For many Yalies, living in New Haven is akin to dealing with a pesky younger brother — you can’t seem to get away from him. As popular conception holds, the city is a little bit dirty, sometimes excessively rambunctious, and too small for its own good. But even annoying siblings can grow up to be respectable citizens.
Though students may perpetually launch criticisms at the city they share a love-hate relationship with, city and University officials insist that with political and economic initiatives in recent years, New Haven has become a regional leader in arts, night life and fine dining. But while local leaders said the city is experiencing a golden age characterized by a flourishing of the arts and culture within its borders, students can cite many areas where the city falls short.
Dining: A whole menu of options
Best known for clam pizza and Louis’ Lunch hamburgers, New Haven does have a reputation as a culinary destination. But increasingly, the city is becoming a destination for Malaysian or Eritrean cuisine, rather than the ketchup-free burger.
Robin Goldstein LAW ’02, co-writer of “The Menu” dining guide to the greater New Haven area, said the city’s restaurant scene has grown “immensely” in the past ten years and no longer warrants its reputation as a culinary backwater.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, the reputation was deserved,” Goldstein said. “The reputation still exists, but now it’s undeserved.”
Bruce Alexander, director of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, agreed, adding that restaurants are one of New Haven’s primary attractions.
“I think that our restaurants are going to continue to be a magnet for the region,” Alexander said.
The famed restaurant survey “Zagat Connecticut Restaurants (2004-2005)” showed mixed results for New Haven. Compared to cities like Hartford and Bridgeport, which had 20 and seven mentions respectively, New Haven’s 29 mentions were an achievement. Also, five of the 29 New Haven restaurants won honors as top Connecticut dining establishments. But compared with smaller cities such as Greenwich (with 34 mentions) and Stamford (with 42), New Haven proves to still be lacking.
Students, while overwhelmed with the number of local Thai restaurants, said they find their other dining options limited.
“If I do crave Chinese food or Indian food, I can go to the restaurants [New Haven has],” Michelle Wong ’08 said. “It does satisfy my cravings, but it would be nicer if I had more choices, and if the choices were better and better quality.”
But Goldstein — who, with his co-writer Clare Murumba LAW ’04, just finished a similar guide to the Five College area of Massachusetts — said that with recent additions such as Soul de Cuba and Pacifico, the city’s restaurant scene shows no signs of slowing down. The partners are about to release a second edition of the original New Haven “Menu” because the first edition sold so well.
“People who are considering going to school here will actually be very happy food-wise,” Goldstein said. “And otherwise.”
Theater: Give our regards to Broadway
Once the testing ground for Broadway shows before they were sent to the Big Apple, New Haven enjoys a rich history as a center for the performing arts. The changing face of national theater has sapped some of New Haven’s prominence in the industry, said Robert Kolba ’06, president of the Yale Dramatic Association. Still, with University theaters such as the Yale Repertory and the Yale Drama School and professional establishments including the Shubert and Long Wharf Theaters, New Haven continues to house several theatrical venues that stage productions that some students and officials claim rival even New York performances. Next week, for example, the Yale Repertory will show the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s new play, “Radio Golf.”
Nevertheless, Kolba said some of these options remain relatively inaccessible to the Yale community.
“In an ironic reversal of town and gown, in my opinion the Shubert and Long Wharf — and to some degree the [Repertory] — do not cater to students due to their ticket prices,” Kolba wrote in an e-mail.
As a premium orchestra seat at the Shubert can sell for upwards of $65, it is true that few college students would be able to frequent these professional venues without thinking twice. But as Jenny Reisner ’07 pointed out, she has been able to attend Shubert performances thanks to the theater’s occasional student discounts. The Long Wharf Theater and Rep also offer student discounts under certain circumstances.
Reisner said she has been impressed with the Shubert.
“I’ve been impressed with the quality,” Reisner said. “It’s nice seeing shows without having to go to New York.”
Nightlife: More places to shake your booty
Toad’s continues to be the centerpiece of New Haven nightlife, but with the resurgence of night clubs along Crown Street, Toad’s is no longer the only game in town.
“[The night life] is very alive,” said Frank Patrick, business manager of BAR. “In the past couple of years, it’s taken off.”
Patrick said the strength of night clubs such as BAR are very much contingent on the growth of other cultural and recreational businesses as well, such as restaurants and theater, because all of these sectors work together to attract patrons from outside of New Haven.
