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My Divided Neighborhood

by Claire Simonich | Nov 8, 2013 3:29 pm

(17) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Citizen Contributions, Opinion, Dwight, Campaign 2013

Claire Simonich (pictured), a first-year law student at Yale, sent in this essay about voting on Tuesday for the first time in New Haven.

On Tuesday, I voted in the New Haven election. I registered with a kind and competent staff in city hall and voted with the help of friendly volunteers at the polls.

I recently moved to New Haven from Glastonbury, an affluent and quiet suburb. In Glastonbury, I voted each year in the middle school I had attended. I drove down an idyllic fall road to the polls and often encountered former classmates or teachers in the halls. The experience was comfortable and sheltered.

This summer, I moved to the Chapel West/Dwight neighborhood to attend Yale Law School. For the past months, I’ve touted my neighborhood as an ideal model for city development. The Chapel West Special Services District is active and visible, with folks cleaning up trash and placing decorations. The neighborhood has a mix of graduate students, low-income residents and commercial tenants. Confining myself to the two block radius that I defined as “mine,” I was blissfully unaware of the larger neighborhood surrounding me.

When I registered to vote, I was excited to be placed in Ward 2. I could have been in Wards 1 or 7 where many Yale students live, but I appreciated my association with a more diverse district. I was excited to vote at Troup Academy, a local school I hadn’t visited.

On Tuesday morning, I walked half a mile west on Edgewood to my polling place. In one short block, my simple image of Chapel West changed. Foreclosed homes bordered empty lots. Rubbish lay in the streets next to neglected “neighborhood cleanup” signs. The streets were remarkably quiet; the only bustle heard was blocks away as students headed to campus.

Nobody that I encountered looked like me. With my blonde hair and hurried step, I stuck out and I felt out. This outsider feeling was new and disconcerting. I plan to work in civil rights. I’ve visited Central American villages as the first white person seen in years. I fancy myself rather empathetic. But this feeling of exclusion in my own neighborhood shook any belief in my powers of empathy. This felt different. This might be how minorities feel in predominately white contexts like the law school. What an identity crisis.

My crisis was exacerbated by the voting context. As James Berger noted in his opinion “Can we see past Black and White?” the mayoral election is sharply divided along racial lines. I felt torn between my professional colleagues at Yale in the Elicker camp and the signs in my dilapidated neighborhood calling for Harp. How could I fit in in this ward? How could my interests be the same as folks facing foreclosure, crime, and sharp racial divisions? Of course, democratic elections mean that we can have different interests. If Dwight integrates further, these interests will become more of a discussion and less of a dividing line.

This dividing line grew brighter when I returned to the law school. I entered buzzing with disappointment, excitement, and sociologic insights. Yet students and professors discussed the New York City election with no mention of New Haven. I suspect few students registered in New Haven or voted at all. Election Day was bright and vivid in Dwight. Volunteers and colorful signs peppered Troup Academy. Though I was the only voter in the polling place, Election Day was palpable in Dwight and silent at the law school.

Voting in New Haven reinforced that this city is my home. But it also reinforced my alienation. As a Yale student, I live a very different life than families in foreclosed homes one block away. We all have much to learn from each other and much to gain from a dissolved dividing line. Voting is a powerful way to break down this line. 

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posted by: anonymous on November 8, 2013  4:19pm

I appreciate the reflection. I have often felt the same way when traveling within intensely divided cities for the first time. 

However, generally you want to visit a neighborhood at least a few times before you think you understand or can write about it, especially when it is so different from your own (not just historically or culturally, but also in terms of physical composition and density). 

Although Dwight has some vacant lots and visible decay in a few pockets, it also has many cohesive streets, and there are areas with much higher homeownership rates a few blocks in any direction.

If this article suggests anything, it’s that the city needs to focus much more on the physical decay which becomes the image of some of our city blocks.  Decay may seem like a minor signs of trouble compared to police activity, but in reality it is a potent psychological and physical marker which causes people and investment to steer clear of an area.  Police activity is troublesome, but generally a response to a specific incident that might be reversible next month. Meanwhile, decaying buildings establish perceptions across generations.

Disorder also impacts walkability. I go far out of my way to avoid streets that I know are likely to be covered with broken glass or litter, in favor of more well-kept routes. This is not because of fear, it is simply because it is unpleasant to walk through so much trash with your friends or family.

