One of the marginal spaces I inhabit is my physical space, my actual home. Until a few years ago, I have almost always lived in suburbs. I have some city experience as a student in Boston, but New Haven is the first city I have lived as a permanent resident.
When I first got my job and told friends I would be moving to New Haven, CT the immediate reaction was surprise. “New Haven!” people would say, “Isn’t that city really dangerous?” What? My reaction to people’s surprise was, surprise. I didn’t know anything about New Haven. From growing up on Long Island, NY and hearing stories about “the scary” New York City and after 14 years in southern California hearing about Los Angeles and living through the “Rodney King Riots,” I thought, “How bad can it be? Its just a tiny city, and it has Yale in it!”
So being a sociologist I did what came naturally, and I looked up the crime statistics. And it turned out, for a city of its size, New Haven actually did have a high violent crime rate. Hmm. Well still, I thought, so what? Again as a sociologist I know that people’s fear of crime is far out of proportion to their likelihood of being the victims of crime. In fact, I knew that those most likely to fear crime – the elderly – were also the least likely to be victimized. I also know that where you are and who you hang around with is highly predictive of your likelihood of being the victim of crime. So, I figured as long as I try to stay out of the drug trade and don’t join a gang, I should be okay. These are not generally hard things for a college professor, at least since Prohibition has ended.
So, when I first went looking for an apartment, I was referred to the “East Rock” area of New Haven. Everyone said it was cool, hip. Some joked it was the “grad school ghetto” because of its proximity to Yale. But the thing was, it was really expensive. And I couldn’t figure out why. It was a pretty ugly neighborhood and New Haven is a small city. Its easy to get around, and there didn’t seem to be much that was special about East Rock, finding parking is a nightmare. New Haven is an old light industrial city. It fell on hard times long before the 1980’s saw all the steel and heavy industry jobs flee the country. And people with money can live downtown or out in the suburbs. You can drive from the burbs into downtown without too much hassle. So why was this eastern sliver of New Haven in between Yale and the college I worked at so expensive? It made absolutely no sense to me. Until I opened my eyes.
To understand what I am about to describe, you have to know that the campus I work on is a very big square block about ½ mile north of Yale. Yale is in Downtown New Haven and spreads up towards my campus, Albertus Magnus College. Imagine a large closed safety pin where the head is upside down, Yale is the bottom and Albertus is the loop of metal at the top. We are connected by Prospect St on the east and Winchester Avenue on the west – the two side of the pin. East Rock is the neighborhood from Prospect Street to the east. But just on the other side of the pin, from Winchester street west, are two low income neighborhoods, Newhallville and The Hill. These 2 private colleges, one Ivy League and sprawling across the city, and the other so small that when we have faculty meetings we mean all the faculty of the college is meeting in the same room, separate the city of New Haven into two halves: the black and the white.
Oh, did I just say that out loud? Because no one does. No one ever says it out loud. We have good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods. We have safe neighborhoods and unsafe neighborhoods. We have rich and poor neighborhoods. But we don’t have black and white neighborhoods. We are colorblind, we were abolitionists, we have the Amistad.
Once I opened my eyes, I could not in good faith (or good finances) move into East Rock. But I also didn’t really want to move into Newhallville or The Hill. Newhallville and The Hill are not easy places to live – they are low income neighborhoods and face the same issue most low income urban neighborhoods face – absentee landlords, substandard city services, higher crime rates, many multi-family homes with higher turnover rates, and so on.
And this is the problem. American cities are segregated both by race and by class. In the northeast US, no one wants to be racist, but no one wants to move into a crappy neighborhood. There is not a sociologist on the planet who is surprised by this. To anyone paying attention, this is old news. And the conversation usually more or less ends here, because even well-meaning liberal sociologists throw up their hands and say, “I didn’t want to reinforce segregation, but I had to get my kids into good school districts, what else could I do?” Given the terrible economy there’s no money for private schools, and who would deny a parent the right to make the best choices for their kids?
It turns out, I have no children. So the standard excuse wasn’t available to me when colleagues suggested I move myself over to Westville. (Westville is a small neighborhood west of Yale which is bit more affordable than East Rock, but it is also a predominately white neighborhood, although less-so.) Instead I decided to just look at the map of the area around my college, and chose a place I thought I could comfortably live in. Immediately, a small neighborhood just north of my own campus popped out at me. It is technically in the town of Hamden, but the other side of the street is New Haven. This little section of south Hamden is nestled right up to some of the nicest real estate in New Haven — Prospect Avenue and Whitney Avenue where Old Victorian home after Old Victorian home were once inhabited by the highest classes of American industrialist. The homes have servant’s stairs and servant’s quarters and huge lawns with old trees. Even today many are still single family homes that haven’t been divided up into multifamily apartments like their cousins in around the city.
The homes in south Hamden are small 3-4 bedroom homes built in the 1940’s and early 50’s just before the development of the single-pour concrete foundation that made the post-war boom possible. It’s a lovely little suburb within the city, manageable sized houses and yards, a few multifamily homes here and there, close to everything – easy access to downtown and to the highway to get out of town. All within spitting distance of my campus!
How idyllic, I thought, I wonder why no one told me about this neighborhood? Why did everyone tell me to move all the way to Westville? Its way down by Yale and its homes date from the same period, its yards are about the same size. Its also right next to a high crime neighborhood. The difference between Westville and south Hamden is race. South Hamden is a predominantly black neighborhood. Not completely, it’s mixed. I don’t have the exact numbers, but Westville is probably 70% white and 30% black, and South Hamden is the opposite. And this is where we have to return to the well-meaning liberal who throws up their hands at segregation and chooses a better neighborhood “for the kids.” Because maybe the kids are not the issue, maybe they are just a really good excuse for not giving up one’s privilege.
And this is where being a sociologist on the margins pays off. I lived in a couple of different apartments before deciding to buy my home, but I just moved into a small house in South Hamden. The truth is since most middle class, white folks would not consider moving into my neighborhood, my house is not going to rise in value quite as much as it would have had I made a different choice. But it also means that my mortgage is lower, and I got more house for my money than I would have elsewhere.
And on the first night I moved into my 1947 3-bedroom Cape Cod, my new neighbor from across the street brought me flowers to say “Welcome to the Neighborhood.”