On the last day of the spring semester, Old Campus quickly filled up with freshmen and their families preparing to move out. Their carts and boxes occupied every inch of free space in front of the dorms, and their discarded furniture lay strewn on the ground. Piles of plastic bottles were left in front of Battell Chapel. Parents and students jockeyed for carts, and numerous lamps broke in transit, leaving shards of glass in their wake. Homeless people began to gather by the High Street gate, waiting for the crowds to leave for a chance to salvage all that had been thrown out.
However, just across the street from Old Campus, the frenzy of move-out day culminated with a perverse and upsetting coda. Over the course of the two hours it took to load up my belongings, three people on the New Haven Green overdosed. Three times my mother and I saw the flashing lights of ambulances darting between the elms, coming to an abrupt halt in front of the Green’s row of churches. On each occasion paramedics jumped out from their vehicles and placed the victim on a stretcher, rushing them away as quickly as the ambulances had arrived. As we left and began to drive down Elm Street, I looked out the window to see a fourth ambulance make its way onto the scene.
It is no secret that New Haven is a deeply unequal and divided city. Over a quarter of its residents live in poverty; among the city’s youth — people our age — that rate approaches one-third. The cumulative effects of segregation, white flight and deindustrialization have left New Haven in a state of economic depression. The disparities between rich and poor, town and gown, are severe.
But no one should make the mistake of thinking that the city of New Haven is some kind of impoverished anomaly. The truth is the exact opposite. The demographic makeup of New Haven and its adjacent suburbs is astonishingly reflective of the composition of the country as a whole. An analysis by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, using data sets pulled from last year’s American Community Survey, found that the New Haven-Milford metropolitan area was the most statistically representative region in the entire United States. On a 1-to-100 scale, with 1 representing minimal demographic correlation and 100 the maximum, Greater New Haven took first place with a score of 93 — a near-total match. When viewed from nearly every angle — from the relative prevalence of ethnic groups to income distribution and college graduation rates — our University’s home city of New Haven is not an outlier in any sense of the word. New Haven’s statistics are America’s statistics; its problems are America’s problems.
Freshmen arrive at Yale committing themselves to four years at this institution. This extended commitment takes many forms — among them academic inquiry, work with student groups, political activism and scientific research. For a growing number of students it also means sustained engagement with Yale’s host city, an engagement accomplished through myriad programs and projects. Yale students serve as mentors and assistant teachers in the New Haven public school system. They volunteer at the city’s library and food banks and help residents write resumes and fill out tax forms. They work for local political campaigns and report on city politics.
Many in the class of 2020 will join these students’ ranks. A sizable percentage of 2020 comes from places with problems similar to New Haven. Many students have experienced economic hardship and systematic exclusion firsthand. But for a majority of Yale students, many of them hailing from wealthy suburbs and elite neighborhoods within large cities, living in New Haven represents their first glimpse behind the facades of America’s Potemkin village of equality and universal opportunity.
These students especially should take the time to closely examine their surroundings. Time spent in this city can be galvanizing. It can teach engagement. It can build social consciousness. But this work is incomplete without an understanding of its context. All students need to understand that the inequity we see in this city will not disappear when we graduate, and, more urgently, that it is not confined to New Haven — it is everywhere. The desperation visible on this city’s streets each day is a basic fact of the American reality.
Over the summer opioid overdoses in New Haven skyrocketed — in fact, 17 individuals overdosed on a single night in June. After this episode, the city authorities declared a public health emergency. Yale students need only keep their eyes open to see the daily casualties of this epidemic. It is a stark reminder of the brutality of everyday life for a growing number of people: People who are more than statistics — they are neighbors.
Gabriel Groz is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .