Noting President Barack Obama’s endorsement of New Haven’s progress in assisting at-risk youth at the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week, Mayor Toni Harp defended her record and presented her plan for moving the city forward in her state of the city address last night.
The Board of Alders, officers from the New Haven Police and Fire Departments, several city officials and members of the public gathered to hear Harp’s second annual address at City Hall Tuesday evening. In addition to hinting at a potential budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, Harp summarized the city’s progress in curbing violence and bolstering public education and looked to the city’s colleges, businesses and cultural attractions as drivers of economic development.
“I believe much of this is attributable to being fully engaged as a community,” she said. “All of us are working together to create a better and safer New Haven.”
Harp pledged a continuing commitment to ending youth violence through collaboration with the NHPD, the Fire Department and public schools. Obama’s nod to the mayor last Friday praised her efforts in implementing New Haven’s version of My Brother’s Keeper — a federal initiative to empower young men of color. The major element of the city’s adaptation of the federal program, Harp said, is City Youth Stat, which uses data about student absences from school and students transferring between schools to identify and assist at-risk youth.
Harp particularly focused on public education, which she described as responsible for safeguarding students from trauma and violence.
NHPS is working with the Board of Education to extend after-school services during spring break and to provide safe spaces for students during days off, Harp said. She underscored the importance of such collaborative enrichment programs between the city’s schools and police and fire departments, noting that NHPS had seen an increased enrollment of 1,700 and a 17 percent increase in high school graduation rates in the past year.
“A lot of kids think that no one cares and that no one is looking out for them,” City Fire Chief Allyn Wright said in an interview after Harp’s address. “My job is to be a role model, so these kids can say, ‘Hey, it’s a firefighter — or a police officer or someone from the Board of Ed — expecting me to be on the path to success.’”
Harp also issued a call to action to the Board of Education, of which she is a member, to focus its attention on the city’s reading curriculum and establish a community goal of helping at least 50 percent of the NHPS student body read at or above grade level.
One area of youth services where the city has not seen progress is the revitalization of the Q House — a community center on Dixwell Avenue set to reopen its doors in 2016. Harp mentioned the development of the center as one of her goals at last year’s state of the city address.
“The mayor spoke about the kids from the police perspective and from the perspective of the Board of Ed, but I would have liked to hear more about children and the community,” Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison said. “I would like to know where we are with the Q House.”
The city’s progress against violence extends beyond youth, Harp said.
She noted that the rate of shots fired in the city has fallen by 21 percent in the last year, while non-fatal shooting saw a 9.1 percent drop. Homicides fell by 40 percent.
But despite the drop in crime, New Haven’s unemployment rate remains at 22 percent — nearly four times the national average.
The Elm City has, however, seen an increase in construction jobs with the development of Downtown Crossing — a new commercial and residential space at the site of the former Coliseum. Speaking to city infrastructure, Harp added that new bridges would open in the spring and summer on East Rock Road and State Street.
“We are a city on the move. We are a city on the rise,” she said. “And there is evidence in all corners of the city to support these assertions.”
One such part of city, according to Harp, is Yale’s campus. She specifically cited the construction of the two new residential colleges as an example of the Yale’s confidence and investment in New Haven. She also spoke about new facilities and increased enrollment at three other campuses in the city — Southern Connecticut State University, Gateway Community College and the University of New Haven.
“We have world-class companies in town, the fourth largest hospital in the nation, and we are a virtual boomtown in terms of bioscience, high technology, arts and culture,” Harp said, adding that the city is eager to encourage students to stay in New Haven after graduation.
City Director of Arts, Culture and Tourism Andrew Wolf reiterated Harp’s point and added that his department planned to move forward on three pillars of economic development: knowledge, healthcare and culture. According to Wolf, the expansion and renovation of college campuses in the city and the national recognition of Yale-New Haven Hospital indicate progress in developing the first two pillars. New Haven’s growing hospitality industry comprises the third pillar, he said.
“We seek to attract the region’s cultural entrepreneurs to the city for food, for fashion, for film — all the ‘F’ words,” Wolf said.
Ward 4 Alder Andrea Jackson-Brooks said she thought Harp’s address was clear and grounded in facts.
“Were there other things that I would like to have seen addressed? Yes,” she said. “But there’s time for that.”