1:04 A.M., WHALLEY AVENUE
Across the street from Payne Whitney Gym, a middle-aged Indian man worked the convenience store counter at a Shell gas station. The door was locked for the night. Customers lined up at the cash booth, where Vinay Kumar gave them their purchases through a slit in the glass.
Kumar has been working at the station for four years now. When asked whether he thought the surrounding neighborhood is safe, he chuckled, gesturing to the area near Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges.
“That part is safe,” Kumar said in his clipped accent. Then he pointed to houses behind the station, toward Dixwell Avenue: “That part — no, dangerous.”
A police cruiser was sitting in the gas station’s parking lot. The officer on duty, Richard Gonzalez, arrived in New Haven from New York City five years ago. Gonzalez said he relished the “challenge” New Haven offers.
“This city’s home to every little neighborhood gang you can think of,” Gonzalez remarked. “Crips, Bloods and wannabes.”
Gonzalez works the beat around Whalley Avenue every day from midnight to 7 a.m. He warned against straying any farther than the gas station. As he said, the chances of encountering violent crime increase as someone travels away from Yale and the downtown core. Theft is common around campus, but gang violence and assault occur more frequently around peripheral neighborhoods, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez’s words echo a notion shared by many residents, Yale students and locals alike: New Haven is more a collection of distinct neighborhoods than a unified city. Both the type of crime and the rate of its occurrence vary sharply from one street to the another, from one corner to the next.
Apart from the all-encompassing issue of economic inequality, it is impossible to ignore the impact of the architectural environment on crime. An examination of New Haven’s physical structures and urban layout presents a new way to look at criminal activity in the city and offers an alternative perspective on possible solutions.
CODE OF THE STREET
Past Payne Whitney Gym, Yale’s neo-Gothic stylings and the city’s bustling restaurant scene give way to dense residential areas blocked off from the wider street with tall brick walls. Yale students are made aware of incidents of theft and assault through regular emails from Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins; however, gang violence remains largely outside of the Yale experience.
“Yale provides a pretty good safety net,” Orit Abrahim ’15 said.
Last month, the New Haven Police Department announced that the city’s homicide rate dropped by 50 percent from 2011 to 2012, reaching a three-year low of 17 homicides. At around the same time, DataHaven — a nonprofit organization that compiles public information for the New Haven Greater Area — published a map identifying the distribution of murder incidents across the city. The map highlighted the differences in safety between neighborhoods like Dixwell and Newhallville, and the communities surrounding East Rock, a location inhabited by many professors and graduate students.
“Crime rates can vary tremendously from block to block,” said DataHaven Executive Director Mark Abraham ’04.
While most sections of the city reported crime rates close to the statewide average, some of the crime hot spots in the Elm City include lower-income neighborhoods, with murders and violent crime concentrating in locations where late-night retail stores are open, where alcohol is served or where drugs are sold illegally, Abraham said.
Between 2005 and 2012, New Haven saw a total of 155 homicides, or nearly 20 per year, according to the statistics released by DataHaven. Roughly 85 percent of the homicides were reported to occur in only one-third of Elm City’s neighborhoods. All of the neighborhoods that have been impacted by two or more homicides in the past seven years are predominantly African-American like Newhallville, or Hispanic like Fair Haven.
Sociological studies have suggested that this disparity can be traced back to racial segregation, high unemployment and other problems besetting black and Hispanic communities across the nation.
In his 1999 book “Code of the Street,” sociology professor and urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson researched the black ghetto community in northern Philadelphia, Penn. The neighborhood is ridden with unemployment, social inequality and racial exclusion, which often resulted in crime rates similar to those registered in New Haven.
“I have studied Philadelphia specifically, but I believe that the same factors might be involved here in New Haven,” Anderson said.
Starting in the late 1960s, he explained, local manufacturers and factories began to close down and jobs were moved to non-metropolitan areas, then to Mexico, China and other developing countries. As more and more New Haven residents remained unemployed, they resorted to new means of self-preservation and moneymaking that have profoundly changed the urban environment: begging, drug-trading and street crime.
“Poverty and unemployment lead to desperation, and desperation can make a good man go wrong,” Anderson said.
In addition to racial segregation, failure to properly reintegrate ex-offenders into mainstream society has also had a large impact on the high crime rates among minorities, said Abraham. Specifically, he added, three-quarters of the African-American men involved in homicides in the past seven years had been convicted of prior felonies.
But some Yale students interviewed said linking high crimes rates to certain ethnic communities creates exaggerated fears in the general population, increasing the stigma that racial minorities already face.
“I don’t feel unsafe in New Haven — because I’m not afraid of people of color,” Christofer Rodelo ’15 said.
Wooster Square hosts some of New Haven’s most frequented locales: Frank Pepe’s renowned pizza restaurant and the Saturday morning farmer’s market, which features a weekly range of gastronomic delights for the locally minded consumer.