Unfortunately, Harp and Nemerson are not going to be able to succeed in their plan to revitalize Dixwell Plaza without addressing the simple problems that surround it, which this author has clearly illustrated.  Few are going to walk, shop, or want to live there, no matter how many tens of millions of dollars are spent on a new structure or retail strip. Try walking from the Apple Store to just the first block of Dixwell Ave - the trash and broken glass increases exponentially every 100 feet, even though the entire area is owned by Yale.

posted by: Carl Goldfield on November 8, 2013  4:35pm

The lady doth project too much methinks.

posted by: David S Baker on November 8, 2013  4:53pm

After twelve years of public school being taught “color blind” is the best route to race equality, being in the thick of the reality came as quite a shock to me too.  Biology teaches that our differences are minuscule products of evolving in different environments and have no bearing on our minds, but humans are victims of the causes and conditions they are immersed in from birth.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on November 8, 2013  6:02pm

I don’t know if “divided” is an appropriate adjective to use here.

This “neighborhood” is one of the oldest settled areas of the city - beginning more or less at Park Street between Whalley and George and then extending to Sherman Avenue - it initially grew in the Canal Age and Antebellum Era as a satellite village of the Nine Squares with a focus on manufacturing particularly horse-drawn carriages. This satellite village contained a mix of workshops & small factories owned by wealthy New Haveners who lived in large houses in the area of Dwight and Chapel. These factories employed unskilled laborers who lived in housing tenements in the area around Elm Street. These laborers supported small stores owned by a middle class of shopkeepers who lived in modest houses on side streets. These populations supported various civic organizations and institutions like Churches and clubs in “The West Village” (modern day Dwight/Kensington and Chapel West). In the late 19th Century and through the first half of the 20th century, the West Village continued to grow with larger factories, commercial establishments and tenements began to replace the mansions along Chapel Street, and remaining unbuilt lots east of Sherman Avenue became populated with multi-family houses and small apartment buildings. The wealthiest residents moved to areas like Prospect Hill, middle class residents moved to areas like Edgewood, and a definitively working class character emerged. However, after WW2 the area declined along with manufacturing and by the turn of the 21st Century, this area was home to an underclass, a large working class, and a small middle class. Vacant lots, closed businesses and abandoned buildings were visible parts of the area. However, real estate investment moving west from park Street in the last 20 years has begun to change the area with mostly positive results.

The West Village is a product of history, predominantly Antebellum and Industrial urban growth patterns.

posted by: wendy1 on November 8, 2013  9:42pm

NEW HAVEN is a divided city and always has been.  Jim Crow still lives here.  The South won the Civil War.  Most CT towns are white with few blacks while Hartford, NH, and Bridgeport etc. are mostly ghettos.

When I first moved here from NYC, I got an invitation to join the CT chapter of KKK.  As a nurse at Yale I noted all the dirty dangerous jobs with poor pay were held by black and brown people which made me feel ashamed.  I also found that there were no blacks in management at that time.

Years later NH citizens tried to get the head of Varick Mem. Church, a young black man from Yale Divinity School, onto the Yale BOD with no luck.

Yale treats New Haveners like cannon fodder or easily replaced field hands and has no shame about existing in a ghetto or in a town where people are excluded, hungry, debased, ignored and worse.  I see men and women sleeping in the parks and next to the train tracks.  I wrote Salovey months ago…no reply.  I guess he’s too busy being emotionally intelligent.

One block from the farmers’ market here is a long “breadline” at the Episcopal church.  Guess which one is mostly people of color.

posted by: Bill Saunders on November 9, 2013  12:20am

Claire,

You know, I walk these same streets, and, for the most part, I see regular humans. (not to say that there aren’t ‘situations’ you might scary).  But I am a 49 year old man who has lived here for 23 years.

Next time,  walk with a friend. It’s common sense.
Neighborhoods can change quick.  Be Safe.

Don’t be surprised at ‘diversity’ , and don’t be a target..

Were those homes mentioned in your article really ‘Foreclosed”, or was that just exaggeration for effect.???..... Save the hyperbole.

There are real people out there struggling…

posted by: OneGod on November 9, 2013  6:29am

Hi Claire Simonich… eye feel you on the division. The problem is although we fought to integrate our schools and communities, we still have a lot of work to do, and it start with ourselves. Eye’m a Poet in New Haven who runs a poetry venue the First Friday of every month (except January), and we look to have a diverse crowd a much as possible. The idea is to set a platform for our communities to speak their truths, whether it be through Song or Rhyme… maybe just take that three minute to talk about something. It would be great to see Yale come through and break bread with us. It’s located at the People’s Center (37 Howe St. 7pm)feel free to help spread the word to your colleagues. You can start by adding me on FB under Baub Bidon, Like FREE 2 SPIT’s page: http://www.facebook.com/free2spit. Our last joint till February of 2014 is on December 6th. Looking forward in meeting and building with you and your friends. The People’s Center has a rich History and eye would like to educate you more about it if you like… you also get to meet the great young people “The New Elm City Dream” who have been the heartbeat of this great town of New Haven. You are so welcome love :-)

posted by: wendy1 on November 9, 2013  7:38am

I have more to say.  Why is it African American history isn’t taught in school.  Why is it that lynching existed until 1970 and Congress refused to apologize for it.  Why is it that rich white people give money to the arts which most people cant afford to enjoy while black and brown people go hungry and homeless in the streets obvious to everyone.  Greed and denial.

