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In Defense of New Haven

By Adam A. Sofen

NEW HAVEN-—As the buses roll south this afternoon, most of your capacity for scorn is doubtless directed at Yale University: its pretensions, its safety-school status, the foreign policy of its various graduates. But if I know Harvard students, you’ve saved a small but potent reservoir of scorn for your destination itself, New Haven.

I’ve been there. But now I find myself living here, and like a character in a tepid romantic comedy, my own scorn has blossomed into affection. I come not to bury New Haven but, oddly enough, to praise it.

I know it’s a tough sell. Ivy League hometowns come in two varieties: bucolic small towns whose postcard streets are overrun with bed-and-breakfasts, all-vegan cafes and Williams-Sonomas (Ithaca, Princeton), and famous big cities theoretically inhabited by yuppies and sitcom characters, even if the actual neighbors have to be kept at bay with swipe cards and rent-a-cops (New York, Philadelphia). New Haven doesn’t do bucolic. New Haven has no elegant skyscrapers or swooping, glittery bridges which can be artfully photographed for the covers of admissions brochures. The closest we’ve got is the “Q-Bridge” to East Haven, on I-95, a rusting contraption that cannot be said to swoop, no matter how generously speaking.

And so I spent the first six months of my life in New Haven merrily, reflexively bashing the place. It’s too small, I said. There’s nothing to do, I said. You’re forced to constantly associate with Yale undergrads. (That one I stand by.)

The city sneaks up on you. Eventually, one day in the spring I couldn’t stop denying to myself that, well, I actually liked it here.

For starters, there are the astonishingly good cultural amenities and nightlife. If I crane my neck out my 10th floor window, I can see three nightclubs, a couple of solid restaurants, two world-renowned art museums (in buildings brilliantly designed by Louis Kahn), and Louis’ Lunch, the tiny shack where, in 1900, the first hamburger was served in America. The opportunities are even more remarkable given the city’s size—in population the New Haven metropolitan area clocks in just behind such ravishing destinations as Wichita, Kan. and Wilmington, Del.

But if New Haven were just the sum of its galleries and martini bars, it would be just a low-rent Soho with a suspiciously large quantity of parking. What defines the place—what makes you really root for this city—are the overwhelming challenges it’s managed to vault.

Let’s be honest: in the mid-20th century New Haven got the stuffing kicked out of it. The factories and the department stores closed. A huge chunk of downtown was gouged out to make room for a freeway connector, but it couldn’t stop the migration to the suburbs. Mayor Richard Lee, a giant of ’60s-style urban liberalism, steered hundreds of millions of federal dollars into town but succeeded only in wiping out entire neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” New Haven sprouted a small forest of bulbous towers in the best tradition of Science Center Brutalism. Crime soared. “Inner city” was hardly too harsh a euphemism.

Unlike lots of inner cities that were given up for dead, though, New Haven has made it back in recent years. The city has been buoyed by its favorable position in the Boston-New York rail corridor and the powerful economic engine that is Yale itself. The city’s transformation in the last decade has been remarkable, with brand-new retail and housing districts blossoming on Broadway, on upper Chapel Street and in the Ninth Square neighborhood. Even the Q-Bridge is slated for a makeover.

Still, this is no Starbucks-swilling, Chomsky-quoting bedroom community, like some university towns I could name. It’s a working-class city, roughly equal parts white, black and Latino, with brash politics and a kinetic union movement (much to Yale’s discomfiture). The city is small enough that Yale students play an active role—symbolized by Ward 1 of the Board of Aldermen, the equivalent of the city council, which is comprised almost entirely of undergraduate dorms. Earlier this month, incumbent Alderman Ben Healey, a Yale senior, defeated fellow senior Dan Kruger in one of New Haven’s hardest-fought races. Town-gown relations are contentious, but the Berlin wall between Yale’s campus and surrounding neighborhoods seems finally to be softening.

All of which is one reason it’s infuriating to hear New Haven written off as “the ghetto” by privileged, clueless students, be they from Harvard or Yale. The label is racially tinged and exceedingly unfair. New Haven—with its diversity, its postindustrial economy, its regenerating urban life—is increasingly what America looks like.

That brings me to a heretical suggestion: There are downsides to living in Cambridge. Beautiful Cambridge, sophisticated Cambridge, Cambridge with its 17 independent bookstores for every one Republican, is perhaps not the ideal training ground for real life. It turns out that the world extends beyond Harvard Square—beyond Porter Square, even—and what’s out there looks precious little like life on the inside.

New Haven, though, is the genuine article. So save your scorn for the Yalies themselves—goodness knows, we deserve it.

Adam A. Sofen ’01, a former Crimson executive, is a second-year student at Yale Law School.

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