Then… and now

Christopher Gardner

Christopher Gardner

With the help of the federal government's Hope VI program, New Haven built Monterey Place, a mix of freestanding houses and apartment buildings. It replaced the notorious Elm Haven public housing project. The troubled Quinnipiac Terrace project was recently replaced with similar housing. View full image

A hundred years ago, New Haven was a busy industrial city full of immigrants lured by factory jobs. By coincidence, the city also housed an elite university, but the two rarely paid much attention to each other, except for occasional riots and tax disputes. Beginning after World War I, manufacturing jobs left the city, and a shrinking tax base led to higher taxes, which led to more urban flight and a downward spiral into decay.

After World War II, New Haven fought back with a bold program that sought to save the city by remaking it for the automobile. With the help of federal dollars and input from planners who wanted to make New Haven a model for urban renewal, the city went for broke. The entire Oak Street neighborhood and a significant portion of the center city were bulldozed in order to build highways, high-rises, an arena, and a downtown mall. But all those moves are now seen by urban design experts as exactly the wrong ones. At best, the changes did little to stem the flight to the suburbs and rejuvenate the city. At worst, they eliminated a big part of the urban fabric of small-scale buildings and walkable streets and that is now a city’s best drawing card.

A 1967 riot in the city seemed to mark the effective—if not the actual—end of the experiment in urban renewal. Richard C. Lee, who was mayor from 1954 to 1970, oversaw much of the change. “If New Haven is a model city,” Lee said frequently by the end of his tenure, “God help America’s cities.”

The first glimmers of a turnaround for New Haven came in the 1980s, when local developer Joel Schiavone ’58 started buying and renovating retail and apartment buildings on Chapel and College streets. Schiavone’s plan was 180 degrees different from those of the 1950s and 1960s: small-scale, based on the city’s urban assets, and privately funded. And it helped New Haven remember what there was to like about cities: one-of-a-kind shops, cafe tables on the sidewalk, the pleasure of people-watching.

At the same time, though, the rise of gangs, crack, and guns in some neighborhoods were making the city a dangerous place for everyone. Crime had been on the rise since the 1960s, but as in other cities, the crime rate in the late eighties and early nineties rose dramatically and alarmingly, and New Haven’s already unhealthy reputation got worse and worse.

There were 37 homicides in New Haven in 1991, a number that anyone could see was a sign of serious trouble. But the murder that captured Yale’s attention—and sparked a fundamental change in the way the university thought about its hometown—was the February 17 killing of sophomore Christian Prince ’93. Prince was shot while walking alone after midnight on Hillhouse Avenue. A local teenager was tried twice for the crime but convicted only of conspiracy to rob Prince.

The crime shocked the Yale community. Despite the high level of violence in the city, a Yale student had not been murdered in New Haven since 1974. The fact the shooting happened on campus, a block from the president’s house, only heightened the sense that New Haven was no longer safe for Yalies. The city’s problems were now undeniably Yale’s problems.

Yale’s first response was to address the immediate issue by beefing up police and security forces, installing emergency telephones around campus, and discouraging students from walking alone after dark. But both the reality and the perception of New Haven’s safety were a problem for Yale: how could a university recruit students and faculty to a place where they might fear for their lives?

When Levin became president of Yale in 1993, he hit the ground running, announcing at his first news conference that he intended to expand the steps toward engagement with the city that had begun under his predecessor, Benno Schmidt ’63, ’66LLB. It was Schmidt who had broken ground with the city government in 1990 by agreeing to make the university’s first voluntary payments to the city for services: $1.1 million per year earmarked for the cost of the university’s fire protection. (The voluntary payment has increased over the years—it is $5.1 million in 2009.)

To spearhead the new town-gown efforts, Levin lured former associate provost Linda Koch Lorimer ’77JD away from the presidency of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, making her a vice president as well as secretary of the university. During Lorimer’s tenure, Yale established the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, launched the Yale Homebuyer Program to provide cash incentives for employees to buy houses in New Haven, and began building partnerships with local government, schools, and neighborhood groups. Five years later, in 1998, Bruce D. Alexander ’65, a retired real estate developer who had been advising Yale on the redevelopment of the Broadway district, moved up from Maryland to be Yale’s first full-time vice president for New Haven and state affairs.

At the same time that Yale was trying to find ways to make New Haven a better place for its students and faculty, the city was taking steps of its own to deal with crime and blight. In 1990, chief Nicholas Pastore led the New Haven police department into a much-lauded experiment in community policing: a return by police to walking beats and building relationships in New Haven’s neighborhoods, in order to prevent crime instead of just responding to it. (The city has since backed away from some aspects of community policing, including beat-walking: observers disagree about whether community policing was responsible for bringing the crime rate down, but Doug Rae argues that the police presence helped give homebuyers confidence in some neighborhoods that were previously thought marginal.) In 1996, the city launched the Livable City Initiative, which expedites the renovation or removal of blighted housing.