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.
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.
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posted by: anonymous on April 29, 2013 12:37pm
Nonsense - as much as I appreciate the Proprietors, this park needs to be returned to its rightful owner (the City) ASAP.
Can the Mayoral candidates speak on that?
posted by: TheMadcap on April 29, 2013 12:41pm
So, when can we just use eminent domain and seize the green from them.
posted by: DRAD on April 29, 2013 12:49pm
Once there was very likely an excellent reason for the existence of the Proprietors and for their independent management of the important space. Now - this construct for managing the Green is indefensible, elitist, ant-democratic and . . . just plain wrong. The idea that a group of independently perpetuated folk (most of whom do not live or vote in New Haven or pay taxes to New Haven) have control of the most vital piece of public real estate in the City is obviously at best anachronistic and at worst an institutionalization of “ruling class” that has no place in any American community.
posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 29, 2013 12:52pm
I am with these guys. This is our history. Our city and to exclude our most local of local press from being part of documenting this for ALL to see, not just a privileged few, is a bit disgusting! Yea we will get to know what is in it…but we the people should be able to watch it unfold…not just see a few photos. WRONG WRONG WRONG. Take back the green!!
posted by: robn on April 29, 2013 12:53pm
Pretty grinchy and totally unnecessary. Worst decision by Days since he decided to back a mayoral candidate Fernandez who is not participating in the Democracy Fund.
posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 29, 2013 1:08pm
Is The Proprietors of the Green part of skull and bones?
posted by: Nathan on April 29, 2013 1:13pm
Two words: alien artifacts. I’m not referring to the contents of the time capsules, of course, but rather the Proprietors.
More seriously, it would be hard to imagine more poorly dealing with the press and the citizen that deserves the credit for the discovery.
posted by: Curious on April 29, 2013 1:27pm
So the Police Department expended funds on getting the x-rays done on the capsules, and then Days denies the public the right to be at the opening? That’s not okay. I hope he gets billed for the PD’s time.
posted by: REM on April 29, 2013 2:04pm
Good call, Curious. He taps the cities resources to make sure it’s safe to open and then just runs off to some secret lab to reveal the contents to a select few??? They say they will display the contents to the public later, but how will we know it’s all there? LOL.
But mostly, it is a huge middle finger to the city and its people to be denied full participation in this awesome moment in New Haven history. It doesn’t make sense. What are they hiding/going to hide? The Green SHOULD belong to the city. This is just more secret society, old money horse shit. The time capsules do not belong to them! Let’s not let them go the way of Geronimo’s bones.
posted by: Curious on April 29, 2013 2:21pm
Is Days a mason? Someone suggested there were masonic symbols on these capsules.
posted by: Bill Saunders on April 29, 2013 2:25pm
Since the Green is essentially Private, maybe the self-interested Proprietors should start paying property tax with the rest of us strapped land-owners…..
posted by: RCguy on April 29, 2013 2:27pm
Where can we see the X-Ray’s up close?
posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 29, 2013 2:30pm
I have a live web cast of my street from my computer it took all of 5 min. to set it up. At the least they could of did a live web feed to the opening. All it take is a lab top or a i phone.
posted by: Dee Rien on April 29, 2013 4:13pm
Yes, please, New Haven, send Mr. Days a bill for every second of time on the city’s tab spent recovering and investigating these time capsules. A bill for the Parks Dept. to dig them up, a bill for the bomb squad’s x-rays (both equipment and manpower), a bill from whoever moved the cement block and copper tubes from place to place. A bill for storage of the cement block. Every last penny.
posted by: alycia on April 29, 2013 4:16pm
Lame. Totally lame. When can we get our Green back?
posted by: new haven teacher on April 29, 2013 4:26pm
It should be noted that had the Proprietors not had control of the green, the city would’ve have sold it to Yale years ago.
posted by: Bill Saunders on April 29, 2013 4:27pm
And pay Rob Greenberg a consulting fee…....If it weren’t for him, these miscreants would have nothing to do.
posted by: RCguy on April 29, 2013 5:08pm
We can retroactively complain about not seeing the actual unwrapping this morning or we can demand to see digital versions of the Greenberg X-rays immediately
Can the Editor produce these? Did anyone take photos?
