I felt the disjuncture between the Yale and New Haven communities three times the other day. The first was at 9 a.m., when I walked down the block of College Street between Elm and Chapel on my way to a class in SSS. I had to decide whether to walk alongside the familiar Old Campus architecture and scurrying students, or to take a shortcut that involved crossing the street to the New Haven Green.
The second time, I was walking on York Street with some friends when a woman approached us asking for money. I could sense a general sentiment of discomfort as we fished in our pockets for change and came up empty. We all averted our gazes, saddened by our inability to help.
The third time, I was on my way home from Sterling around midnight. The streets were empty and I remembered the many times my parents begged me not to walk around New Haven alone, especially late at night. I’m from Baltimore, a city not unlike New Haven, but still my parents often feel the need to remind me to take safety precautions, to avoid the precarious areas.
Days like these are frustrating because I didn’t come to college to feel snug within the confines of the Yale Bubble. Part of what drew me to this school was the chance to be a part of a city in the process of development and transformation. I lived in New Haven 10 years ago, and the city is already so much more vibrant than I remember it. As a freshman, I immediately got involved in community service initiatives around the Elm City. I reveled in the fact that the schools where I taught health classes and the soup kitchen where I volunteered were within walking distance of my dorm in L-Dub. I felt that I wasn’t just serving any community, but my own community.
It soon became clear to me that solely living and volunteering in this city does not make it mine. I will be the first to admit that I have only been to certain parts of New Haven because those are the places where I’ve made commitments to volunteer. Service initiatives are invaluable, but if we only cross certain boundaries in order to volunteer, we are not really treating this as our community. Rather, we are suggesting that it is somebody else’s home that we are willing to enter temporarily, only to leave when we consider our work complete.
I am reminded of something I learned in high school about the construction of highways, how they are commonly constructed in order to allow people to drive from their jobs in the city to their homes in the suburbs without having to confront areas that cause them discomfort. In some sense, we create these highways for ourselves when we walk on the Yale side of College Street and avert our gazes when asked for money.
Of course, many of the decisions we make to avoid certain areas are in our best interest, but I do think there are steps we can take, beyond community service, to make New Haven our own. When the weather was slightly more manageable, I made a habit of walking to the Wooster Square farmers’ market on the weekends. In order to get there, I had to walk two blocks further down Chapel Street than I ordinarily would. The first time I went, I hesitated when I encountered the imaginary fence that lined the perimeter of the New Haven I’d deemed safe. Once I defied it, however, I found one of my favorite spots in the city, shared by people hailing from a wide assortment of New Haven’s neighborhoods.
There are so many other ways to experience what New Haven has to offer and feel more involved in the community: exploring new restaurants during Restaurant Week, celebrating the holidays at the Christmas tree lighting in the Green, attending shows at the Shubert Theater.
We can all be members of this community. Volunteering is a great place to start, but I think the impact is more meaningful when we feel personally enmeshed in the work we do. Let’s make this city ours and cross the street.
Ally Daniels is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at email@example.com.