Revolution in New Haven

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Photo by Karen Tian.

Of all the things that make a trip to New Haven’s Apple store so unique, the most arresting feature has to be the white, white light that pours out each evening from the store’s floor-to-ceiling glass faÇade, as though challenging the blackness of night in a hand-to-hand combat to the death. It wins the sidewalk and pushes out to the middle of Broadway, setting up a perimeter that puts the more demure lighting of J.Crew and Gourmet Heaven to shame.

Every evening on my walk back to Stiles, I pass through the Apple store’s light-demaracted zone of control, and, every evening, I want to go inside. Apple’s lighting illuminates a smooth aesthetic package: gray walls with seamless joints, tables laid out in neat rows, employees whose bright Mac shirts make them stand out like Pacman figures. Inside, I don’t need to wait in lines. When I need help, I get to talk to a real person — not some slimy sales stooge, but a regular old guy in khakis and white New Balances, or an approachably scruffy kid with a knit beanie, or a pleasant-looking girl who looks like she could be my classmate. All of them know their stuff, or can at least direct you to someone who does. It’s as if Apple pulled their staff in from the street. handed them an iPhone and a bright t-shirt, and, poof, they’re instantly transformed from normal people to technological Geniuses. Goodbye, old corporate world. Hello, employees of the future.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-November, I head down to the Green to see one of Occupy New Haven’s general assembly meetings. Nothing’s really happening when I arrive. Occupiers chat among the fifty-odd tents scattered haphazardly across the Green. The assembly was supposed to start at 2:00, but it’s nearing 2:10.

Finally, one of the Occupiers speaks up. “Mic check!”

It’s a phrase common to all Occupy movements that calls on everyone in the vicinity to repeat whatever the speaker is saying so that more members can hear. The Occupier explains that, due to a procedural error, there won’t be a General Assembly today. He suggests an informal discussion instead.

The discussion deals mostly with areas in which various speakers accuse the movement of falling short: camp safety, the movement’s Internet presence, personal pet peeves. The earnest camaraderie of the discussion astounds me. The circle includes a staid grandmother- type, a kid in a flat-brim Yankees cap, a kid in a purple velvet suit, a Goth, a bald homeless woman. When one speaks, the rest listen.

Apple and Occupy New Haven come to the city in one of its most troubling times. As of the end of November, New Haven had seen 31 murders, one fewer than the city record posted in 1994. The latest figures from October put unemployment at 12.4 percent, well above the statewide average of 8.7 percent. This July, concerns over New Haven’s long-term solvency prompted credit rating agency Moody’s to downgrade the city government’s ratings outlook from “stable” to “negative,” citing concerns over its high debt burden and shrinking financial reserves.

In the midst of this gloom, both Apple and Occupy New Haven seem to act as powerful symbols of hope. The arrival of the Apple store has benefited other retailers on Broadway by increasing foot traffic; A-1 Pizza enjoyed a 15-20 percent increase in sales in the first three weeks after Apple’s arrival. Broadly speaking, no brand can match Apple’s sheer cool — it’s topped Fortune’s list of “Most Admired Companies” for four years running. Occupy New Haven, for its part, speaks out against many of the issues that most threaten New Haven: income inequality, police brutality, unemployment. One could say that, in certain ways, they complement each other. Apple brings in commerce; ONH reminds us that all should benefit from this commerce.

To an extent, there’s no reason to think Apple and

Occupy can’t work together for the betterment of New Haven. Chatting with customers outside the Apple store the Friday before Thanksgiving, I sensed little animosity towards Occupy and its efforts. “I hope it continues to grow,” said Ryan Davis, a fourth-year graduate student at the Yale School of Drama who was looking for a new cover for his phone. Meanwhile, ONH’s November 16th general assembly saw a number of attendees typing away on their Macs. One of them, Southern Connecticut State University student Todd Saunders, was arrested the next day for civil disobedience in New York at Occupy Wall Street.

Yet we fool ourselves if we consider Apple and Occupy without considering the larger context that prompted their arrival in New Haven this fall. The two represent very different visions of how this city should look.

To understand Apple’s place in New Haven’s development, we need to start with the 1950s, when postwar white flight gutted many of the neighborhoods to the north of Yale. The Broadway district continued to house mostly downscale tenants until the 1990s, when the university’s real estate arm — with encouragement from City Hall — bought up 16 properties downtown, including a number of locations on Broadway. Yale has spent much of the last decade carefully cobbling together a more upscale look for Broadway, mixing chains like J. Crew and Barnes & Noble with a handful of local mainstays like Cutler’s Records and Yorkside Pizza; urban scholar Gordon Lafer calls it “gentrification by central planning.” Apple, whose retail sales per square foot are almost twice those of any other chain in America, represents the pinnacle of this effort.

Bringing tenants like Apple to Broadway isn’t an end in itself. Apple’s presence “will draw in more people and also sends a signal to other investors that New Haven is a good place to be,” said Michael Morand, Yale’s director of metro, state, and alumni communications, in an email to the News in October. Reshaping Broadway and the rest of New Haven’s downtown retail district will bring some jobs, but not nearly enough to drive economic growth. But by making the downtown more livable, these efforts can attract major employers who will spur growth.

