Riots, fires and redevelopment: town-gown relations in the News of the 1950s
Throughout the 1950s, the Yale Daily News often failed to incorporate the voices of New Haven residents in its coverage of Town-Gown issues.
Yale Daily News
In a photo on the front page of the Oct. 13, 1958 edition of the Yale Daily News, professor Rollin Osterweis, dressed in a suit and bow tie, clutched a fine china teacup. Moments later, he set it down to address the International Student Center on the state of Yale-New Haven relations.
A photo of Osterweis speaking with Hector G. Kinloch, director of the International Student Center, was flanked by the headline: “Despite freshman riots: Osterweis Sees Benefit in Town-Gown Relations” on the front page of the Yale Daily News’ Monday, Oct. 13, 1958 edition.
Osterweis was born in New Haven to a family that operated a cigar manufacturing company. He graduated from Yale in 1930 and became a member of the Yale History Department in 1948. Rooted in New Haven through his personal history, Osterweis focused some of his expertise on studying New Haven history as a professor at Yale.
In 1953, Osterweis was commissioned by the New Haven Colony Historical Society to publish a history of New Haven spanning from 1638 to 1938. Just four years before, in 1949, Osterweis had published a historical account of the “cult of chivalry” in his work “Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South.” This work, according to critics, seemed to downplay the role and impact of slavery.
In a review of Osterweis’ work written for The Journal of Southern History in May 1949, historian John Hope Franklin criticized Osterweis for obscuring the role and scope of slavery in southern society. Franklin, who at the time was a professor at Howard University, wrote, “there can be no disagreement with his suggestion that slavery and the plantation system failed to account for the mood of the south, but these fundamentals certainly are ingredients in the fabric of southern culture, and they doubtless helped to create the mood and atmosphere associated with romanticism and nationalism.”
In the News’ article highlighting Osterweis’ speech, there was no mention of the historical omissions in Osterweis’ work. Other News pieces including reviews of his work and coverage of his ascent to greater prominence — Osterweis later even becoming the president of the New Haven Colony Historical Society — also neglected to mention his inability to incorporate key and understudied voices to develop a full and accurate historical account.
These News articles sourced only Osterweis. They highlighted only what Osterweis wanted to highlight and included no voices describing the history he missed or glossed over. Each piece from this era unflinchingly framed Osterweis as an expert historian fully fit to detail the Yale and New Haven relationship.
The reporter who covered Osterweis’ speech at the International Student Center tea and open house for the News wrote that Osterweis considered the main pattern in Yale-New Haven relationships to be of “mutual respect, cooperation, and certainly mutual benefit.” The reporter then wrote how Osterweis blamed local newspapers for playing up the hostile attitude between town and gown. In that speech, Osterweis knocked local coverage of Yale-New Haven hostility down to “profitable journalism and not very good history.”
Among the sources of hostility the News noted that Osterweis referenced was the Yale freshman riots against New Haven “townies.” The first of many riots between Yale students and New Haveners began in 1806. The riots were catalyzed by various actions including fights between students and New Haveners on the street, Yalies throwing pizzas at New Haveners walking to church and even a dispute over an ice cream vendor. In the case of the ice cream dispute, The Crimson reported in November 1952 that over 1,500 students rioted against police using pillows, fire hoses, billy clubs, water bombs and drawn revolvers. At that time just over 2,400 undergraduate students were enrolled at Yale.
The Crimson article writes that a student stabbed a New Haven man to death in 1864, while a 2001 article in The New York Times mentions that a New Haven resident was stabbed to death following a 1854 riot. According to The Times, no indictment accompanied a grand jury investigation into the incident.
Many of these riots ended up with Yale students facing an array of disciplinary actions, from suspensions to arrests.
In his speech, Osterweis acknowledged that in a 1858 riot, Yale students “urged violent war against the townies.” He called these riots “exciting,” but according to the News’ reporting, claimed that they played only a minor role compared to Yale’s contributions to New Haven.
Osterweis may have been able to shrug nearly a century and a half of violent riots off as “exciting,” but other people, such as local New Haven officials or residents, might not have seen it in the same light. Thus, by only including one voice in this article, the News shirked its responsibility to deliver balanced and full reporting.
