What was once home to the Quinnipiac tribe of Native Americans is now a modern-day Lululemon-J.Crew-Apple Store retail bazaar. The story of the gentrification of New Haven is not nascent, nor is it untold. The trajectory of this capitalist “coming-of-age” is fairly well documented.
From being “sold” to the Puritans led by John Davenport, to getting a collegiate donation from the colonial Governor of Madras Elihu Yale, to striking gold –– or in this case, steel –– courtesy of a gun-manufacturing factory set up by Yale graduate Eli Whitney, class of 1792, to experiencing a population boom due to the influx of African American migrants in the 1900s, to becoming a center of medicine and biotechnological research in the U.S. with the opening of the Yale School of Medicine, New Haven has seen it all — guns, germs and steel.
Now, the questions are: how has Yale contributed to this changing cityscape, or rather, how has it not? And what should the University do now?
But, first, what is gentrification? When British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964, “gentrification” referred to residential displacement experienced by poor workers in urban neighborhoods in London as the middle and upper classes shuffled in. But as the Urban Displacement Project explains, “the process includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood, that encompasses residential shifts but also demographic ones, including socioeconomic and racial identity.”
When Yale moved in, so did thousands of students, faculty and staff. Over the course of the last few centuries, the city has seen charting growth in the number of blue t-shirted, scooter-riding post-teens and subpar coffee stores, as well as ever-growing rent prices and commercialization. Today, Yale owns more than 800 of the city’s 12,000 acres of land and employs around 10,000 people. The University, however, pays a couple million dollars in taxes on nonexempt properties and makes annual voluntary contributions to City Hall, instead of coughing up the infinitely greater amount of money it would owe the city if that property were taxed.
The university-driven growth in New Haven has most definitely resulted in gentrification, irrespective of whether you measure it by social and demographic or economic determinants. According to the Yale Daily News, for example, the area around the School of Medicine, Tract 1403, has seen a colossal rise in its professional community, with an increase in its professional fraction by “13 percent since 2000 to a current value of 27 percent.”
Gentrification in New Haven has meant ever-growing changes in city demographics, with its resident Black and brown communities being pushed to the outskirts of the city. New Haven’s experience of gentrification can be best explained through the notion of “brownstoning.” This is the process by which a house previously occupied by low-income residents, potentially multiple low-income families, as in the Brooklyn brownstone model, is purchased by a financially better-off family. For example, as Yale students move off campus, in especially greater numbers this year due to COVID-19, into apartment complexes as small groups of friends, rent prices soar and de-densification of housing occurs.
Not only have New Haven citizens experienced socioeconomic displacement, but also cultural displacement. The closing of longtime neighborhood landmarks like the Bijou Movie Theatres on 26 Church Street or the Hotel Duncan have erased the history of the neighborhood. I doubt Blue State was the mark of pride in New Haven a couple decades ago or Toad’s the center of city life on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Is gentrification all bad? Perhaps. However, at this point we cannot reverse what has happened, nor can all of us pack up and leave in a frenzy (too soon?). We can, however, advocate for revitalization and positive development methods to foster neighborhood and space for New Haven locals alongside university expansion.
One way to do this is to include longtime residents in the decision-making process when new buildings or developmental projects are initiated by Yale’s campus. Though a part of this is obviously intervention by government officials, Yale policy should also directly engage with community members. According to New Haven Rising, a community organization of residents committed to winning economic, racial, and social justice through collective action, “the universities [like Yale] and their ‘research parks’ or hospitals have steadily expanded territorially and economically, while local communities have little say in how their neighborhoods are reshaped or how resources are allocated.”
According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, “while gentrification raises fears of displacement, it also offers some hope because the growth in higher-income households in previously poor areas can help to shore up city tax bases and possibly spur economic and racial integration. However, absent policy intervention, that integration may be only fleeting because, left to its own devices, the market is unlikely to deliver on the promise of long-term integration.”
Examples of such policy interventions can include protecting tenants from displacement, preserving subsidized housing with subsidies requiring long-term affordability rather than temporary affordability, creating low-income houses through construction and acquisition, and instituting baseline protections for vulnerable residents such as rent-spike exemptions for older residents. Yale University’s development strategy should reflect the aforementioned policy interventions and take them into consideration.
Development without displacement is fundamental. To date Yale has given New Haven non-tippers, underage drinkers, guns, germs and steel. It’s time to give taxes and include locals in conversation on development.
IMAN IFTIKHAR is a sophomore in Morse College. Her columns typically run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.