Selling High Street


“A city is measured by the character of its institutions. The street is one of its first institutions. Today these institutions are on trial,” declared architect Louis Kahn in a 1971 address to the American Institute of Architects. Fifty years later, the crisis of the street persists. Although the pandemic generated real efforts to reinvigorate the life of the sidewalk (like New York’s Open Streets program), walkable cities in a car-centric world require intention, investment, and, ideally, solidarity—a collective willingness to resist automobile authoritarianism, and to reorient our lives around new infrastructure. 

 On November 17, Yale announced a plan to close a narrow section of High Street from Chapel to Elm to automobile traffic. University-designated parties will submit a design proposal for the block to the City of New Haven, and Yale will assume total responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the grounds. The plan has met with community skepticism. Writing for the New Haven Independent, Thomas Breen asks, “How is this different from selling a street?” 

Anything approximating an answer to this question must be understood in the context of half a century of urban upheaval in New Haven and across the nation. Here in the Elm City, infrastructural inequality—uneven access to transportation, food, parks and other public amenities—intersects with growing hostility between Yale and New Haven. Depending on who you ask, the university is either a critical driver for economic and cultural development, or an occupying, extractive force bending the city to its will for the enjoyment of an elite few. 

In his essay “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar,” the philosopher André Gorz claims,   “Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else.” The car is a private entity, a consumer good, but it has overtaken the public domain—even remade it in its image. The history of industrial capitalism is the history of the enclosure and privatization of the commons, and the defining role of the personal vehicle is inextricable from any twentieth-century telling of that history. Automotive infrastructure remains the defining feature of urban life, but it’s also one of its greatest scourges. Meaningful alternatives continue to elude us; investments in public transportation, pedestrian zones and bike lanes are increasingly heralded as potential harbingers of gentrification and greenwashing. Who are such things really for? Who are they meant to attract? Who might they displace? 

Critical theorists and planners alike have almost universally sought to problematize American car culture and its legacy in our prevailing urban forms as slavish, short-sighted, and deeply destructive. Kahn was early in perceiving the now widely-understood potential of the automobile to disrupt and destabilize the city center. His 1952 Traffic Study in Philadelphia envisioned a reordering of urban transportation, designing a downtown serviced exclusively by buses and trucks, while constructing a “girdle of expressways and parking towers circling the city center, [which] metaphorically recalled the walls and towers that protected the medieval cities of Europe… Kahn’s specific comparison was to the largely medieval town of Carcassonne, in the South of France: just as Carcassonne was a city built for defense, Kahn envisioned the modern city center having to defend itself against the automobile.” 

But car-centric development was already well underway. By the end of the 1950s, New Haven received more per-capita funding for urban renewal than any other city in America. Under Mayor Dick Lee, the Redevelopment Authority set about declaring whole swaths of dense, decaying mixed-use developments “blighted” and subsequently razing them to the ground, displacing tens of thousands of residents and rending the fabric of their neighborhood communities. In their place, the city built the highways which themselves have become symbols of an outmoded, totalitarian urbanism — so much so that the much-maligned Oak Street Connector to the I-91 and I-95 interchange is now being actively unbuilt in a multi-stage project known as Downtown Crossing. (This plan, too, is heavily subsidized by Yale, which is building a massive biotechnology research and entrepreneurship facility at 101 College Street.)

The university’s previous efforts to remake life at the edges of its campus have generated a profound resentment among many New Haveners. The muted reception of the High Street plan must be understood in the context of the cataclysmic remaking of Broadway. Local journalist Michael Lee-Murphy wrote on his blog that the project served “to effectively keep the non-White and poorer populations of the predominantly Black Dixwell neighborhood away from Yale… Ethnic and economic cleansing was the desire as well as the result.” Meanwhile, a far more sympathetic profile of the Broadway redevelopment and its contriver, Bruce Alexander, appeared in the New Haven Register. A former mall developer, Alexander was the University’s first Vice-President of New Haven and State Affairs. He’s the man responsible for Yale’s earlier outright purchase and pedestrianization of Wall Street between York and College, which is now named Alexander Walk in his honor. For the Register, Ed Stannard reported that Alexander “was walking on York Street near Broadway and noticing litter and storefronts such as barbershops and liquor stores. Since Yalies went through the area on the way to the Yale Co-op, he thought it needed an upgrade.”