Perhaps we will see some meaningful turn-of-the-century symbolism.
posted by: Bill Saunders on April 29, 2013 9:08pm
I think the Proprietor’s didn’t want anybody else attending the opening in case they found something ‘priceless’ in this Time Capsule.
posted by: beyonddiscussion on April 30, 2013 12:21am
The arrogance and pseudo superiority is outrageous. This should be the end of the Proprietors arrangement. The Green belongs to the people of New Haven not to such puffed up relics.
posted by: viewer on April 30, 2013 8:32am
This “proprietor” thing must end. It is a throwback to colonial times and an affront to the public, which should control its own town green. The proprietors exploit city resources and taxpayer funds to maintain the Green, insure it, upgrade it and for all manner of other things, including most recently using the police dept. and its equipment in connection with the capsule find. The city’s mayor and the public should not have to go begging for permission to this anachronistic crew of old dinosaurs for everything concerning the Green. These proprietors are answerable to who? Making this even more offensive is that some of the proprietors do not even live (and pay taxes in) New Haven. And they include “progressives” such as Drew Days and Anne Calabresi, but these so-called liberals seem to relish the authoritarian and aristocratic role they have as modern-day colonial era czars of the Green. Hypocrites, no? The City should cut off all money, funding, insurance, and city resources to them. And better still, tell them to give up their thrones or the City will take the Green by eminent domain.
posted by: Atwater on April 30, 2013 9:45am
@new haven teacher: Do you have any proof to back up your allegation that New Haven would have sold the Green to Yale if not for the proprietors?
Also, this issue of the Green shows the fundamental weakness of the people of New Haven. If they are so interested in re-claiming the Green for the public then they should act towards that end, i.e. mass protests, lobbying the BOA and other means to re-secure public ownership of the public space. Unless and until the people take drastic steps to change this arrangement it will remain as it is, and every few years a small group of vocal critics will air their grievances without effect.
posted by: Walt on April 30, 2013 10:26am
Is Days now authorized to decide and speak for the Proprietors? If answered in the story, I missed it,
Memory says that until Dick Lee’s terms as Mayor, the group was self-perpetuating with families like the Hookers, maybe Trowbridges etc voting in sons or grandsons when the old man passed on.
Dick Lee either got the rules changed or pressured the group into opening the slots to Blacks and women rather than being hereditary as I recall.
Still the Proprietors were a rather pompous group with which I ran afoul many years ago re the old Santa, reindeer and sleigh which used to hang eighty feet over the Green during the Christmas season (They won of course, but their gripe was sensible. The shed covering the lighting connections had become rain-worn and did need replacement so it was done)
Later they may have been involved with the permanent removal of Santa from the Green, but I was not,
The only one I knew of who beat the Proprietors was one of Elizabeth Taylor’s many husbands who wanted his helicopter to land on the Green He just did it, ignoring the Proprietors, who became quite upset
I am a little surprised that so many commenters believe that local elected government is better equipped than the Proprietors to make good decisions for the New Haven Green. The point of the group is to prevent short-sighted, expedient, opportunistic treatment of our city’s great public space—these are real risks in an age of fiscal insecurity for cities. In the 1950s, for example, the city and its redevelopment authority wanted to put a parking lot under the Green (the same was done at Boston Common). The proprietors said “no.”
Will the proprietors always make the right decision? Of course not; and I agree that the time capsule should be made public. And do many commenters also think that the proprietors were especially unfair to Occupy New Haven? I don’t. New Haven was among the most tolerant cities of this vital social movement which suffered as much from internal dissension as from outside interference.