From the Editor

New Haven: the makeover continues

Retiring Yale faculty and staff are among those repopulating downtown.

Kathrin Lassila ’81 is editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Just down York Street from the Yale Rep is a 16-story apartment building, rather nondescript, with lines of balconies covering its façade. Its interior is also nondescript, at first: narrow hallways, grayish carpet, gray doors. The place looks and feels like the 1960s edifice it is. You are all the more surprised, therefore, when you step through one of those gray doors and find huge windows, clear light, spacious rooms, and an expansive view of New Haven. From the southeast-facing windows, you can see New Haven Harbor, the water bright silver on a sunny day and adorned by the occasional picturesque sailboat.

This building, University Towers, has become a sort of “emeritus dorm,” as resident Judith Ann Schiff puts it, for returning alumni and retired and current faculty and employees of Yale. It’s a place where Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, a former university secretary of Yale, bumps into John Wilkinson ’60, ’63MAT—a former university secretary of Yale. Joe Taylor, one of the organizers of Yale’s Local 34 union in the early 1980s, lives here. So does Robert Farris Thompson ’55, ’65PhD, the celebrated art history professor. So does Grace Feldman ’63MusM, a nationally respected teacher of Renaissance and Baroque music. Judy Schiff herself is a good example; she’s the university’s chief research archivist (and author of our Old Yale column).

When I was a student at Yale in the late 1970s, downtown New Haven wasn’t an attractive place to live. It was in trouble. My friends and I used to band together in a group just to walk the two blocks from campus to Ashley’s for ice cream at night. Back then, Ashley’s was new, but most of New Haven seemed old. Walking down College toward the corner of Crown, we would go by boarded-up buildings where the corners stank of urine.

Today New Haven is a regional destination. Yes, we’re still troubled by poverty, unemployment, and crime, and students and staff are still cautioned not to walk alone at night. But as Mark Alden Branch ’86 has described in these pages (“Then… and Now,” May/June 2009), the central city has morphed from a lost cause into an economic debutante. The reasons most cited are the restaurants, nightlife, arts, and more-upscale retail—all painstakingly nurtured by city and Yale administration over several decades. Hence the popularity of University Towers, a co-op building that Chauncey calls the “grand old lady” of the downtown residential market. Hence, also, the remarkable success of the rental scene. New luxury apartment buildings seem to be going up all the time (and, to New Haven’s credit, they are not replacing homes in existing neighborhoods). Returning Yale alumni are among the residents.

How are all these potential emeritus dorms doing? Incredibly well. According to the New York Times, at the end of 2013 the cities with the lowest apartment vacancy rates in the country were New York City, San Francisco, and—yes!—New Haven.

Bulldozers recently took down the building that housed Ashley’s so long ago, along with the old College Wine shop. I once told Bruce Alexander, Yale’s vice president in charge of (among other things) the university’s New Haven role, that I rather liked College Wine’s seedy Lower East Side style. He gave me a look as polite as a dumbfounded stare can possibly be. For the sake of New Haven’s economic development, it’s a good thing the city agrees with his point of view. There’s a new five-story apartment building going up on that corner.

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