Alexander makes no effort whatsoever to obscure the intended clientele of his project, later named “The Shops at Yale.” The commercial enterprises he considers undesirable are somewhat baffling given their obvious utility to the student population. Similar establishments remain on or in the vicinity of Broadway. Community and cultural establishments like the Co-op, however — and Cutler’s Records, and the York Square Cinema — are well and truly gone. 

The development has made infrastructural apartheid more visible than ever. If you travel west of Broadway on foot via Whalley Avenue, past Howe Street, you’re immediately confronted by the fact that there are no longer any discernible investments in walkability. White-striped pedestrian crossings are conspicuously absent. Each commercial establishment is accessible only through the parking lot. The widened scale of the street makes clear that the setting is meant to be viewed only fleetingly through the passenger-side window. 

In post-industrial society, the artificial generation of demand for the automobile and the building of infrastructure in its service have transformed the urban landscape. This reflects a more fundamental transformation in the way we understand the earth. Land is seen primarily for its productive capacity and its potential to generate capital, rather than as a source of food and shelter. Civic space is infrastructure space. Formerly common areas are now tangles of highways. What was once a luxury item has become a fundamental prerequisite for mobility in the modern metropolis.  

But as preservationist Jane Jacobs argues in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building… [Planners] do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow.” 

Although best-known for her advocacy in New York’s Greenwich Village, Jacobs dedicates several pages in Death and Life to the particular context of urbanism in New Haven. The city’s traffic commissioner, William McGrath, tells Jacobs, “[T]he realistic way to get pedestrian streets in a heavily used downtown is to bollix up the use of the street for cars—to the point that ‘only a driver with a hole in his head would pick such a route after he tried it a time or two.’” Once the motorist has been thoroughly inconvenienced, the “pedestrian street can be formalized without much jolt to anybody.”   

Jacobs and McGrath present a regionally-informed framework for understanding the High Street plan. In this city in particular, given the brutality wrought by urban renewal, the inclination to celebrate the expansion of non-automotive infrastructure is strong. It feels as though the High Street plan should have been met with applause: pedestrians and bicyclists, long relegated to the literal and imaginative peripheries of the street, will be reclaiming their place in the city center. Certainly the development will improve the experience of many student commuters to LC. Yet the High Street plan falls far short of fulfilling Kahn’s dream of the street as a “room of agreement,” defined by “a sense of rapport, of commonness, of all bells ringing in unison.” 

Broadway, Alexander Walk, and High Street must be understood as part of a larger pattern of opposition to sharing the sidewalk. Before any of these developments, over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the university reoriented itself inward even as it expanded its reach into the city. The Old Brick Row—a linear grouping of simple, colonial-style brick buildings with wooden shutters, approachable and comprehensible from any side—gave way to fortified and imposing Gothic revival dormitories enclosing a green space now known as Old Campus. The “conspicuous corner” of College and Chapel Streets, once home to the ostentatiously Romanesque Osborn Hall, is now the site of the austere Bingham Hall. In her history of Yale’s grounds from 1850-1920, Juliette Guilbert wrote, “Shunning openness, Yale [has] pursued full quadrangle enclosure… the school’s design agenda reflected a set of social circumstances and ideologies which, much like the Yale of today, was perched on the fault lines of class, racial, and ethnic conflicts.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yale restricted access to Old Campus—long known and loved as an architecturally significant public place in the heart of downtown—to university ID holders. According to Thomas Breen, when asked at the press conference at which he announced the High Street plan about the status of the reopening of the quadrangle to the public, university president Peter Salovey demurred. As the sovereign rulers of the space for the foreseeable future, Yale students pull back polyester curtains and survey their kingdom from the heart of downtown.