“I just think that there are more establishments and there are more reasons for people to come into town,” Patrick said. “I think that we’re drawing a lot more people from outside of New Haven.”
Wong, a native of Fullerton, Calif., a city that, with approximately 125,000 people, is approximately the same size as New Haven, said the Elm City’s nightlife fills Yalies’ needs much better than her hometown would.
“I find that there are a lot of things to do in New Haven that cater more for students,” Wong said. “I’m sure there are night clubs in Fullerton, but things in Fullerton are catered to older people in their mid 20s.”
Tiffany Lu ’06 said New Haven clubbing is cheap, in both a good and bad way.
“I feel like it’s more on the ghetto side,” Lu said. “The good thing about [New Haven] is that if you wanted to go to bars and lounges and dance clubs, it’s cheap,” she said, comparing New Haven night life to pricier cities like New York.
Shopping: Where’s the Victoria’s Secret?
New stores have not sprung up in droves as dramatic as restaurants, though shopping areas along Chapel Street and Broadway have offered at least some, albeit limited, options for the New Haven shopper.
Ten Thousand Villages, a fair-trade and nonprofit international goods store, is one business that has opened its doors on Chapel Street in recent years. Manager Liz Rider said Ten Thousand Villages is but one of many businesses that have benefited from a collaborate effort to promote New Haven commerce involving municipal groups such as Market New Haven, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the image of the city and City Hall.
“You have a lot of [city] agencies that are pooling their assets to really make downtown New Haven look good,” she said.
In addition to city assistance, the stores have also adjusted to make the most of neighboring businesses. Rider said Ten Thousand Villages operates during hours that are optimal for attracting theater- and restaurant-goers.
For some Yalies, however, the new stores – from the glitzy Thom Brown to the local Sound Runner – fall short of satisfying the urge to spend. Reisner echoed many Elis’ desire for more mainstream stores familiar to them from shopping malls back home.
“I miss the Gap a lot, actually,” she said.
Room for improvement
Although New Haven officials insist that the city has shown marked growth in nightlife and dining,
there are certain drawbacks to the city so glaring that they cannot be explained away.
Yalies said one of the most disappointing aspects of New Haven is the lack of a mainstream movie theater.
After years of the arthouse and independent theater York Square Cinema, movie fans received a second option — but one that didn’t fill the void — with the opening of Criterion Cinema last November. Joe Masher, general manager of Bow Tie Cinema Group, the firm that owns Criterion Cinema, said the growth of the intellectual and medical communities in New Haven has sparked a gentrification of the downtown areas, motivating companies such as his own to move into the city. Specifically, the arrival of doctors employed by Yale-New Haven Hospital and Hospital of St. Raphael has been crucial to increasing the audience for businesses such as his.
Reisner said she has had positive experiences at Criterion Cinema, but she still wishes that a first-run movie theater were available within walking distance.
“In order to see new movies, I need someone to drive me out to North Branford,” she said. “And that’s kind of annoying.”
Students are not the only ones with complaints about the city. Business owners in the downtown area said while the number of businesses has increased, the infrastructure to accommodate their customers has not kept up accordingly. In particular, finding parking has been a problem for patrons of BAR and Ten Thousand Villages, Patrick and Rider said.
A negative perception of the city as dangerous continues to keep visitors away, though it has declined in recent years. Anthony Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, said that less than a decade ago, New Haven’s population was shrinking dramatically, but the growing safety of the city has encouraged an influx of new residents, simultaneously boosting the importance of culture in the city.
“You’ve got crime under control so that people are no longer fearful of coming down to the city,” he said. “It’s a supply and demand thing. If you have people, they trigger the interest of businesses like restaurants, making the place attractive.”
But the city and the University must still surmount financial obstacles to perfecting New Haven’s identity as a cultural center. Rescigno said adjusting taxes to maintain this growth is vital.
“The cost of business is very costly in the state of Connecticut, and keeping costs down is always a challenge,” Rescigno said.
While the city and the University are optimistic about New Haven’s future, Wong said she continues to think of the city as only “decent,” if even that.
“I think that the best part of New Haven is that Yale is in New Haven,” Wong said. “But by itself, it’s not that great.”
The travel guide “Lonely Planet: New England,” perhaps sums it up best, praising the progress New Haven has made while simultaneously offering a backhanded compliment:
“Scores of ethnic restaurants, theaters, museums, pubs and clubs … make the Yale University area almost as lively as Cambridge’s Harvard Square.”