When I got into Yale, for a year-long fellowship in the French Department, I was about to finish my undergrad at Cambridge.
After dropping the usual congratulations, other Cantabs began to tell me — with some relish — that Yale was in fact a wannabe Cambridge; that its collegiate system had been copied by US visionaries two hundred years ago and that its buildings were like Oxbridge ones, but newer and brasher. “They wanted the Olde English effect, so chucked acid on the bricks,” I was informed. “And then they knocked noses off statues to make them look fragile.”
I was also told that this faux Cambridge on the other side of the pond was imprisoned by a sketchy urban jungle. New Haven was a certified “dive”, populated by “gangsters” who, when not smarting from the lack of welfare, spent their time assaulting swaggering Yalies. The town/gown divide was so significant that the University provided chauffeurs to drive students back to their rooms at night, thereby saving them from certain death. “Great about Yale,” became the mantra I heard constantly, “bummer about New Haven.”
So, by the time I got to the States a week ago to begin my first semester here, I was half expecting some sort of Cambridge rip-off. A Disney model of the town I’d spent four years in back in England; a charmingly inaccurate movie set, where professors would hear my accent and assume I was witty and insightful. Yale would look like Cambridge, but would smell of Dunkin’ Donuts, filter coffee and Apple products. There would be colleges and chapels and libraries, but they’d be shiny and earnest, and their histories would date back to 2003. The campus would be an oasis of beauty and intellectuality, but it would be surrounded by deprivation and gun-crime. I’d have to use the Yale shuttle daily to return to my apartment. I’d need decoy phones to hand over to thieves when they robbed me. I’d keep my money in my bra.
What codswallop. What lunacy. What utter, indolent bollocks. New Haven is not a dump. Yale is not Cambridge on steroids. The image some Brits have of Yale, of its academic culture and history, is embarrassingly condescending.
Granted, there are architectural similarities between the two universities — many of Yale’s colleges resemble the ones in England, with their grassy quads, austere entrances and decorative stonework. But they could hardly be laid out more differently. Cambridge, it is well known, developed over centuries on a largely unplanned basis; it is therefore curiously tangled, with narrow cobbled roads and spindly bridges. Yale’s layout is organized around the all-American grid, with its one-way avenues and well-kept “sidewalks.” Cambridge is dominated by cyclists and pedestrians; Yale by buses and cars. Try as you might, you can’t find a Louis Kahn building in Cambridge. Some of New Haven’s high-rise blocks are genuinely beautiful, or at least intriguing — whereas Cambridge has no buildings higher than about six floors. To cast Yale aside as Cambridge’s fawning, copycat brother is grossly inaccurate.
As for British perceptions of New Haven, they too need to be updated. Sure, New Haven can get a little dicey at night. But it’s not the Dante-esque hell it’s commonly perceived to be by people who’ve not necessarily even gone to New York. I’ve only been here a few days, and have been struck at every turn by the total friendliness of all New Haven residents, whether ones sitting behind the desk in Bass Library or those looking for soap in Family Dollar. The troubling ubiquity of beggars in New Haven is rendered all the more depressing by the politeness of those who ask you for money on the street. One lady who requested a quarter from me yesterday took my refusal with such good grace that we ended up talking for ten minutes. She told me she wanted to start a fashion magazine. I told her that print was doomed. She said she’d start a blog instead.
Discovering that Yale is emphatically not what Cambridge students — and possibly what Brits in general — often believe it to be has been one of the great privileges of coming here. No doubt the city and university will carry on whipping the carpet from under my feet.
Leaf Arbuthnot is a fellow in Yale’s French Department. Contact her at email@example.com.