Thursday, April 19, 2007

Culture Sketch: New Haven

Almost three years ago I left Minneapolis and ultimately landed in New Haven, Connecticut. This is what I've learned.

On the surface and in its depths, New Haven is a typical lost-and-found American city. She is always in search of both past and future. Many roads lead here. Some proceed no further. People "get stuck" here.
One local myth is that New Haven is the sixth borough of New York City. This notion may or may not hold sway with the map carvers, but it is nonetheless a distinct oral tradition, sleepily yearning for a truncated dream of the past. We wear the Yankees insignia on our hats. We mention The City in our hip-hop songs. We came from New York. Historically, this may be true.

We also caravanned from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Our food is soul. Our spareribs fall off the bone. Our homes are clean.

We came from the Midwest. I myself came from Minnesota almost three years ago. I moved into a bedroom on Pleasant Street in the Grad Ghetto, a large, quiet enclave comprised mostly of studious Yalies. My roommate and subletter was a humble and responsible carpenter from Ohio named Mike. He built sets for the Long Wharf Theater, the only successful New Haven theater not affiliated with Yale. I took a job at a locally owned coffee shop called Koffee?. Such a simple name bespeaks the city’s smallness, its one-of-everything brand of cosmopolitanism.

I later lived in the Hill. I was the only white person in the neighborhood. Although most white New Havenites speak of the Hill in hushed tones of foreboding, I only ran into one problem in my three months there. One midnight walk home, a man followed me, shouting that he knows me, which I know he did not, because I looked. Should I have flashed my knife in the light of the street lamp, as I did, so that he could see it from ten feet away? Perhaps there was never anything to fear but annoyance, and it was my fear that was out of place, not my color. In fact, I once got the crud beat out of me by a bunch of cracked-out white boys on Ellsworth Avenue.

I moved in with my then-girlfriend, who had traveled from Portland, Maine in search of a husband according to the literalist directives of her lucid dreams. We shared that small City Point apartment on Sea Street with a born-again Christian man from rural Connecticut (I was a pantheist, she was pagan, but we all got along well enough). From our living room window, we witnessed the sun and the storms over New Haven Harbor. Down the street was the Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center. Docked boats, a long pier, and Sage, a classy burger-and-jazz joint overhanging the water, were some of the neighborhood's other hallmarks.

My girlfriend and I re-located to George and Howe, near the YMCA and almost adjacent to a pawnshop. On that corner, you can buy the New Haven Register from Steve in his orange blazer any day of the week. Steve rode into town on a Greyhound bus from Providence, Rhode Island many years ago. His uncles and aunts and cousins still live there.

When juxtaposed with my Midwestern memories, the “black” and “white” cultures blend together with comparatively little effort here in New Haven. This speaks highly of the community’s ability to transcend institutional racism. Not that racism is dead here. Puerto Rican people, who usually arrive in New Haven via Miami, are the community’s most stigmatized and isolated minority - more so even than the Mexican and South American Diaspora. North African, Arabic, and Indian peoples tend to man the hospitals and gas stations. Many other Asian peoples, such as Japanese and Chinese, can be found in the Universities. 

Obviously, these tendencies are bendable, but you see patterns.

The Yale campus, peopled by students and faculty from all over the world, is one of two pillars of the New Haven economy. Its presence has created many jobs for young non-students such as myself. Long-time locals tell me that the last fifteen years have been a time of growth and gentrification.

New Haven's other economic pillar is the social services. In the Downtown Evening Soup kitchen, I met a young middle-aged woman - hunched shoulders, sweet smile - filling plastic containers with second and third servings to keep herself alive. She told me she came from Iowa. I paused mid-bite and said, "Fellow Midwesterner." I learned her son is a philosophy student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. “My alma mater,” I smiled. Auld lang syne.

New Haven is a community both rotting and growing, staying put and just passing through. Our identity is not so much a melting pot, but a sand painting in progress, ebbing and flowing under the gentle breath of time.