Justin Elicker is six feet and two inches tall, weighs 160 pounds and has reddish hair. At the intersection of Whalley Ave. and Orchard St. in New Haven, he sticks out. He wore a pair of ill-fitting trousers that bunched up around his ankles, a button-down with light blue stripes and a pair of narrow, well-polished brown oxfords.
Whalley and Orchard meet less than half a mile from the gothic spires of Yale University, yet the intersection is far away in every sense but space.
Elicker and I met and shook hands, turned right and started up Orchard St.
On a frigid night in January a week after Elicker announced his mayoral candidacy for the Elm City, 20-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced his decision not to seek re-election. DeStefano’s departure opened a vacuum in the city’s politics, a vacuum that Justin Elicker believes he is best suited to fill. But DeStefano also opened the door to a host of other questions. Whether the bright parts of New Haven’s future extend to all parts of the city is uncertain. Divided along lines of race and class, the city exhibits not only diversity, but segregation, too. And so as DeStefano exits, mayoral candidates and voters alike have been forced to ask who can unify this city whose unity is itself uncertain.
In September, I asked both candidates to walk through the city with me, hoping they might speak to how they would bridge the divides that for decades have defined New Haven. From Harp I received a polite denial, from Elicker an enthusiastic acceptance.
Elicker began our walk not by talking about the arcs of the city’s history, but rather how he worked with community leaders to keep kids on dirt bikes off the streets of Dixwell. He is about small solutions that add to big results — keeping the pool open at Career High School during the summer to give kids something to do and encouraging the growth of an organization called Solar Youth were two of the first things he talked about as we walked through the streets where policies become realties.
Throughout the campaign, Elicker has sold himself as the wonk, the guy who reads and understands every line in the budget. With his campaign team, he drafted 75 proposals, all listed on his campaign website, that dive deep into how to solve the city’s problems. As we walked from block to block, he jumped from policy to policy, suggesting they are part of a holistic approach to a better New Haven. For urban violence, he suggests creating unemployment in disadvantaged communities, enhancing community policing, better organizing block watches and using technology to improve policing. For economic development, he looks to development the city’s waterfront, improving vocational training, reforming the state’s tax system and stabilizing neighborhood through home ownership. The issues go on and so do the solutions.
“Everything is related,” he said as we walked up Orchard. “How do you push everything forward?”
Elicker has painted himself as the apolitical politician. Finding smarter ways to fix sidewalks, putting property permitting online and reducing waste through information are not ideological. Elicker does not use soaring rhetoric. He is more comfortable in long discussions with one or two people — into which he can throw numbers and studies — than he is shouting a sound byte into a microphone.
Vacancies, houses where the paint chipped from jagged sideboards, lined Orchard St. Several had “No Trespassing” signs. The grass planted between the cracked sidewalk and the street was overgrown and wilted. The crevices in the street left by last winter remained.
Half a mile down the road, as we came to the intersection of Orchard and Henry St, Elicker stopped.
While we stood on the corner, Elicker talked about the importance of the Liveable City Initiative, which works to reduce urban blight throughout New Haven. While Harp wants to defund LCI, Elicker says, he wants to improve its effectiveness by inspecting properties more frequently and following up on property violations. It could even be an important source of funds for the revenue-starved city, he said.
It wasn’t until we had started walking again that Elicker turned and said, “By the way, this is one of the most dangerous intersections in the city.”
Elicker then commented that focusing cops’ attention on locations instead of individuals, recognizing that “you don’t just need a perpetrator, you need a victim” and projects like the Beulah Heights Church Home Ownership Program — which provides affordable housing a block from Orchard and Henry — can lessen the city’s needless deaths.
We kept walking up Orchard for another block until we bore left on Dixwell Ave. and entered Newhallville.
Although Dixwell is broader and more heavily trafficked than Orchard, it has a similar feel. Some of the houses are well painted, others are not. Many are enclosed with wire fencing. We walked along Dixwell for a few hundred yards before turning at West Division St.
Newhallville is among the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city. It was once home to a large gun manufacturer, Winchester, but those jobs have since disappeared, leaving little employment for the primarily blue-collar, black work force. For the better part of a century, Newhallville have been on the receiving end of the collapse of blue-collared industrialism. Both Elicker and Harp have said the transformation has left residents with the impression that they are “stepchildren” of the city.
In the not-so-distant past, violent crime was endemic in the neighborhood; drug dealers and gangs abounded. But Newhallville has also made strides forward. Community policing and residents’ efforts have helped clean up the streets.