Go see 12 Years at the Criterion for a little taste of slavery.  There are thousands of amazing books by and about black heroes and martyrs just in the US.  Self-educate!!  I just read Haarlem Nocturne.  Did you know that during WWII German POWs ate with white soldiers (US) but blacks did not.  Our country is a very racist one.  Ask any black man.  I do.

posted by: Think About It on November 9, 2013  10:25am

Instead of separated by race, did you people (author & NHI) ever think that maybe the vote is separated by ideological lines.  Lines that are drawn out early in life, values that are taught throughout life, and thoughts on who bares the responsibility of the individual.  In my conversations with many of different races, there tends to be more of a “Government is the answer” attitude among African Americans.  If there is a problem in schools, Government is the answer.  If there is a problem with job-site diversity, Government is the answer.  If there is a disproportionate outcome in results, Government is the answer.  When does the individual bare the responsibility for their situation?  When do parents own the blame for poor academic participation leading to poor results.  Not saying Government cannot help, but they are not the sole answer to any solution, and that is what Tony Harp offers—Government as the only solution, whereas, Elicker offered a new direction of individual responsibility, and smaller Government.  Maybe, just maybe, that was the difference, and not race.

posted by: Jlpjr on November 9, 2013  5:15pm

Permit me to say that the Yale Law School Community & Economic Development Clinic has represented the Greater Dwight Development Corporation for over twenty years.  We have been their counsel (and partner) on their Montessori School, their shopping center & new fueling station [Elm & Orchard], their community meeting space, and their housing work; we even helped with their legal formation and charity tax status.

My message in this: Yale Law School students do NOT need to feel—or be—isolated from their neighborhood surroundings.  Claire is a first-year, so has not been able to become actively involved in our law school clinical programs yet.  But she and her classmates are welcomed and encouraged to sign up for clinical work this coming Spring Term, when they are first allowed to do so. Like voting, it is a great way to get connected.

posted by: Yaakov on November 10, 2013  12:20am

I’m frankly shocked that this piece was published. Claire’s descriptions smack of the naiveté that perpetuates the divisions in our city. That she’s so jarred to find out that she lives in a diverse urban neighborhood, and that this diversity engenders in her an identity crisis is shocking, but not nearly as shocking as the author’s willingness to initially paint her entire neighborhood with the broad brush of her experience in a “two block radius,” and then to paint it again with a her new experience walking half a mile down Edgewood Ave. Once.

Like the author, I too appear white. I also live in the Dwight neighborhood (directly across from the Augusta Lewis Troup School (not the Troup Academy, as you call it). Granted, it seems that she walked from the gentrified corner of our neighborhood past a rough-looking two blocks (Edgewood, between Garden and Orchard), but despite this her eagerness to use her limited experience to color an entire neighborhood smacks of the kind of thinking that inspires the Yale community to red-line in the first place. My experiences walking along these same streets every day could not be more different from hers.

When my family and I moved to the neighborhood we did so intentionally. While we moved here initially because my wife was studying at Yale, we had little interest in segregating ourselves from a real city, which despite more than its fair share of struggles, is full of wonderful people and opportunities. We are involved. There is more to this city than the pictures in the Yale brochure!

If you want to get to know the neighborhood, get involved. Don’t make yourself part of the majority of the Yale community that segregates itself from the rest of New Haven. Become part of the growing number of Yale graduate students who are rejecting the red lines.

New Haven is full of wonderful communities. Don’t be so quick to judge us.

posted by: Bill Saunders on November 10, 2013  4:46am

T.A.P.,

You hinted at something I was saving for Rob’n in another thread, but you gave the great set-up, so here it goes…..

From the PRIVILEGED WHITE side , the issue can easily be ‘dismissed’ as ‘Race’.  Just look at the numbers, you MBA types with High East Rock Taxes.. 

But from the OTHER SIDE it might be better ‘construed’ as a TRUE expression of Cultural Identity, History, in a Personal Say that Recognized the long struggle .