But behind a long wooden fence lives the rest of the Wooster community, where public housing serves as home to some of the city’s most impoverished citizens. The idyllic marketplace environment is maintained by the physical division along Highway 91, which obscures from view a starkly different portrait of New Haven.
“There are exceptions to this, but New Haven is a segregated city,” urban design professor Elihu Rubin said. “It is a city of enclaves and neighborhoods.”
Intercity divisions have also been the focus of the NHPD in their effort to keep crime down. When the homicide rate reached a 17-year-high of 34 homicides in 2011, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced the appointment of Dean Esserman as New Haven’s new police chief. A former NHPD assistant chief from 1991 to 1993, Esserman wasted no time: After taking the helm of the city’s Police
Department in November 2011, Esserman spearheaded a return to community policing — a strategy that moves officers away from their desks and puts them on walking patrols of the streets.
“People talk to us: They might not talk to the 911 operator, but it’s amazing how they reach out to their police officers,” Esserman said.
As police officers roam New Haven neighborhoods and interact with residents, this community-oriented policing strategy aims to increase police visibility, build trust with community residents and deter criminal activities, said City Hall spokeswoman Anna Mariotti.
As the Police Department plans to ramp up its manpower with 100 new hires over the next two years, Esserman’s policing philosophy seems to have borne fruit: New Haven saw only 17 homicides in 2012, the lowest homicide rate since 2009, when 13 homicides were reported to have occurred in the city.
“Literally hundreds of family members and neighbors were affected by that carnage,” DeStefano said at a press conference in January.
“Clearly, we were off track from where we needed to be. The community knew it, and we all wanted to reset our expectations.”
But some people are not as optimistic about last year’s crime drop. Abraham from DataHaven said that it is not possible to establish a pattern within one single year, because of the uneven distribution of homicides from month to month.
“If you look at the past decade, you’ll see many months with no homicides, and others that recorded a homicide every week — for that reason, I wouldn’t base conclusions on one year of data,” Abraham said.
There is reason to be skeptical about the effectiveness of community policing in its ability to reach out to disenfranchised community members. Dixwell resident Sajib Mitchell, 23, said he does not feel comfortable approaching police officers for help. He has witnessed incidents of gun violence around his home, and many of his former middle school classmates are now in prison under drug charges.
“There is a lack of support for youth from the older generation,” Mitchell said.
Sociology professor Andrew Papachristos said gang violence in New Haven is localized. Disputes occur within parameters as small as one street or intersection. This is in contrast to violent crime in other major cities such as Chicago, where gang activity is spread out geographically, making it more difficult to pinpoint certain areas in which it is more prevalent.
Many of the city’s small, localized gangs are inspired by larger and more infamous gangs. Papachristos said one group refers to itself as the “Grape St. Crips,” after the prominent gang in Los Angeles. Dixwell, Newhallville, Kensington Street and a housing block known as the “Jungle” — situated, ironically, across from the New Haven police station — are regarded as hotbeds for violent activity.
Kristina Zallinger, 66, is a painter who has lived in and around New Haven for much of her life. Of intercity divisions, she said, “I don’t think things are ever going to change — the poor are going to live in the center and somewhat on the outskirts of the city, and there will be richer residences down Whitney Avenue and into the areas off Orange Street.”
Zallinger attributed gentrification in the downtown area to efforts made by Yale to, as she put it, “get rid of the poor.” She pointed out that when the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven was constructed, homes were torn down to make room for the new care center. She expressed worry that such developments left the city’s poorer residents in dire straits.
“The more that happens, the more we’re pushing out the poor because they have nowhere else to go,” Zallinger remarked. “They live in New Haven, and that’s what they’re used to.”
Papachristos said that violent crime occurs primarily in regions that lack “eyes on the street” — storefronts, parks and other locales where residents can be engaged in the community and monitor one another’s behavior.
Located just northwest of the downtown area, the central parts of the Dixwell community saw five to seven homicides per block group between the years 2005 and 2011. Walking along Dixwell Avenue, the markers of disrepair are clear: boarded-up storefronts stand alongside dilapidated apartment buildings, their aging frames obscured by fences all around. A man sits on the front steps of the Hannah Gray Senior Home at the corner of Dixwell and Charles streets, waiting for a ride.
When asked whether he feels safe where he lives, the man shakes his head. He points at a plaza along the block: “There were a few killings there last year.”
Since being robbed at Dixwell Mini Mart last year, he has stopped going grocery shopping in the neighborhood. He added that he rarely goes out at night, as there is little outdoor lighting along the street.
Back on campus, students worry about other types of crime, namely “apple-picking”: the crime wave targeting Apple products across the nation.
The contrast between crime in different parts of the city can be partly explained by Oscar Newman’s “defensible space theory,” Papachristos said. Defensible space theory is the notion that the physical characteristics of a residential environment can allow inhabitants to ensure their own safety.
For example, Papachristos said, high-rise public housing complexes tend to foster gang violence because of their compact nature, which allows prospective criminals an easily accessible view into the lives of their neighbors. The debate over the “high rise, high crime” theory is an ongoing one, with crime experts and architects alike speculating over whether the crimes occur as a result of the built environment, or if they are merely symptoms of pre-existing problems.
