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Steve Norman '64 reports on 2013 AYA Assembly

Report on Assembly LXXIII: "New Haven at 375"

Steve Norman, Class AYA Representative

Yale has been in the center of New Haven for approximately 300 of New Haven’s 375 years, as Yale got its original charter in 1701 but did not move from Saybrook CT to New Haven until 1716. Although New Haven  was an important city to America during much of its existence, the city is little known to many alumni, like our Class of 1964,  who attended Yale during the period from the 1960s to the 1990s,  as many students stayed on or close to campus for much of that period due to concerns about safety, and perhaps lack of awareness of the City’s attractions.

The fortunes of New Haven have gone through different phases and it may be useful to consider the history of New Haven in four periods: The Early Years, The Rise, The Decline, and the Recovery.

The Early Years

Yale was founded in 1638  by a group of approximately 500 persons led by Rev. John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton who, having found living under the Puritans not to their liking, migrated from the Massachusetts Bay area to form their own colony. They chose  New Haven for its harbor, its Quinnipiac River, and its broad flat lands for agriculture and the construction of a town. The town was laid out in nine large squares, with the current town green comprising the center square. The most important figure in New Haven’s second century was James Hillhouse, Class of 1774 and a classmate of Nathan Hale, who was later a US Senator, banker, and Treasurer of Yale for 50 years. He directed the planting of elm trees along New Haven’s many avenues and streets.

The Rise

New Haven’s rise as an important American city was personified by Roger Sherman who was a judge and later a Federalist politician. Sherman helped draft, and later signed, both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. He was at various times mayor of New Haven, a member of the House of Representatives, and a US Senator. The person who established New Haven as an industrial and manufacturing center was Eli Whitney, Class of 1791,  whose factories in present-day Hamden were among the nation’s first. Benjamin Silliman,  BA 1796,  was a chemist who was the nation’s s first Professor of Science and who first distilled petroleum. His best student was Samuel F.B. Morse, class of 1811. Noah Webster, BA 1778,  completed his famous dictionary in 1828.

The 1850s saw the rise of athletics, with crew races in the harbor and the emergence of bicycle racing and football as major sports. Walter Camp, Class of 1882, established the modern rules of football, coached three National Champion Yale teams, and is considered the Father of American Football. In the 1860s the Winchester Arms factory became the nation’s largest small arms manufacturer and continued making rifles and small arms during World Wars I and II. The early 1900s were a period of great prosperity for the city and for Yale. Former President Taft was back on campus in 1908 as a law professor, the Yale Bowl was constructed in 1914, and the Schubert Theater in the same year. The A.C. Gilbert Company manufactured toys, including the Erector Set, beginning in 1911. The construction of the Sterling Quadrangle and the Sterling Library in the 1930s provided Yale with perhaps the nation’s foremost campus architecture.

The Decline

Beginning in the late 1950s, the industrial cities of New England, and particularly in Connecticut, experienced a decline in manufacturing so severe as to empty out virtually all the great brick factories that had been the backbone of the region’s urban economies. At the same time, under Mayor Richard C. Lee, the city embarked on a number of outsized projects, such as the I-95 Connector, the “Highway to Nowhere” that divided the city and consigned the southern portions of the city to backwater status. The city also built large public-housing projects which, with high unemployment, became areas of blight, crime, and fear. Public schools declined. The middle class, both white and black, left the city in great numbers. Yale student orientations during this period included warnings about security risks, and the budget allocated to campus police increased substantially. New Haven perceived the University as being a separate community, largely uninvolved with the city’s problems, and in 1973, the city turned down Yale’s request for two new residential colleges. Yale, the city’s largest employer, was also at a low point in its labor relations.

The Recovery

Two men, both of whom served in their leadership positions for 20 years, were instrumental in ending the decline and taking the actions needed to create New Haven’s recovery. Rick Levin, who became President of Yale in 1993, recognized that it is difficult to have a great university if the host city is falling apart, and New Haven Mayor Destefano realized that only with Yale’s great capacity to help could the city change its culture and achieve a rebound.  Aided by the very able Bruce Alexander, Class of 1965 and a former Rouse Company urban development executive, Yale’s development strategy was threefold:

  • Real-estate development, including buying and developing properties adjacent to the campus;
  • Economic development, focusing on technology and service-sector employment;
  • Radical reform of the New Haven public school system.

The real-estate development is most noticeable in three areas: Chapel Street, the Broadway area on the way to Stiles and Morse colleges, and along lower Whitney Avenue. In terms of economic development, the area north and west of the Grove Street Cemetery is a completely new industrial park with several new companies filling the available space and more on the way. The public schools feature many new and rehabilitated buildings, improved instruction, and higher expectations. The AYA delegates toured many of these new areas and buildings, including 360 State Street, a new, fully rented 500-apartment luxury high rise occupying a full city block in the middle of downtown.

Neither New Haven nor Yale feels that the recovery is complete. There still remains a gap between New Haven’s post-industrial image and the reality of its recent and widespread improvements. Connecticut, after all, has been described as the nation’s “wealthiest State with the poorest cities.” Nonetheless, the AYA delegates who participated in this Assembly were both surprised and impressed with the new vibrancy and sense of well being in Yale’s host city. The museums and restaurants are full and the streets are full of Yale students, well into the night. Long may it continue.