Then… and now

Christopher Gardner

Christopher Gardner

A farmer's market in Wooster Square is one of many run by CitySeed, a local nonprofit founded by Jennifer McTiernan H. ’99. The markets help support Connecticut farmers and provide urban dwellers with access to fresh local food. View full image

But these improvements—and everything Yale has done to make the city more attractive to the people it wants to recruit—have done little to move the needle for New Haven’s large underclass. The percentage of families in poverty in the city has not changed substantially, and the performance of the city’s schools, despite a few good and innovative exceptions, remains inadequate by most measures.

Andrea van den Heever says that since education and training are the keys to reducing poverty, the city has to step up and fix its public schools. “I think that the city government and the mayor’s office in particular have really failed to come to grips with what it means to have a public education system that is not fulfilling the potential of the young people,” says van den Heever. “The result is that even the New Haven residents who do work at Yale are forced into the lower-skilled jobs. “

Mayor DeStefano acknowledged the schools’ problems in his State of the City address this year. “We, like many places across America, can point to schools that are great here and there,” said DeStefano, “but district-wide reform—excellent performance across an entire district—has yet to occur here or anywhere else. “ DeStefano is said to be ready to roll out a major reform package for the schools, but he declined to discuss specifics.

To explain in part the persistence of poverty, city leaders cite a high concentration of publicly financed housing in the city—among the highest in the nation, says Doug Rae. New Haven is one of the places where Connecticut’s poorest residents can find a place to live, and even if people in public housing find their way to prosperity and move out, Rae argues, there are others ready to take their places.

But van den Heever says that “creative solutions” can be found to bring quality jobs to New Haven’s poorest residents. She says that while Yale can’t fix the problem alone, the university should do its part by investing more time, money, and expertise in the public education system and by working with its unions to make job training available to residents.

One program that has met with some success is the city’s Construction Workforce Initiative, which offers training in building trades for people living in public housing. Contractors working on construction projects for the city and Yale are asked to meet a goal of 25 percent New Haven residents on their crews. As a result, New Haven now has twice as many residents in building trades unions than Hartford or Bridgeport.

DeStefano says that “there is a lot of mobility” in New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods these days. “These neighborhoods are not static places. They’re very different than the neighborhoods I was mayor of 16 years ago,” he says. “In many ways their needs, challenges, and opportunities have changed a great deal. “ One change is the large number of immigrants—many of them undocumented—from Latin America. (The city’s Ecuadorian population is now big enough that Ecuador has established a consulate in New Haven.) The city’s welcoming attitude toward undocumented immigrants has been controversial—especially its Elm City Resident Card program, which provides identification cards to help immigrants open bank accounts or get library cards. But DeStefano says that immigrants and their strong work ethic have helped to energize the city’s neighborhoods. “You can go to Grand Avenue in Fair Haven and you won’t see a vacant storefront.”

What happens to New Haven now that the boom years for the national economy are over? Has the growth and change of the last decade or two been a bubble, or will it be sustainable in the lean years? Although both the city government and Yale are facing budget cuts right now—the city’s more severe than the university’s—the long-term prognosis may actually be better for New Haven than for a lot of places. The city has already mourned the loss of its manufacturing base, and its major industries today—education and healthcare—are somewhat recession-resistant. The housing boom in New Haven was more measured and less frenzied than in the Sun Belt, and although there is a foreclosure crisis in poor neighborhoods, housing prices in other parts of town have held their own. The city’s cultural and entertainment industries may even benefit from the recession as people opt for shorter vacations closer to home.

Mayor DeStefano says he is confident about the city’s ability to weather the recession. “My residential occupancies and commercial occupancies are strong, and my major employers, while they’ve slowed their rate of growth, are still growing, and I think are well positioned to grow at the same pace that they had been before this past fall,” he says. “While it’s a time of some stresses and some compromise, fundamentally I can’t imagine an American city that’s as competitive as we are.”

The comment period has expired.