A history lesson can come in all sorts of forms — as a John Gaddis lecture, a packet from Tyco or even a sign on the highway. Students driving to school on Interstate 95 this fall received an early history lesson in just that form when newly installed highway signs welcomed them to New Haven, the birthplace of President George W. Bush ’68.
New Haven native Andrew Horowitz ’03 said he could not help but smile when he first saw the sign.
“Bush is not so interested in claiming New Haven as his roots,” he said. “When I saw the sign, it was kind of like New Haven strikes back — we claim you whether you want us or not.”
Although his official White House biography omits the fact, Bush was born in New Haven on July 6, 1946, when his father, former President George H.W. Bush ’48, was a graduate student at Yale. The younger Bush spent the first year of his childhood in the Elm City and lived briefly on Hillhouse Avenue before his family moved to Texas.
Bush, however, has been reticent to claim New Haven as his birthplace.
“[Bush] wants to emphasize ties to Texas and the South, and away from the Northeast establishment,” said Stephen Skowronek, a Yale political science professor and presidential scholar. “His father was never really accepted by the conservative element of his party because of those ties, and Bush wants to avoid that problem.”
But New Haven has made Bush’s ties clear. On Aug. 22, at a total cost of $2,684, three 13-by-7-foot signs were installed on major highways, welcoming drivers to the birthplace of George W. Bush. The state Department of Transportation installed the signs were erected after the state Legislature passed a public act directing the department to do so.
“There’s a history here of Connecticut and New Haven trying to make clear that this is the president’s birthplace and not Texas,” said state Rep. Cameron Staples, who represents part of New Haven. “I suppose it’s another way of putting New Haven on the map.”
Many city officials, however, still seem a little uncertain of what to make of the signs.
“If the White House thinks it’s a good idea, then so do we,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who was not involved in the decision to install signs.
Karyn Gilvarg, the executive director of the City Plan Department, said she has heard absolutely no reaction from anyone about the signs. Staples said he did not know about them until he saw them while driving on I-95 one day.
Despite the increased visibility New Haven may get as a result of being Bush’s birthplace, Staples said he does not think New Haven will be overrun with throngs of tourists.
“I don’t think it’s going to persuade any one to drive to New Haven who wasn’t otherwise going to make the trip,” Staples said.
But Gilvarg said anything that might bring tourists to New Haven is good for the city.
“We, of course, have lots and lots and lots of other historic landmarks and attractions,” she added.
Horowitz agrees that the city has plenty to offer potential tourists, and has his own ideas for commemorative signs in New Haven.
“We used to be the oyster capital of the United States,” he said. “That’s pretty cool. We could use a sign saying that.”
Of course, Bush is not the first notable figure to be born in New Haven, and there’s no telling who the next famous local will be. The next sign could bear a current Yalie’s name, maybe even Horowitz’s.
“I hope if that happens it will at least be installed in a better place than next to a strip mall,” Horowitz said. “I’d at least hope to do a little better than that.”