Outcomes are yet unknown.
All Parties have decidedly checked in.

But never forget, Citizens, if you exercise it, 
WE can have the loudest voice.

posted by: Brutus2011 on November 10, 2013  11:56am

So much to comment upon. I would like to respond to the posts by “Wendy1.”

I am glad “Wendy1” responded to Ms. Simonisch’s opinion piece.

“Wendy1” experience and opinion closely mirrors mine except for the KKK invitation—I would never, ever receive one, thank goodness.

I would like to focus on “Wendy1” question as to why African-American history is not taught in our schools.

I know that some will opine that AA history IS taught in our schools but I am here to tell you that when it is, it is taught as an afterthought. And, many times it is taught by someone who teaches it as though it were abstract concept punctuated by errors in facts. Example: my child came home and told me that she learned about the 10% rule in determining the race of an individual in American history. I had to explain to her that it was the “one-drop rule,” (not the 10% rule) or that if a person had one drop of black blood then that person was considered to be non-white in America. And yes, that teacher was not African-American although I thought he was a good teacher overall.

I don’t know what the answer is to make the chimera of racial prejudice dissipate and how to lift folks out from this caste system of skin color.

I used to think activism and spirited informed debate would work but now I don’t see much hope of anything but incremental change even if one becomes educated.

And this opinion piece seems to confirm my near-despair.

posted by: markcbm on November 10, 2013  2:09pm

C’mon folks, lets not bite into Ms. Simonich too hard.  She fully acknowledges in her article that she was blissfully unaware of how quickly and sharply hoods change in New Haven.  This rude awakening is a quintessential Yale experience.

Simonich doesn’t make any grand statements about what we colloquially know as the Tre, other than to say it was hardscrabble and that voting was alive at Troup, that most of her fellow Elis had not given much mind to New Haven elections, and that voting can help bridge that gap. Are these statements really all that disagreeable?

Of course, a single trip on election day does not a representative sample make.  Nor does a Yalie simply voting in a local election imply that any socio-spatial boundaries have been bridged (Yalies who voted in East Rock, for example, crossed no boundaries).

Lets put it all in perspective and remember two things.  One: thousands of Yalies make an even longer pilgrimage through the ‘hood when they walk to Yale Bowl for The Game (football trumps democracy when it comes to boundary crossing in New Haven.  Don’t believe me?  Wait two weeks).

Two: don’t forget Simonich is from Glastonbury.  She is New to the Haven.  Give her a break.  Welcome her to town.  Then snatch her bike.

posted by: Seth P on November 10, 2013  6:10pm

I, for one, would like to thank Ms. Simonich for sharing her perspective.  Unfortunately, we are divided.  This division is a learned behavior that we cannot seem to suppress.  IT is only through open and honest dialogue that we can find common ground upon which to build a collective future.

“One block from the farmers’ market here is a long “breadline” at the Episcopal church.  Guess which one is mostly people of color.” -Wendy1

Thank you for pointing out this very obvious dichotomy.  I wonder if the farmers market donates shared to the soup kitchen.

posted by: NewHaven06511 on November 11, 2013  7:27pm

Glastonbury is “united” one supposes, and New Haven “divided”—which seems to read in this context as negative. Perhaps rather Glastonbury is segregated and New Haven is all mixed up. The fact that there’s diversity here is a plus—even if we don’t always seize it and try to make the sum more than the parts (though we do that, too). The Glastonburies are not the solution, nor the ideal. They are the places that need to be changed, too.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on November 12, 2013  8:55am

Think About It said: “Elicker offered a new direction of individual responsibility, and smaller Government.” Last I checked, he did NOT run as a Republican—but as a Democrat disguised as “Independent”. And indeed, he WAS independent of the local party Machine—but not of the fundamental philosophy of the Democratic Party. And, in the three wards that DID offer a GOP alternative to the standard “fix-it-with-tax-dollars-‘til-we’re-broke” approach, union-corralled voters dutifully chose instead to stick with same-old, same-old. Think About It: “there tends to be more of a ‘Government is the answer’ attitude among African Americans.” That, in fact, is the “attitude” of ANY Democrat—regardless of race. It’s difficult to see this Dem vs. GOP difference in New Haven, because we essentially have only one party, and at the Federal level the difference is reduced to emotional, caricatured sound bites. Where the essential party-specific philosophies are more clearly contrasted is in our state govt. as well as in those Greater New Haven towns that have a healthy balance between Dems and Republicans—i.e. where voters actually have a choice at each election, unlike New Haven’s Soviet Bloc, 1-party style of governance.

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