Then… and now

How a city came back from the brink

Christopher Gardner

Christopher Gardner

The once-dingy Broadway retail area has been transformed with a mix of national chains and small boutiques. View full image

Maybe it was the first time a house in New Haven sold for more than a million dollars (2003). Or the opening of the first trendy restaurant where it was hard to get a table (Roomba, 1999). Or the first time the Metropolitan Opera performed on the Green during the International Festival of Arts and Ideas (2000).

Everyone who’s been in New Haven long enough has a story about a moment when a light clicked on—a moment when they recognized that the “New Haven Renaissance” was maybe something real, something more than wishful propaganda put out by the chamber of commerce, the city government, and a public relations-conscious university. You can’t blame a New Haven veteran for being skeptical: civic boosters have been touting the city’s comeback for about as long as it has been in decline, and for years the gains seemed illusory or insignificant.

But whenever the tipping point happened, there is little doubt now that New Haven is a healthier, more prosperous, more fun, and safer city than it has been in the memory of most alumni. “When we use the word ‘spiral’ in speaking of our large cities,” wrote the Hartford Courant’s Tom Condon two years ago, “it is almost always preceded by ‘downward.’ In New Haven, they are saying ‘upward.’”

The most dramatic difference is downtown. Alumni who remember Chapel and College streets as the virtual boundaries of civilization—especially after dark—are amazed to see restaurants, clubs, a new movie theater, and sidewalks filled with people on Temple and Crown streets. There are now 120 restaurants in the center of town, offering a range of cuisine that sounds like roll call at the United Nations. (See “It’s Not Just Pizza Anymore.”)

Those who experienced lower Chapel Street only as an uneasy route to Wooster Street pizza can hardly fathom the 32-story, 500-unit luxury apartment tower going up at Chapel and State streets. Some 6,000 people now live in downtown New Haven in converted office buildings, new apartment buildings, and pricey lofts.

And even those who are young enough to know about the transformation of the Chapel and College street retail area in the 1980s might be surprised by the increased volume of Talbots-clad suburbanites going in and out of the Chapel Street boutiques and, to a lesser extent, the more youth-oriented stores on Broadway.

Changes like these have left many New Haveners pleased about their present city and optimistic about its future—despite the current global economic recession. “The outlook in town has improved tremendously,” says Michael Morand ’87, ’93MDiv, a Yale associate vice president who collaborates with community leaders on projects of mutual interest. “There is a positive attitude that was not present at all 20 years ago.”

President Richard C. Levin ’74PhD is even feeling cocky enough to take on Harvard in an area where the Crimson have always had the edge. “I would dare say that today if an alien were dropped from Mars and got to sample Harvard Square and Chapel Street—without being told where he was—he would come away saying that by far the most interesting, safest, cleanest, most active, most vital urban location is New Haven.” (So far, though, the city’s marketing efforts have been confined to this planet.)

That’s not to say that the city’s problems have disappeared. Beyond the thriving downtown and a handful of wealthy neighborhoods, New Haven still resembles any number of post-industrial American cities: disproportionately poor, with too much youth violence and too few opportunities for the products of a broken public education system. But the city’s successes to date have begun to instill a confidence among community leaders that even these seemingly intractable problems might be addressed.

How did New Haven go from being an Ivy League punch line to a place where well-heeled Shoreline suburbanites come for a dose of urban glamour? A reduction in crime and an increase in civic leadership from Yale are part of the answer, but another part is a surprising new affection for cities among young adults who were raised in the suburbs.

Doug Rae, a Yale professor of management and political science, has studied New Haven as a scholar and has also helped run it: he was the city’s chief administrative officer from 1990 to 1991. His 2003 book City: Urbanism and its End examined New Haven’s decline as a manufacturing city. For Rae, some of New Haven’s turnaround is attributable to changing American attitudes about the city. "The geist in American life was still resolutely anti-urban in the 1980s and the first half of the ’90s," says Rae. "But the kind of culture captured in Seinfeld—which is fundamentally urban in a way that New Haven is urban—is on the uptick. The phrase I use in City about ‘the end of urbanism’? I’m ready to take back some of that. I think there is a new era of urbanism in places like New Haven. It’s not based on people having compelling reasons to live near where a factory is; they’re making a voluntary choice based on where cultural amenities and neighborhoods they want to live in are located."

Much of the growth in downtown housing—and the reason for developer Becker + Becker’s gamble on those 500 luxury apartments at Chapel and State streets—is the neighborhood’s proximity by rail to white-collar jobs in Fairfield County and even Manhattan. "Compare New Haven with other suburbs in the 70-mile arc around New York, and we look pretty good," says Rae. "We’re a hell of a lot more interesting than most of Westchester County."

So after years of watching people and capital flee to the suburbs, New Haven is in the unexpected position of becoming a bedroom community for a suburban workforce that prefers to live in the city—so much so that the city’s new popularity among the well-heeled has begun to concern community activists. "The risk of the development that’s been going on downtown is that as it attracts high-income residents to the city, people of color, particularly low-income people of color, are forced out," says Andrea van den Heever, who is president of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a community organizing group allied with Yale’s labor unions. "Not because of any policy decision, but simply because it becomes too expensive a city to live in." That caveat aside, van den Heever—who has lived in New Haven since the early 1980s—says that the transformation of downtown is "really gratifying."

The nationwide urban renaissance never would have gotten off the ground, though, had it not been for a dramatic drop in urban crime from its alarming peak in the early 1990s. And in New Haven, the stage was also set by a new age of cooperation between Yale and the city, based on a belated realization by each party that it could not well survive without the other.