In April 1775, before he became infamous for treason, Benedict Arnold stood outside New Haven’s town hall and demanded barrels of gunpowder, which he was planning to bring to American soldiers to aid the fight against the British. Nowadays, this scene is re-enacted outside City Hall each year on the last Sunday of April, which the city calls “Gunpowder Keg Day.”

This was just one of the many quirky facts about New Haven that Al Lucas ’90, the city’s director of legislative services, shared Thursday night during a guided tour of City Hall. Organized by the Yale Office of International Students and Scholars, the tour was designed to be a broad discussion about U.S. local government as well as a look at the city’s unique history and political system, according to the Yale webpage advertising the event.

The inspiration for the event was “to help international students and scholars understand big national issues through the lens of New Haven,” said Molly Hampton, assistant director of programs and communications at Yale’s Office of International Students and Scholars.

Thursday’s event was the third in a series of monthly lessons called “Understanding America,” coordinated by Yale’s Office of International Students and Scholars. So far, there has been a talk on the larger historical context of New Haven and one on socioeconomics and housing in the city. The last four will focus on major national political issues, such as guns, education and health care.

But on Thursday night, Lucas made one thing clear: History, politics and culture all collide at City Hall.

In addition to his story about Benedict Arnold, Lucas described the history and architecture of the building and the day-to-day affairs that take place there.

Unlike many “old school” city government buildings, City Hall is not a big rectangle rigidly partitioned into cubes for offices, Lucas said. It is more spacious and ornamental than the average town-hall building.

Lucas also described what goes on inside City Hall. The first floor is for public business. It is where one might go to pay parking tickets or look up city statistics on births, deaths and marriages.

The second floor is for meetings. It houses the mayor’s office and the aldermanic chamber, where New Haven’s legislative body deliberates.

Regarding the city’s political process, “New Haven is very open,” Lucas said. The city is too big to have a truly democratic system — 130,000-person town hall meetings would not work logistically, Lucas said. But with a unicameral legislature and the Board of Alders’ willingness to hear anything brought before them by just about anyone, Lucas said, “We have the closest thing to real democracy.”

Predrag Petrovic, a postdoctoral chemistry researcher at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, attended the tour with his wife. Having only been in New Haven for four months, the Petrovics voiced a desire to learn about the inner workings of the local as well as the federal government and saw the “Understanding America” series as a good way to start.

About 30 people attended the tour. The next event in the series — on gun rights and gun control policy — will take place in January.

Max Graham |