The News wrote that Osterweis also recalled a certain classmate — A. Whitney Griswold — who smashed “an incredible number of lightbulbs” for which the entire freshman class was placed on probation.
Griswold served as Yale’s President from 1950 to 1963.
According to an April 1959 TIME article, in 1951 Griswold let some “carefree words” slip, once admitting to participating in a riot when he was a student, “I love a riot. … I loved them when I was an undergraduate. … I can yield to no one the record of smashed light bulbs.”
A March 1951 issue in the News included an article covering a protest that attracted 2,000 Yale students outside Griswold’s house. Students were upset by a University decision to end Derby Day — an event that was once tradition where Yalies traveled to spend the day lounging on the banks of the Housatonic in Derby, Connecticut. They descended on the President’s house demanding, unsuccessfully, that the University reinstate the event.
In response, according to the article, Griswold poked his head outside and shouted back at the rioters in language consistent with TIME Magazine’s 1959 reporting, saying he would not bend to the mob’s demands.
“I love a riot …” he said. “I loved’em when I was an undergraduate… I think my fingerprints are on the campus police file and I can yield to no one the record of smashed light bulbs. But one thing I will not tolerate and you can damn me forever, and you can burn my house down, I will not discuss University policy with a mob.”
A year after the News published its article on Osterweis’ speech, 41 Yale students were arrested in a riot that broke out between Yale students and New Haveners. The riot started after Yale students pelted snowballs at policemen marching in the city’s 1959 St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The News did not follow up with or push Griswold on his participation in riots as an undergraduate, despite Griswold being tasked with quelling unrest between Yale and New Haven in a moment of extreme tension.
Griswold pledged in March 1959 to finally suppress the riots.
“No matter how far back in the history of universities the records of riots appear, there is no longer any place in the American university tradition for riots. Everytime one happens it prolongs the infancy of American higher education and weakens the urgent case it is trying to present to the American public,” Griswold said in an interview with The New York Times.
In the final paragraph of the News’ piece, which was tucked back on the fifth page of the issue, the reporter notes Osterweis’ comments about a “further source of conflict.” That conflict is over Yale’s occupancy of the city’s central property, making all the land untaxable.
Weinstein came to the same conclusion as Osterweis, who claimed that the city’s planned redevelopment program would answer the issue.
But the city’s redevelopment program, which was launched in the 1950s by New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee, was not the solution Osterweis projected it would be.
In the following decade, Lee faced criticism for being “wellmeaning but perhaps a little high-handed,” as a New York Times article from 1981 reported.
In that New York Times article, titled, “60’s dream of renewal fades with time; New Haven,” Tracie Rozhon wrote that the redevelopment in New Haven, particularly in the Dixwell neighborhood, stood as an example of “why slum clearance, engineered and administered by well-paid, sometimes far-removed officials, does not work.”
The article captured even Lee’s disappointment with the project’s failures. “‘We thought we were doing everything right then, but now we realize a lot of it came out wrong,’” he said.
A year before Osterweis praised these same redevelopment plans in his speech, a factory building in New Haven’s Wooster Square neighborhood that was slated to be torn down for the redevelopment plan burnt to the ground.
That fire killed sixteen women who worked at a dress shop inside the building.
The industrial Wooster Square area, around the Oak Street neighborhood, was fully demolished to clear space for a highway connector.
The News published no coverage of that fire.
The News did publish an article about a fire on campus the same month that the Wooster Square fire erupted. This fire, which resulted in no injuries and was extinguished “quickly,” broke out in an automobile shop in a building the University had plans to demolish anyway for the construction of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges.
In March, the News reported that a local diner, referred to as “the Broadway Restaurant,” was devoured by flames. The article reported that 400 Yale students huddled in a crowd, watching the blaze.
Ten years later, once the redevelopment program was in full swing, the News did incorporate voices of New Haven residents and representatives opposed to the plans in its articles. But the News of the 1950s largely only stepped outside the bounds of University grounds to cover the city through the lens of suit-clad clapping and china clinking, unless it was burning right before their eyes.