Before Zallinger moved into her current subsidized housing complex on Dixwell Avenue a year ago, she lived for eight years in a high-rise building on the corner of Audubon and Orange streets called the Charles T. McQueeney Apartments.
“It’s full of drugs, full of prostitution, full of everything you can imagine,” Zallinger recalled. “The 10th floor was the drug floor, and even though they let a police officer live in the building for free, he didn’t do a damn thing.”
She said that while she tried to advocate for improvements on the building, it was difficult to implement changes. When she first moved in, the landlords conducted drug tests and background checks on prospective residents, but those practices have long ended.
“It’s a microcosm of the city,” Zallinger said, adding that she “couldn’t wait to get out.”
In considering the effects of urban planning on crime, Rubin noted that it is important to remember the simple steps, such as added street lighting, that can be taken toward crafting a safer streetscape.
“Active streets are safer streets,” he added. “Architecture can help, but it’s not the only answer. Well-maintained buildings and attractive spaces can support an active and peaceable life of the street.”
According to Abraham, spaces like parks, community gardens and public plazas can cause dramatic reductions in crime, as they provide a place for neighbors to meet and build the “informal social networks that are needed to keep crime under control.”
Architectural elements can also be important instruments in the fight against street crime, as shown in an interactive website launched in January by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers. The website is part of the Secured by Design program, a flagship initiative which focuses on crime prevention of homes and commercial premises through the use of security solutions, such as well-designed walking routes, adequate lighting and windows overlooking the street. According to the UK Association of Chief Police Officers, these principles have been proven to reduce burglary and crime by up to 75 percent.
“There is evidence that these features improve residents’ perception of neighborhood safety, even if they do not cause actual crime reductions in and of themselves,” Abraham noted, adding that New Haven urban planners have sometimes ignored many of the architectural solutions listed on the website.
Today, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, infrastructure design, safety and security experts will convene to address the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission on how improvements to urban planning can help prevent gun crime. Randall Luther, a partner at Tai Sook Kim Partners architecture firm, who will be speaking before the panel, said some safety disparities may be attributed to zoning.
Luther explained that while there are many businesses in downtown Hartford, the lack of residential spaces means that the area is nearly empty at night. New Haven is fortunate, Luther said, because Yale’s presence creates a critical mass of activity at the center of the city.
It is not surprising, then, that most of the good urban planning is to be found in the downtown area. Looking back to when he lived in New Haven a few years ago, Luther noted that at the corner of Audubon Street and Whitney Avenue, close to where the current Undergraduate Career Services center is located, the buildings house storefronts on the first floor and housing above. Likewise, the areas immediately around the southern edge of the Green boast a fair amount of activity thanks to the array of restaurants and their proximity to Yale, Luther said.
“You need a certain critical mass of people,” Luther said. “Once you get below that number, things start to get a little dicey.”
Luther observed that attracting activity to certain parts of the city has to do with reaching a tipping point: “The hard part is, how do you get started? Who’s the first person to open a restaurant or a business in an area that’s not so good? It’s hard to be the first one to go out there and stick around until other people follow you.”
Abraham said vacant buildings and empty lots are often home to violent crime incidents. New housing and commercial developments, he added, can lessen criminal activities, as studies have suggested that people tend to walk more frequently in neighborhoods teeming with businesses and residences.
“New development is a great way to fill in these gaps in the urban fabric,” Abraham said. “It can reduce crime by eliminating vacant lots, as well as add more resources to a neighborhood by creating more places to walk.”
2:17 P.M., DIXWELL AVENUE
Farther down Dixwell Avenue, an open convenience store blended into the procession of closed, bedraggled storefronts on the street. Inside Dixwell Mini Mart, a young man was working behind the counter. When a group of young people wearing black jackets and baseball caps walked inside, the shopkeeper turned silent.
“We can’t talk,” he stuttered.
The men were laughing about an incident from the night before. “I walked right past the cop,” one of them said. Another retorted,
“They say you can’t be carrying dangerous weapons — I was carrying a baseball bat coming home from practice.”
Beside him, a thin man was slumped against the wall: “Yeah, they said I had a revolver.”
Moving away from Yale’s ivory-tower campus and towards the vacant buildings and empty lots of impoverished Elm City neighborhoods, gaps in the urban fabric are often filled by gangs of teens and criminals that respect no rule but what sociology professor Anderson calls “the code of the street.”
“People [in these neighborhoods] feel like they are on their own,” Anderson said. “Street credibility then becomes the most important thing in a community.”
The need for increased resources on a large scale — in terms of employment, education and health care — is clear, but the city cannot overlook the architectural and urban design changes that can be crucial in the ongoing fight against crime. An additional effort to enliven the cityscape can serve to shatter the separations, both physical and sociological, that obstruct safety in each community.
It can be as simple as putting a streetlight on the corner.