“New Haven without Yale would be like Bridgeport.” Ever had someone snidely say this to you? Over the past four years, I’ve heard many wanna-be pundits unquestioningly trot out this cliché. A critical examination of this aphorism reveals it to be not only wrong but loaded with problematic assumptions. Let’s unpack this two-for-one mockery of Connecticut’s great cities.
Bridgeport is the state’s largest city, a town of just under 150,000 people a half-hour west of New Haven. “The Park City,” as Bridgeport is called, was once one of America’s most important industrial centers — so crucial to the World War II home front, for instance, that it is rumored to have been first on the Germans’ potential bombing list. From whale oil to sewing machines to ammunition, Bridgeport supplied the nation. But like nearly every older American city, deindustrialization hit Bridgeport hard. Crime spiked; unemployment rose; businesses shuttered. During these tough years, Bridgeport’s ill-informed reputation took shape. Recent decades of rebuilding Bridgeport as a cleaner, healthier, more productive city have been ignored.
Bridgeport runs in my blood. Born in the Park City, my grandfather worked at Bridgeport Hospital and Bridgeport’s free clinics for half a century. My grandmother, who still lives there, volunteered in Bridgeport civic organizations and schools. When my great-grandfather came over from Europe to make a better life, he chose Bridgeport as the place to realize this dream. My father, his brother and the rest of my family get together in Bridgeport frequently. An insult to Bridgeport is an insult to them and to me.
Bridgeport is a great place, from its Olmsted parks to its Long Island Sound beaches to its Brazilian food. It’s no Paris, sure, yet Bridgeport hosts popular attractions from the conventional (theaters, arenas, universities and Connecticut’s only zoo) to the eclectic (the P.T. Barnum Museum and the nation’s only self-proclaimed “feminist vegetarian restaurant”). Yes, feel free to joke about Bridgeport’s oft-corrupt politicians or shake your head at the staggering inequalities of its metro area. But violent crime is at a decades-low, and new investments are pouring in. Bridgeport has a long way to go, but it’s on the up-and-up.
I don’t need to do the job of a tourism bureau, though, to show how wrong the original comparison is. In the eyes of those who make such remarks, a “good” location is like a stereotypical 1950s suburb — low crime, great schools and a booming economy. However, these statistics lie on shaky ground: White-collar crimes and middle-class drug use go unprosecuted, high test scores mask massive historical inequities in education spending and racial exclusion makes neighborhoods as whitewashed as their picket fences. The naysayers’ metrics are thus not how we should assess cities. Economic and crime stats are only one way to determine the “suitability” of a place, and America’s metropolises will nearly always score worse. Yet people all over the world flock to our cities anyway, for their diversity, culture and history. Bridgeport is certainly not perfect, as its residents would be the first to tell you. But when someone calls it a dump, ask yourself — by whose standard?
The saying not only slanders Bridgeport but New Haven as well. The Elm City would be just as bad as Bridgeport if Yale wasn’t here, or so the implication goes. To be clear, Yale is a world-class institution that provides the area great benefits. However, New Haven offers so much more, as anyone who steps outside the “Yale bubble” can tell you. The Elm City, believe or not, has other economic drivers and its diverse, creative neighborhoods are the envy of any like-sized city. Of course, Yale is New Haven’s largest employer, but it’s not New Haven’s only asset — if it were, Yale would not want to call this city home.
Let’s turn the tables: Imagine Yale without New Haven. No workers and no neighbors, first and foremost. No water, no restaurants, no stores, no roads, no trains, no city life. Yale depends on New Haven far more so than the reverse. In order words, Yale would be no better than Trump University without this city.
Couldn’t another town provide the same people and services? If Yale moved elsewhere, someone might argue, it would survive; New Haven would not. This blithe generalization glosses over three key truths. First, a mid-sized city like New Haven (or Bridgeport!) provides unique advantages for Yale: the vibrancy of a metropolis without the anonymizing tendencies of a larger urban center. Second, in the absurd hypothetical where Yale could feasibly leave, it’s likely another comparable institution would take its place in a spot as good as New Haven Most importantly, this whole conversation is the wrong one to have. We should stop asking what New Haven would look like without Yale and start asking the reverse.
So the next time you hear people use this old slander, urge them to take a day-trip to Bridgeport. They might just change their minds on the place.
Jacob Wasserman is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .