“As a product of the American Dream myself, I am inspired by it. I am committed to preserving it.” Such were the grand words of Yale President Peter Salovey, welcoming the Yale class of 2017 and declaring the fight against inequality a priority of his administration. Indeed, he has been a global leader in bringing issues of inequality, social mobility and higher education to the forefront of intellectual debate.
Unfortunately, his great institution has yet to embrace these words when dealing with its neighbors in New Haven, a hometown Yale and I share.
Though the issue of town-gown relations is less heated than it has been in the past, it’s a driver of my city’s identity and politics. Nothing better represents this than hiring: The core argument of labor unions representing municipal and Yale employees, whose chosen candidates swept to power in November’s elections, has correctly been that Yale must hire more workers locally. This month brought an encouraging development when Yale partnered with New Haven Promise — a scholarship designed to promote a college-going culture in New Haven — to bring 69 New Haven high school graduates to a hiring event with 12 Yale managers. Building a homegrown middle class through professional networking and internship opportunities for local youth shows the University’s commitment to expanding the networks of town-gown relationships. These career opportunities complement the excellent service work done through Dwight Hall by student organizations like REACH, a college application assistance program that I founded.
But unfortunately, service work by students and small-scale hiring programs cannot solve the fundamental problems that plague the University’s relationship with the people of New Haven. Ultimately, these problems stretch far beyond economic inequality. They’re about a power imbalance and fairness.
Yale is, by far, the largest landowner in downtown New Haven. Yale owns commercial properties along the Green, between College and York Streets, in the Audobon Street area, by Broadway, by the Medical school and the Hill neighborhood, at Science Park and a neighborhood housing project in Newhallville.
Although there are some positive effects from Yale’s ownership and development of commercial properties, the interests of the University are inherently different from those of the communities in which it owns property. In particular, the Hill neighborhood around the medical campus is dealing with the effects of rapid and local gentrification. While some gentrification can benefit local homeowners, over 70 percent of New Haven families rent their home — meaning that the people who reside in that community see no benefit.
It’s also important to remember that Yale’s academic buildings — located on some of the priciest real estate in Connecticut — are exempt from paying municipal property taxes. Given the city’s budget problems, the political influence of the University and Yale’s seemingly unending ability to construct gleaming new buildings, it is predictably hard for New Haven residents to see expansion projects as beneficial.
Alongside the gentrification of vulnerable neighborhoods, Yale has been making a bold and unpopular declaration that the downtown district is reserved for the elite, rather than ordinary citizens of the city. While neither public planning nor the free market would likely bring upscale boutiques such as the newly opened L’Occitane to New Haven, Yale’s size allows it to offer advantageous rents to companies that promote its desired image of the city. Another controversial move was the May eviction of longtime tenant Au Bon Pain, precipitated not due to lack of profitability (the company wanted to stay) but because Yale felt an affordable sandwich shop no longer fit the image of a desired tenant. Employees were given merely four days’ notice that the lease would not be renewed. Now, there are unconfirmed rumors that a Brooks Brothers store may take its place.
I firmly believe that Yale and New Haven share the future. Neither the city nor the University can move, and neither can survive without the other. When Rick Levin and John DeStefano Jr. put aside centuries of conflict to begin two decades of partnership and renewal, New Haven became a more prosperous, safe city and Yale a global university. But while Yale exercises its secretive and exclusive development practices over New Haven, the shared growth of both will be impossible.
James Doss-Gollin is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at email@example.com.