On Saturday night, my friend and I decided to walk to the shore — a two-mile walk from our off-campus apartments. On Howard Street, a few blocks past the Yale-New Haven Hospital, we were mugged and then assaulted by a group of 14- and 15-year-olds who inflicted a slash across my face and then escaped with our wallets and my cell phone.
I write this piece not to deplore the state of un-security that can be found on our fair city’s streets, but rather to express my disquieted sense that New Haven and cities all over our nation are failing to address the basic problems of poverty when the consequences of that failure are devastating.
As students at Yale, we live in a world onto ourselves, a place with its own police force and eateries and stores and even transportation network. Our community is clean, providing us access to essential shops and restaurants, and the buildings in which we live, whether on- or off-campus, are well maintained. The area in which we interact is small and isolated; though we are not separated from the outside by concrete barriers, our collective zone of activity is confined to the places in which we feel secure and where we are provided with the services we demand. But much of New Haven does not meet those criteria.
As we walked down Howard into what many at Yale might term “the ghetto,” several people along the street admonished us, telling us that we did not belong there. That particular neighborhood, the Hill, is predominantly low income and African American. Some might argue that our mistake was leaving the safe confines of our University and choosing instead to walk in a community that wouldn’t welcome us. But the question here isn’t which communities are welcoming and which ones reward their visitors with a few sutures as going-home presents.
I refuse to accept the reductive argument that we were hurt last weekend because of the assaulters’ hatred for white people or because violence is somehow more acceptable in certain communities. I resent the fact that I will wear a scar above my nose for the rest of my life, and yet, both my friend and I have a difficult time blaming those who perpetrated this crime. I came home that night to a safe neighborhood and to an apartment with friends, food and a warm bed. Did they?
There’s a sense among many of us that we deserve the comforts that abound here solely by virtue of our belonging to Yale and to the upper class community it entails. Yet, as a society, we must reconsider why some neighborhoods are worse off than others. In the wealthiest nation on earth, why are some kids reduced to theft and violence? Why should I, simply because of my class, be provided with conveniences that I could live without, while those who struck me are everyday denied the basic provisions that I’ve always taken for granted?
We condemn the people who live in impoverished neighborhoods for living on dangerous, dirty streets even though they can’t afford the services to sweep sidewalks of trash nor the books to teach their kids nor the fruits and vegetables needed for good nutrition, even though we stay the hell away — denying any obligation on our part to equalize opportunity — and fearing interaction with them because the results are often lamentable. And we accept a government that reduces provisions for housing and food and health care for the poor, ignoring the consequences of our collective inaction. Our society has committed a massive policy failure in not addressing the problems of this nation’s poor; our wildly high crime rate, when compared to those in other developed countries, attests to this, as does the miserable state of the neighborhoods in which the underprivileged live. I cannot press for retribution for the pain I suffered when the poor in our country are ill served by the municipalities in which they live and our society brings many of them to violence. We must find a way to remedy this situation. The solution is not, we must remind ourselves, to further starve poor neighborhoods of the resources we, the wealthy, cannot live without.
Yonah Freemark is a senior architecture major in Saybrook College.