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Beset by New Haven's ills, Yale revitalizes city

By Noel C. PaulContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 2004


Yale University is one of the world's top academic institutions. But as classes begin this fall, many here are attributing the school's renaissance to a very un-Yale-like characteristic: humility.

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For centuries, Yale operated in serene isolation from New Haven. Its brick walls and black gates became, in a city dogged by poverty and crime, emblems of an elitist neighbor. New Haven's image was further darkened by a student's murder, and, as the years went on, some students and faculty found more reasons not to come.

In response, President Rick Levin decided that the way to help Yale was to help New Haven. He brought in a real estate executive to buy commercial property and build boutiques. With financial incentives, he encouraged employees to live in the least developed neighborhoods. And he lured faculty by helping them turn research into private dollars.

The decade-long effort illustrates the degree to which universities now depend on their communities for stature. More than ever, quality of life and opportunities for faculty to do business are as critical as a sound endowment and a stately quad. But to some, movements like Yale's are, at least in part, self-serving - an attempt to remake towns in the image of their universities, diluting local character in search of national appeal and allure among prospective students.

The motive, and the ideal, for institutions to work in the public interest has been around for a century or more. But Yale's challenges - and its response - are putting a fresh focus on the dynamic between town and gown.

'A more porous community'

In the past few decades, says Paul Bass, editor of the weekly New Haven Advocate, "Yale realized its historic strategy of keeping a moat between itself and the city wouldn't work anymore, given the way the city was changing."

The university's model as an island unto itself had lasted for centuries, especially as New Haven prospered. The City of Elms had become a hub of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution, boasting factories that supplied America with everything from armaments to watches.

Academics celebrated the city's bungalow and row-house communities. Full of trees and interspersed by parks and public squares, early 20th century New Haven had some of the country's most appealing residential areas. But a decision to build Interstate 95 through a prosperous black community here destroyed that lifestyle for thousands. Combined with the collapse of US manufacturing and the exodus of prosperous white residents to the suburbs, New Haven's community cohesion and tax base slowly collapsed.

That trend was of little concern to the university's leadership, say some. During the 1980s, the school's indifference was symbolized by President Benno Schmidt's place of residence - New York City.

"Yale hadn't yet realized that it needed to become a fundamentally more porous community," says Mayor John De Stefano.

It was no coincidence, then, that the man chosen in 1993 to become Yale's new president, economist Rick Levin, had lived here for 20 years. He'd also studied the symbiosis of university and community, prompting him to make New Haven's rehabilitation his top priority. "The big misconception we had to counter was that [New Haven] was a complete wasteland," says President Levin. "It hurt our ability to attract new members of the community."

That mandate has given birth to one of the most creative, comprehensive community-relations efforts in higher education. The university now spends $1.2 million a year to help employees buy homes in New Haven, particularly in low-income neighborhoods with high vacancy rates. It guarantees $5,000 toward a down payment and $2,000 a year for the first five years of ownership. Living in New Haven is now a requirement for all university deans.