Gory Battles, Open Hostility, Resentment Set Tone of Yale Town-Gown Relationships
Differences in Racial, Financial Composition Develop Bitter Sentiment in New Haven
Early in February this year, the Yale Daily News published a three-part article on the town-gown problem. The article concluded: "... every time a Town-Gown problem is solved, another seems to take its place--but they're growing smaller with each succeeding year."
On the morning of May 13 this year, a dispute over an ice cream vendor precipitated the biggest riot New Haven has seen since the bloody fracas of 1919. Over 1500 students and scores of policemen battled with pillows, water bombs, fire hoses, billy clubs, and drawn revolvers.
For two centuries, Yale and New Haven have periodically come together in gory frays that make their Cambridge counterparts look sickly by comparison. Guns, knives, and an aura of ill-feeling have permeated the town-gown relationship.
Several factors produce this situation--a more hostile and tense situation than exists in Cambridge. Foremost is the sharply contrasting racial makeup of the University and the city, which has given rise to countless "incidents." New Haven is 40 percent Italian, 25 percent Irish, and ten percent Anglo-Saxon. At Yale, the proportion is almost exactly reversed.
Thus, when New Haven Mayor William C. Celentano was re-elected by a bare two-vote margin over Yale News Director Richard Lee in November, 1951, someone commented: "It proves nothing except there are two more Italians than Yalies in New Haven." Election tension and bitterness between the two camps was a long time in disappearing. Other tensions between the two camps reveal themselves constantly.
In the fall of that same year--1951--News editor Norman Roy Grutman reported in an editorial page column called "Slings and Arrows": "Hillhouse beat West Haven by one pizza after touchdown." Neither of these heavily Italian high schools appreciated Grutman's high humor. After embarrassing the University and producing a larger abyss between the two groups, the News printed an editorial apology.
The Glittering Girl
And one Sunday morning several years ago, residents of Yale's Saybrook College threw a pizza at a group of townspeople on their way to church.
A second important factor in the hostility is the difference in financial composition between town and gown. According to the Daily News of February 18, 1952, "... Yale is like a glittering showgirl in a roadside diner. Her beauty and expensive clothes overshadow the fact that New Haven, to its year-round inhabitants, at least, is a mill town. Its citizens are mainly factory workers who take home factory workers wages. This is the basic cause of strife."
Resentment on the part of New Haven residents has often erupted in mugging of students. Last year, a slew of such muggings occurred. In October, five men attacked a graduate student, kicking him in the stomach. In November, six boys beat a Yale junior to the ground. Later the same month, eight boys in an automobile followed, spat on, and attacked another junior. Early this fall, a Yale Law student was beaten by three men. In almost every case, the police caught and fined the offenders.
But Yale students often retaliate, using similar measures. Last February, a couple of students hurled pop bottles out of a window, damaging three autos. That same month, a Yale student, now a junior, wrote the News concerning an incident in which two dozen "fraternity boys" blocked traffic on a main thoroughfare. The students banged, kicked, and wreaked minor destruction on passing autos.
The writer of the letter complained: "With Town and Gown relations as strained as they are, it shows a complete lack of consideration and common sense to pull the stunt..."
Strained is precisely the word. Before the ice cream vendor incident exploded the fact that Yale and New Haven don't get along too well into the clear, dozens of such "minor incidents" had taken place.
Then, on May 13, 1952, a policeman asked two successive ice cream vendors to move from their Elm Street locations, and Yalies objected violently. Undergraduates hurled jeers, pillows, and water bombs at the policeman, and then swarmed out into the street to begin a large-scale riot. Police seemed to have the affair under control, and the mob was dispersing when a fire truck and riot squad made their ill-timed arrival and turned on the mob jets of water and billy clubs. Several officers drew revolvers.
In its editorial columns, the News deplored the "shocking" treatment of the riot by New Haven police: "Police brutalities were a matter of astonishment and outrage to onlookers..." Several students reported they were beaten over the head and legs with billy clubs. Others protested they were booked on charges of which they were completely innocent. However, of the four students arrested, three were eventually fined a total of $125.
The News also regretted the treatment given the matter by a New Haven newspaper: "No written words could have been better contrived to poison town and gown relations than the... Registrar's viciously biased report and editorial ... on the riot ... It is a tragic pity that the staggering community problem posed by City-University relations could only be met by venom and bombast... The present critical situation has been one that called for... understanding, perception, and maturity. These qualities were conspicuously lacking on both sides..."
Death in the Old Days
The ice cream riot was the first colossal eruption since the Cornell skirmish of 1947, when students derailed trolley cars, smashed store windows, and roughed up townspeople. But before that, Yale New Haven history is rife with tales of bloody encounters.
According to a News of 1939. "Town and Gown brawls in the sixties would invariably result in a death, and it would be fortunate if the mortality were kept down to one or two participants. Gun-fire and flashing knives typified these scraps... clubs and bricks were strewn far and wide..."
When, in 1864, a student stabbed a New Haven man to death. Yalies gathered firearms of every sort, congregated in two buildings, and dug in for a sizable siege. Furious townspeople rolled three cannon onto the Green, facing the buildings. President Wooley frustrated students not to sheet until fired upon, but then to shoot accurately. However, police managed to quash the oncoming slaughter.
Perhaps the most colossal riot took place in 1919. An army of veterans, marching past Yale en route to Hartford, drew Bronx cheers from Yalies who were watching from their windows on Old Campus. Soon, thousands of students poured out of their dormitories and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the veterans, nearly demolishing Old Campus. Hours afterwards, strife-riddled ranks of veterans and Yalies went their respective ways, having added another bloody page to the gory history of New Haven's Town-Gown relations.