The summer before her sophomore year, Emily Hays ’16 went to India. And there, like so many literary and cinematic heroines, she had a revelation.
She was trying to learn Hindi, but found it difficult to practice in the new environment. So, she said, she had to speak to strangers. Though her conversations were often short and rudimentary, they helped her feel connected to her temporary home.
“Those tiny interactions,” she said, “made me feel more a part of that community than I ever did in New Haven.”
Back in Connecticut for the fall semester, Hays felt a “moral obligation” to extend that spirit of community. A lifelong arts enthusiast (music and art classes as a kid, a few art classes and various music ensembles in college), she wanted to foster a spirit of creativity and cooperation right here in New Haven.
And that’s how Blue Haven, a new student organization encouraging artistic and creative collaboration, was born.
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Yale students are ostensibly pretty good at talking to strangers. They ace college interviews, charm their friends’ parents and schmooze with professors during office hours. But casual conversations between Yalies and New Haven residents unaffiliated with the University are relatively rare. Hays thinks that should change.
At the start of her sophomore year, inspired by her time abroad, she resolved to build a community in her adopted Connecticut home. She wanted to connect students with local New Haven artists. And after a semester of work, Hays put together a show in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
The collaborative performance, called a “commingling,” bridged the town-gown gap, combining a variety of artistic modes including song, dance and poetry. “It’s about getting performers and artists together in the same space,” Hays said.
Comminglings are informal and often improvised. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome, and Blue Haven members encourage attendees to perform in pairs, creating mixed media duets.
Sarah Lemieux, a New Haven-based musician and music teacher, performed at that first event in January. During the
show, she took part in an impromptu collaboration with Dave Harris ’16, a Yale spoken word poet.
“He asked me to accompany him,” Lemieux said, “and we just came up with it on the spot.”
Alexander Dubovoy ’16, a seasoned jazz musician and Blue Haven’s publicity director, also performed at the original commingling. He said the show was a fun opportunity to branch out from usual on-campus creative circles. Plus, “We got a great response from the Yale community.”
Following that first show’s success, Hays realized she could do even more for the New Haven arts scene. She orchestrated a second event in the spring semester, an art exhibition. Still, it was a fledgling endeavor, and much of the organizational work fell to her.
Today, Hays works with a group of equally dedicated students — Blue Haven has grown into a full-blown, Yale-approved organization. (The name doesn’t have any particular meaning. “One of my friends just came up with a series of puns on New Haven,” Hays explained.) The group’s membership has expanded in the last year, and so has its scope.
“Now it’s not just about being in the same space,” Hays said. “It’s about creating new art together, through combined inspiration.
Though Blue Haven remains in its first semester of official existence, Hays and her fellow arts enthusiasts are already planning several events. Their first collaborative project will involve Kingdom Café, a regular open mic for New Haven youth, on Nov. 21 at the Afro-American Cultural Center.
“Kingdom Cafe gathers upwards of 80 people a month, most of whom are high school aged,” said Kingdom Cafe leader George Black. The students are free to sing and dance and share poetry or visual art, he explained.
Now, Yale students will also get to perform at their November event. Blue Haven and Kingdom Cafe members will be paired for their performances, said Black. “It gives me great joy to see a partnership forming where New Haven peoples, including Yale students, can be exposed to the powerful expression of New Haven’s youth.”
In January, Blue Haven will form a similar partnership with The Future Project, a mentorship group for teens that encourages creativity and innovation. With these new affiliations, Hays aims to cement institutional relationships as well as personal ones. She’d like to ensure that students and local artists continue collaborating in coming years, long after she graduates.
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Still, the 313-year relationship between Yale and New Haven is, in a word, complicated. It’s a well-known trope: disharmony between the University and the city beyond its glorious, swipe-access-protected gates.
“A lot of the time, people talk about New Haven in terms of crime statistics,” said Hays. She thinks that some Yale students consider it a sinister place, a reputation reinforced by worried parents and out-dated college guidebooks.
As a result, many students feel like they exist in the “Yale Bubble,” rarely leaving central campus and almost never engaging with the community at large.
To Lucy Wang ’17, a student in Morse, the city does feel fractured. “It’s absurd that I don’t feel safe walking two blocks off campus,” she said. “I once talked to someone from New Haven who described Yale as a castle that no one else can access. It’s like two different worlds.”
But many on-campus groups are working to improve the relationship between city and university. Becca Steinberg ’15, president of the New Haven Urban Debate League, believes that students should expand the way they think about the Elm City.
“It’s not like we’re just at Yale for four years,” she said. “We’re in New Haven for four years.”
The Urban Debate League partners with New Haven high schools and middle schools to provide debate coaching and host monthly competitions. That way, local students can have more opportunities to debate, and Yale students can build long-term relationships with their mentees.
Steinberg feels a sense of responsibility to the city. “We have an obligation to reach out and really interact with the broader community,” she said. “It’s important to build that mutual back-and-forth.”
For Blue Haven, that mutual back-and-forth is a symbiosis among all kinds of artists. And Hays believes that this cooperation benefits artists and audiences alike. A student who sees friends collaborating with local performers might realize that community extends beyond the four corners of a residential college (37 corners if you’re in Morse or Stiles).
“There’s a common idea that New Haven is a security problem. This is a way of counteracting that conception,” Hays said. “There is so much richness here.”
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While Yalies are perpetually inundated with Facebook invites to improv and YSO shows, they don’t always remember the larger arts community that surrounds them, said Dubovoy. “If you weren’t looking for it,” he said, “you wouldn’t necessarily find it.”
“I know of some local art spaces,” Wang said. “But other than that, I sort of assume that arts-related people would have something to do with Yale.”
In reality, outside the Gothic-and-Sometimes-Georgian Bubble, local artists are thriving. “It’s a really vibrant and diverse community,” Lemieux said.
She named a variety of musical spaces, the majority of which are probably unknown to the average Yale student. “You have a fantastic symphony orchestra, a bunch of little hole-in-the-wall venues. Then there are more established places like Café Nine and Firehouse 12,” she said.
That vibrant and diverse community is also larger than some might think. According to its website, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven serves around 130,000 artists, arts organizations and the general public each year.
Even if you missed Aaron Carter at Toad’s, you still have plenty of opportunities to sample New Haven’s arts scene. Kingdom Café holds open-mic nights once a month. From Nov. 19 to Jan. 2 the Arts Council will host an art exhibition called More Than a Face, featuring self-portraiture without depictions of the face. And each summer, a huge number of musicians and artistic visionaries attend the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
Student groups and professional ones have always had resonant interests and aims. The problem, Dubovoy said, was that “no one had combined all of these goals into a forum for interplay between Yale and New Haven.”
That’s where Blue Haven comes in. But even with the group’s early successes, it’s still trying to gain a dedicated following at Yale and in the surrounding city. Hays and her companions are currently looking for interested Yalies with organizational and coordinating skills, as well as potential performers.
The foundation is in place. Members will keep commingling. And with each new partnership and performance, that Yale Bubble will get a little thinner.
“I want to make sure this group lasts,” said Hays. “We want to create spaces where New Haven and Yale people feel really comfortable together. Where they’re creating together all the time.”