Unfortunately, the firms attracted by this gentrification won’t necessarily help New Haven tackle its most pressing problems. Take Science Park, a mixed-use complex on the edge of the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods northeast of Yale. The property was once home to a series of factories owned by Winchester Rifle Company that employed 15,000 New Haveners, but after Winchester’s departure in the 1960s, the space fell into disrepair. Over the last few decades, City Hall and Yale have partnered with a number of private developers to redevelop the area into a mixed-use complex offering upscale office and residential space. Today, Science Park’s businesses include biotech firms as well as financial services company Higher One, a New Haven startup whose remarkable growth over the past few years has made it a poster child for City Hall’s vision of economic development.

It’s not clear what Science Park is doing for the current residents of Dixwell and Newhallville. Just 12.6 percent of adults 25 and older in Newhallville and 8.6 percent in Dixwell have bachelor’s degrees or higher, a basic qualification for the vast majority of jobs on offer. Even for the few working-class jobs available, Science Park companies have been hesitant to partner with the community. The most recent Science Park project involves a $40 million renovation of an old factory that, when finished, is slated to include the headquarters of Higher One. So far, however, its most successful attempt at community hiring has been the provision of 15 jobs for asbestos removal. The influx of higher-end residential properties will also raise surrounding rents, squeezing the poor black residents who comprise most of the neighborhoods’ populations.

Occupy New Haven alone is not going to fix these problems. Its limitations stem in part from its consensus-based model of decision-making, an approach rooted firmly in the movement’s allegiance to direct democracy. Since the excitement accompanying its launch in October, the movement has struggled for consistent participation in decision-making. At several consecutive general assemblies in November, the movement failed to meet its voting quorum and, as a result, was unable to pass proposals on key issues like management of its finances.

Even under a different system of decision-making, however, it’s not clear how much Occupy would engage with New Haven proper. “A lot of the [issues Occupy looks at] have been more national,” says Ronnie Neuhauser, an occupier from East Haven who helps facilitate the movement’s Direct Action activities, like protests and marches. This national focus reflects the demographics of the movement. Though New Haven’s population is more than 60 percent black and Latino, the Occupiers are overwhelmingly white. Many live in the city now but come originally from other parts of Connecticut and even the country. Occupy New Haven emerges not so much from New Haven’s struggles as from the struggles of communities nationwide, or, at least, regionwide.

But many of those national and regional issues — especially income inequality and unemployment — coincide with New Haven’s own challenges. As a result, Occupy has gained support from a wide range of labor leaders and community organizations, including Yale’s unions, a political heavyweight whose supporters will form a majority on the Board of Alderman for the next two years. “I think you’re only going to see increasing collaboration between us,” says Local 34 president Laurie Kennington ’01. (Local 34 represents more than 3,400 clerical and technical employees at Yale.) Over the past few weeks, Occupy has joined community groups New Haven Against Police Brutality and the New Elm City Dream in marches confronting police brutality and youth jobs.

A famous Apple ad from 1984 shows a brainwashed crowd seated before a screen displaying a giant head, who intones on the wonders of the “garden of pure ideology” he has created for his people. A woman sprints into the middle of the room and hurls a sledgehammer at the screen. The screen explodes, the face disappears, and we hear a new voice. “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce MacIntosh,” it says. “And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

The ad portrays buying a MacIntosh as an act of rebellion. Today, too, Apple presents itself as a better kind of corporation, with none of the stuffiness that repels so many from American corporate culture. That’s ludicrous. Apple’s supply chain gets low marks for environmental stewardship and labor conditions, while Apple is using fewer and fewer universally standardized components in its new products in order to retain a monopoly over production.

An ad does not a revolution create. Nor does an Apple store, or Science Park, or, for that matter, a group of protesters on the Green. Real change in New Haven demands a development vision that includes every citizen of this city. Apple, the capstone of Yale and City Hall’s joint efforts to gentrify Broadway, can’t provide this. Occupy won’t provide it, at least not while its link to New Haven remains fragile — but it’s a start.

Comments

  • Sara

    The bigger issue here that you should investigate has to do with labor unions, not with a couple dozen people camping on the Green, or one prominent retail store that caters to a population within a 100 mile radius.

    What percentage of union members actually live in the city? What percentage of them are white? What percentage of them are under the age of 45? What do we pay them (via high property taxes & rents on low income families) in comparison to the typical wage here? Important questions that nobody has been willing to answer.

    New Haven and the USA would be more prosperous if there were a greater focus on creating equal opportunity among all groups, ages, and races – surely among big corporations and the halls of government of course, but even more importantly for a city like New Haven, within our labor unions.

    Please investigate that!

  • AlexandruBG

    Is the writer of this article serious? Apple has been chosen the least charitable, least eco-friendly tech company in the United States of all the big players – all the while being one of the biggest. Rampant suicides at their factories in China, money kept offshore in order to not pay taxes, and one can go on and on and on. They stand against pretty much everything Occupy movements are about, selling luxury products made with slave manual labor in horrible environmental conditions all the while being a huge corporation with record profits. Clearly, the money they’ve paid into advertising has paid off if a Yale student can write something like this without investigating at all into Apple’s business practices.