Former city transit chief Paul Wessel contributed this opinion article about fencing at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
—- Robert Frost, Mending Wall
I looked forward this year, as I have for many years, to watching the St Patrick’s Day parade from my perch atop a cardio machine at New Haven Fitness. Occupying the old mall food court space, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Chapel Street and the Green, the gym’s a great spot to burn some calories and watch the parade and its crowd safely behind glass walls.
This year there was a new element: storm fencing penned in the crowd on both sides of Chapel Street. Gone was the Norman Rockwell-like quality of kids sitting in strollers and on the curb watching the politicians, Irish dancers, Deep River Fife and Drum Corps and old fire apparatus parade by. Gone too was the normally 20-deep crowd at the curb on a Chapel Street. There was a new dystopian feel to the day. It pissed me off.
New Haven’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade (in addition to too much drinking) is a time when people from every nook and cranny of Connecticut—in kilts, public safety, Star Wars or revolutionary war uniforms; carrying muskets, drums, bagpipes or batons—proudly march in celebration behind their banners. They work all year getting ready to strut their stuff. Spring is always just around the corner. The crowd and marchers turn out no matter how cold or rainy. But that horrible fence killed that feeling. The parade was about hope. That fence was about fear.
“Hope not Fear” was a phrase a I first encountered at a Yale union rally shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Yale New Haven Hospital uses the phrase to frame its breast cancer awareness education. In 2008, a Jewish leader and philanthropist took it for the title of his argument for openness and joy to reinvigorate Judaism in America. The recent celebration of Satchel Ramos’ life at the New Haven Museum again reminded me of the importance of hope in how we face the world. And that damn fence made me think about it some more.
I get it that the cops worry about the drinking, about beer-soaked fights, about public safety. That’s their job. I’m glad they do it. But their professional concern and planning needs to be tempered by wisdom, vision and a sense of a community’s aspirations. This year, that was lacking. It reflects, I fear, a worrisome reluctance to lead from City Hall. (The Mayor does deserve props for putting a politically difficult tax increase on the table.)
Fundamental to a chief elected official’s job is to be the political entity’s number one booster: It goes without saying that you have the honor and privilege of leading the best town/city/county/state in the U.S. “Hope not Fear” is what we every city needs from its mayor.
I was troubled back in January when the Mayor opted to commandeer two cops to drive her from Westville to City Hall and around the city. The optics were bad, and the underlying message was awful. WFSB reported at the time, “It’s not a popular decision, but Harp said she has good reason to want protection. ‘I have had my campaign windows shot out and the [police] chief advises me to do this,’ Harp said.” I didn’t—and don’t—want my mayor acting and saying things like that.
Seeing the fence dredged up that moment, and that worry returned. I don’t want my city run by cops protecting our safety, lawyers fretting about liability, or bean counters preoccupied by the budget. All those people have role to play and their views should weigh in on how our city’s to be run. But at the end of the day, we need a City Hall that radiates New Haven’s promise rather succumbs to its fears. And the St. Patrick’s Day parade should reflect that hope.
In years past, the crowd and marchers were two sides of the same St Patrick’s Day parade coin. Dressed, painted or dyed in green, the crowd blurred the borders between watcher and watched. They blew their green horns. Periodically, a watcher ran out and hugged a friend marching. Cops—a part of the event—mediated the relationship, community-policing style. It was a celebration of us.
This year’s fence drove a sharp wedge between us. As Robert Frost pondered, what were we walling in ... or walling out? What were we saying about New Haven to our Connecticut neighbors in their once-a-year visit to our city? And what did our kids think about this new fence between them and those all-white Irish dancers twirling down Chapel Street? The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is about hope (and too much drinking). That fence was about fear.
So how did it work out? Shortly after the parade began, two young woman, likely drunk, were walking west on Chapel Street from Church. As they approached Temple Street, the cop on duty waved them behind the barricade. The women seemed to have a plan to continue on Chapel towards College, as they probably did in years past. They weren’t over the top or anything. They just wanted to keep walking. Their plan didn’t jibe with the cops’ plan, and soon the police did what they were trained to do. (Police said one of the women kicked a motorcycle and pushed police Officer Cherelle Carr.)
Fortunately, wisdom seemed to prevail by the time I left the gym. The cops had backed down; they were watchful but not overly aggressive as people spilled into the street. People had even started to pull the fence down.
At Church and Chapel, the crowd participated free-range as they always have, watching the 501st Legion Connecticut Garrison Conn Squad (“Connecticut’s Definitive Imperial Costuming Organization - Serving the Emperor Proud Since 2005”) doing its thing on the way to the City Hall viewing stand. St Patrick’s Day Parade as it was meant to be.
So please, City Hall, let’s remember what New Haven’s always been about. People from a lot of different places, going a lot of different ways, growing together to be the best we can be. We’re a hopeful people. Don’t fence us in.