Just over a year ago, the New Haven Green cleared its benches of the Elm City’s homeless population with the enforcement of a nightly 10 p.m. curfew. While crossing the Green these days, I often wonder, “Where did New Haven’s low-income population migrate?”
Historically, the Green has served the public good. From colonial religious congregations to the Occupy movement of 2012, locals have long used the Green as an outlet for public discourse and the exchange of ideas. But the fact that a private collective oversees the 16-acre park space limits the extent to which the Green can serve New Haven. My fear is that the private ownership of this public privilege will ruin the true values for which it was built. The Proprietors of New Haven Green prioritize the beautification of the area over its true purpose: to further the common good through community.
The foundations of the Green are entrenched in the original nine-square groundwork for the colonial Elm City. Derivative of the classical Roman tradition, the nine-square grid designed civic life to orbit the Green. During this era, the religious and civic principles radiated outward from the public space that the Green provided. The park was replete with haggling and sermonizing.
Although it shed its religious underpinnings, the New Haven Green remained a cornerstone of public congregation into the 20th century. During a speech in 1979, Reverend Leonard Bacon celebrated the heritage of the common grounds as a place “for all such public uses as were reserved by the Forum at Rome.”
The 1960s saw the revival of the Green as a breeding ground of cultural upheaval. Sixties radicalism peaked at the 1970 May Day rally, where New Haven locals and students congregated on the Green to protest the Black Panther trials.
But the tensions inherent in the private ownership of public space were realized when the Committee of the Proprietors of Undivided and Common Lands at New Haven — the owners of the Green since 1805 — forcibly removed Occupy New Haven protestors in 2012. The city evicted the anti-corporate movement with legal action that University of California, Davis law professor Brian Soucek deemed “unconstitutional” in an open letter to the city of New Haven.
It’s the undermining of these values that troubles me. Private jurisdiction over public grounds eliminates an area where all New Haven residents can truly speak. During the colonial period, the village green was the crux of civic engagement, religion and community life in New England settlements. It gave settlements a sense of identity, it made neighbors into friends and it bred ideas. How are citizens to express opinions and make statements when the Green’s owners choose to censor? The dismantling of the Occupy New Haven movement foreshadowed the new Green, founded on maintaining the Elm City aesthetic.
Fast-forward to last January 2014, when the Proprietors of the Green declared a 10 p.m. curfew on the New Haven Green. What has changed? For one, a stroll through the Green in 2015 is eerily quiet, aside from my feet shuffling through the February slush and the faint noise of traffic on Elm Street. Beyond that, the Proprietors displaced the Elm City’s homeless population. The ordinance effectively eliminates a refuge for New Haven’s down-and-out. I can only imagine that they migrated to another green space only to receive a similar eviction notice sometime in the future.
From city hall, administrators and employees have a panoramic view of the Green from nearly every front-facing window. I’d like to think that city officials occasionally glance through the window and watch the coming together of the community. Activity on the Green reminds those who run New Haven of whom they serve. A smattering of worn transients sleeping beneath tattered blankets and newspapers becomes a poignant reminder that poverty plagues the streets.
The Proprietors have no right to control an expanse that is meant to be public. Their curfew indicates that the fortification of the Green is complete and the precepts upon which the public space was built are as dead as the colonial skeletons that lie beneath it. The residents of New Haven, led by Mayor Toni Harp, should demand that the Green be returned to its rightful owners: the entire Elm City. Only with new and collective ownership can the Green fulfill its original mission of serving as a bastion of democratic dialogue.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .