In a who-really-runs-New-Haven moment, Yale law professor Drew Days, a “proprietor of the Green” and a former Bill Clinton appointee, barred the press and a local historian Monday from watching the opening of two time capsules unearthed from the city’s central square. Even the mayor couldn’t change his mind.
Days overruled the state archaeologist handling the operation in a building at Quinnipiac University’s North Haven campus, as well as the mayor.
Days was there to watch the state archeologist and Quinnipiac professors open up two time capsules that were recently discovered beneath the New Haven’s great Lincoln Oak Tree, which toppled during Superstorm Sandy.
Click the play arrow to see Days and others board an elevator to go open the capsule, while denying a reporter access.
The police department’s bomb squad X-rayed the concrete barrel found under the tree at the suggestion of a citizen historian named Rob Greenberg. Greenberg had developed a theory that the barrel contained a time capsule.
He was proved right when two sealed copper tubes were found inside the barrel. Civic leaders had buried the capsules on April 10, 1909.
Technically the capsules belong not to the public or to the government but to a shadowy self-elected group called The Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven, aka The Proprietors of the Green. The group’s five members have technically owned the 16-acre New Haven Green, and elected their successors, since the early 17th century. They contract with the city’s parks department to tend to the park but make all major decisions about it in private.
That fact came to public attention last year during the Occupy New Haven encampment on the Green, when protesters learned that this private group, not the city, was evicting them (hiring the city’s cops and parks department to carry out the deed). At the time, attorney Norm Pattis sought unsuccessfully in federal court to end the private group’s control of the quasi-public Green. Read about that here and here.
“Funny, isn’t it,” Pattis wrote at the time, “how when the state or a municipality wants to take property from a little guy and turn it to public use, the doctrine of eminent domain is relied upon to take property. But when old money owns the public space, it goes underground, conducts its business in secret, seeks legislative privilege and then asks us to thank it for being able to use their private property.”
Fast forward to this weekend. Proprietor Days—the former U.S. solicitor general under President Bill Clinton and a current Yale law professor—attended the city’s 375th birthday celebration on the Green (approved in advance by his group). He participated with parks employees in an event marking the discovery of the two time capsules and inviting the public to guess what is inside. The plan was to have experts open the capsules on Monday at Quinnipiac.
At the Sunday event, Quinnipiac adjunct professor Bob Lombardo, one of those experts, invited an Independent reporter to attend Monday’s capsule opening. Then a parks employee, Sabrina Bruno, intervened, saying the Proprietors would not approve.
That evening, Days was asked by email for permission to cover the event. He replied that he would not grant that permission.
“If the process were going to be one that involved only a mechanical, quick, uncomplicated opening of the capsules, like opening a can of Pringles, I think that your position would make sense,” he responded. “My understanding, however, is that it may be a very careful, laborious and prolonged effort involving procedures necessary, among other things, to ensure that some items in the capsule are not damaged by extended exposure to air. Consequently, I believe that it makes sense to proceed with caution and not to create a ‘press conference’ environment at the opening itself.”
After a second request, Days responded: “Look ... If it turns out that the folk responsible for opening the capsules tomorrow morning see no problem with you and other members of the press (What makes you think that you will be the only member of the press present?) observing the opening of the capsules, I will reconsider my position then.”
On Monday morning the “folk responsible for the opening” were consulted. State archeologist Nick Bellantoni told a reporter at the scene of the opening that he had no problem with a reporter being present—as long as it was OK with Days.
Then Days emerged from a lab. He said he forbade the press from attending the opening. He introduced a new reason for the denial: He said it wouldn’t be fair to other reporters who weren’t present.
Another interested party showed up: Greenberg, the citizen historian who first came up with the idea of scrutinizing the capsules. He, too, sought to watch the operation, as he had at two previous steps in the process. (Click here and here to read about those and click the video to watch him with the city bomb squad.)
Greenberg made it into the third-floor lab where the technicians were working Monday, only to be ejected by the parks department’s Bruno. She told him she had looked at his Facebook page, where he had complained about not getting credit for his work bringing the capsules to light.
“It’s just like Indiana Jones,” said Greenberg, seething outside the lab. He was referring to the scene where the Nazis, having stolen the Ark of the Covenant, open it in secret on a mountaintop with their own cameras rolling.
Greenberg said that before he was kicked out he saw the capsules on a table in the lab, with a camera set up to document the process.
“Why wouldn’t they let in the guy who started it?” Greenberg vented. “It’s disrespectful to the public. It’s disrespectful to me. It’s disrespectful to everyone.”
Then Mayor John DeStefano telephoned Days. DeStefano argued that the press should be present. Days would not change his decision.
At that point the city staffers present left the premises.
City spokeswoman Anna Mariotti said the proprietors will be holding a public event at 2:30 p.m. in City Hall to display what they found inside the capsules. The event is open to all, she said.