But Newhallville is still not a safe place to walk late at night. Earlier this year, a Yale Professor Paul Brouard was assaulted while parking to work on a house designed and built by Yale School of Architecture students.
It is also not Elicker’s territory. In the primary, Harp received 530 votes in Ward 20, which covers the neighborhood. Elicker managed 14. Many of the employed in Newhallville are members of unions, which have thrown their full weight behind Harp. Most of the residents in the neighborhood are black.
But many, in particular Harp and her supporters, have criticized Elicker for being unable to understand the plight of Newhallville’s residents.
At a recent mayoral debate, New Haven Independent Editor Paul Bass ’82 asked Elicker how he could expect to govern with “no appreciable support” from blacks and Latin Americans.
Harp said her supporters reflect the diversity of the city in a way Elicker’s simply do not. Under her leadership, Harp says that everyone in the city will get their due. “New Haven’s glass is half full,” she told a crowd recently, “and in November our cup runneth over.”
While Harp speaks of equal distribution, Elicker speaks of equal opportunity. “The mayor’s job is to make sure everyone gets a fair shake,” he said as we walked on West Division. “We don’t have the money to give everyone their due.”
Although the budget is finite, Elicker says, the distribution of resources — of school funding, of snow plows in the winter, of police attention — can be improved through transparency. To Elicker, effective governance is making decisions based on data, meticulously collected and painstakingly analyzed, not emotion. Good governance, he said, is ensuring that citizens have access to that data and can participate in the process of governing.
It was not until long after we had passed out of Newhallville that Elicker acknowledged the anger, telling me, “People in Dixwell and Newhallville feel a level of desperation because of the levels of violence and poverty.” But if he could just talk to them, he said, have a real conversation with them, they would understand his message.
A hard campaigner, he has made every effort to spread that message. Elicker says he responds to every phone call and email he receives. But he’s been in the neighborhoods too. On one recent Sunday, he personally knocked doors in East Shore, Beaver Hills, East Rock and Fair Haven.
The spine of Elicker’s Ward 10, the four-lane Orange St. runs from downtown out to East Rock Park. The park is densely wooded, and at any time joggers and cyclists make their way up it, couples walk through the paths and middle-aged men run their dogs. East Rock Park, Orange St. and the neighborhood they define share little with Newhallville.
As we walked back toward downtown, he saw a lot of familiar faces. Members of the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop cycling team, enjoying post-ride coffees at a table outside of Romeo and Cesare’s Gourmet, a far cry from the corner store at Orchard and Henry, called out to Elicker. We stopped to talk. They exchanged pleasantries and chatted briefly about the previous Friday, which DeStefano had declared “Matthew J. Feiner Day” for the bike shop owner’s contributions to the city.
Not far past Elicker’s house, Elicker waved to the Sunday crowd enjoying sandwiches outside of Nicas Gourmet Market. They waved back, and we paused again to say hi.
It is not surprising that Elicker seems more at ease in East Rock. These are his constituents, the people he emails about street cleanings and for whose kids he negotiates playground building. He has given out his cell phone number here for more than three years. He only started giving it out in Newhallville in January.
After two miles, we turned onto Hillhouse Ave. Both Dickens and Twain called Hillhouse the most beautiful street in America. Its mansions, once inhabitted by industrialists, are relics of a bygone New Haven.
But the city’s future, Elicker is quick to point out, is looking up.
Initiatives like Science Park and the New Haven Grove are encouraging innovation and bringing stable, high-paying jobs. New policing strategies, investments from Yale and pro-economic development policies, among others things, have helped curb urban violence. But, Elicker admits, the improvement has not been universal, leaving a city that can feel divided between have and have-not, safe and dangerous, optimistic and desparate.
Elicker believes his emphasis on transparency is the first step to repairing this divide, and his proposals range from the simple, such as tracking snow plows with GPS systems to the complex, such as basing budget decisions on outputs rather than inputs.By committing to remind all of New Haven’s residents of their equal stake and voice in the city, he said, “government will be working more for people than for politicians.”
But why New Haven? I asked. Elicker does not need to live here — his roots in New Canaan and his lucrative consulting business ensure that he could live in the roomier suburbs.
“I opted into New Haven,” he admits. It is the “sense of place,” he says — the ability to spin a web of interactions on a block, to walk instead of drive, to speak face to face instead of phone to phone, to become a fuller person through the relationships only urban life can engender — that drew and kept him here.
“This city makes me happier because of the environment we live in,” Elicker said. “I’m excited about the person New Haven has helped me become.
If elected, the task Elicker will face is how to ensure that all residents of New Haven, whether they live in East Rock or Newhallville, can feel the same way about their city.