaction with New Haven as an urban center has begun to wear off. Chapel Street no longer seems quite as bustling and the food scene no longer seems quite so wide-ranging, and the grandeur of the now-routine architecture no longer exerts the same impact on me.

I must not exaggerate the extent of this shift in my perception of New Haven: I have not lost interest in the city and I know that I will not. That would be impossible in a city with such a fascinating mix of stunning diversity and one-party politics. And the magnificence of looking south onto Hillhouse Avenue from the base of Science Hill at sunset as the western side of the street glows a brilliant orange still makes me pause and appreciate the setting.

But this city is now home, and has begun to feel like home far more quickly than I had imagined. The places in which we live lose their luster as we become more familiar with them. I have felt the beginnings of this happening to me in New Haven. By no means do I regard this as bad — only by living here can I experience the city completely.

Noah Daponte-Smith is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact him at noah.daponte-smith@yale.edu.

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