The global transition to automotive infrastructure has similarly facilitated surveillance at a new scale. Networks of highways gave rise to a new paradigm of oversight from the overpass. For the first time, commuters had the ability to spectate upon—or skip over entirely—the density and poverty that had come to demarcate the center of the American city in an age of deindustrialization, outsourcing, and offshoring. This was a new kind of dominion, a literal hierarchy in which the top rung was occupied by elite suburbanites who, for the first time, could “extend class differences to speed” (per Gorz) as they entered the city each weekday, hunkered down in an office from 9 to 5, and fled as the sun set. Even today, according to grassroots economic justice organization New Haven Rising, of 83,000 jobs in New Haven, only 19,000—23%—are held by city dwellers. Barely 2% belong to residents of so-called “neighborhoods of need”: low-income and predominantly Black and Latino areas affected by the practice of redlining and in which Yale has set targeted local hiring goals. Having failed to fulfill these agreements, Yale is complicit in its home city’s entrenched and uneven poverty. Further, the tax-exempt status of the properties which serve Yale’s institutional functions as an educational not-for-profit further deprive the city of $157 million in revenue annually.

New Haven experienced an economic downturn in the second half of the twentieth century which intensified its antagonistic relationship with Yale. As the factories producing carriages, clocks, corsets, and guns disappeared from view, Yale’s already-outsized influence on the city grew. It snapped up commercial properties, hand-selecting their tenants and convincing them to open up shop “despite the census data” (read: the majority-Black and brown population), as Town Green Special Services District director Win Davis told Michael Lee-Murphy. The endeavor has been wide-ranging. Yale now owns more than half of all real-estate value in New Haven, exerting unimaginable authority on the economic milieu. Does any twenty-first century Yale undergraduate really shop at J. Crew or Fatface? I doubt it. But the presence of these stores is a commanding projection of a safe, secure, middle-class city, sure to soothe the anxieties of suburban parents—the potential footers of a $77,000 Yale tuition bill—who have long heard tell of crime and chaos as defining features of New Haven. The ability of these enterprises to sustain themselves is irrelevant; Yale is a monopoly, crushing competition and bestowing its favor upon a chosen few retailers. 

The High Street plan was announced as an addendum to the fanfare of a “significant increase” to Yale’s annual voluntary contribution to the city in lieu of taxes, long demanded by New Haven Rising. Mayor Justin Elicker characterized the $52 million as a commitment “to contribute more financially over the next six years than [Yale] has over the last 20 combined.” This context endows Breen’s earlier question—how is this different from selling a street?—with a new meaning. There is a vested economic interest on the part of the city’s largest employer and landlord in projecting one very specific image of New Haven, with little room for interpretation. Yale’s sole focus is the consumers of their product. The institution has cultivated a continuity which adds coherence to the city, but it also threatens to erase the real and messy relics of urban growth and change. 

But we need to resist the urge to collapse nuance by declaring the High Street plan a sudden and seismic institutional maneuver, a radical reshaping of downtown New Haven. Yale has been slowly laying claim to this area for a long time. The arch—from which one can look down at the pedestrians below—connecting the richly ornamented Florentine-style Swartwout extension of the Yale University Art Gallery to Gothic Street Hall and to Kahn’s modern main wing articulates more clearly than any press release the institution’s intent to convey aesthetic splendor in perpetuity, in and of every era. High Street was functionally pedestrian already, as crowds of students freely walk, bike, and skate across the street on a perpendicular as they move between classes. (Even in the face of potential vehicular violence, Yale students are nothing if not assertive.) This is not a reconstitution of spatial logic but a reification. We already knew who owns the city. 

This state of affairs was not inevitable, and it is not irrevocable. In keeping with the legacy of grassroots resistance to urban renewal in New Haven, community-based organizations like New Haven Rising are demanding we change the maps of economic opportunity in the Elm City. The Safe Streets Coalition envisions “a New Haven where residents from all neighborhoods can safely and easily travel without a car anywhere they want to go.” Their vision emerges not from purchased leverage but from a slow building of consensus among the community. As Kahn told the American Institute of Architects in the conclusion of his speech, “New spaces will come only from a new sense of human agreements.” If we believe in the continued existence of a commons that is truly common, we must develop and design collectively, cooperatively, and without coercion in pursuit of that agreement. 

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