The Perimeter

Dawn Slade knows everyone and everything on Dixwell Avenue. Walking up the street—which runs north from downtown New Haven and Yale University toward Hamden—one morning this past spring, she nodded at Lake Place, where many residents are Yale undergraduates.

“Look at them, on Lake and Broadway,” she said. “You started to see them inching up. Inching, inching, inching.”

Born in 1960, Slade grew up in Dixwell and now lives in Beaver Hills, a nearby neighborhood. She is the cofounder and executive director of Nuts About Health, Inc., a nonprofit that promotes healthy living for lower-income families. She walks over a mile every Sunday to the Varick Memorial AME Zion Church-— founded in the eighteen-hundreds by former slaves and home to a pulpit from which Booker T. Washington delivered his final public address—which she attended with her grandmother every weekend during her childhood. Nine historically Black churches line the half-mile stretch of Dixwell Avenue from Lake Place to Henry Street.

For every storefront on Dixwell Avenue, Dawn has a memory: she would skip past this store on her way home from school; her grandmother’s friends would shop at that one; this was one of the first Black-owned businesses in New Haven. She remembers the tightly knit neighborhood community of her childhood in the nineteen-seventies, the crippling effects of the War on Drugs in the eighties, the vacancy and crime of the nineties.

Now, she watches the neighborhood change again, becoming more residential and less Black. Slade pointed across Dixwell Avenue at a Yale-owned parking lot.

“You can see them keep moving down, keep moving, keep moving.” She waved a long-fingered hand at free-standing brownstones and half-boarded-up businesses.

“Them,” for Slade and many other Dixwell residents, means Yale University. Dixwell has seen many changes in the past twenty years. In the past decade, as Yale has acquired properties in Dixwell and offered its employees financial incentives to move into New Haven, some Dixwell residents have felt as though Yale’s expansion benefits only the University.

Yale administrators are quick to point out that the University is New Haven’s largest employer, attracts millions of dollars worth of federal grants to the city each year, and has helped thousands of its employees buy their own homes in places like Dixwell through the Yale Homebuyer Program.

The University has over forty major properties in the Dixwell neighborhood but few on Dixwell Avenue itself, one of which is a residence run through Elm Campus, a real estate company that works on behalf of the University. Both properties are situated near the center of campus, right at the junction of Downtown New Haven and Dixwell.

“They have the resources to do it. All they’ve got is money and time,” Slade said, referring to the University’s influence in Dixwell. “This all’s going to be ‘Yalesville’ real soon.”

Instead of the royal blue plaques that mark campus buildings, Yale’s presence in Dixwell has taken the form of the next-door neighbor. For example, Annette Tracey, who has worked in the Berkeley dining hall for decades, now lives in Dixwell. She bought her home behind the Payne Whitney Gym through the Homebuyer Program, which was created in 1994 to better integrate Yale with New Haven by partially subsidizing employees’ home purchases.

Tracey’s house is just a few minutes’ walk from Dixwell Avenue, which Slade calls “a main artery” of the neighborhood. The street is also a dividing line between what residents consider the two sides of the neighborhood: “up-the-hill” (“all of that is Yale,” Slade said) and “down-the-hill” which remains mostly Black, filled with rental housing properties. Up-the-hill is in Ward 22, down-the-hill in Ward 2.

According to the 2010 census, a little over 10,460 people live in the half square mile that comprise the Dixwell neighborhood. Nearly sixty percent of Dixwell residents are Black. For comparison, the entire city of New Haven—nearly forty times the size of the neighborhood—has almost one hundred thirty thousand residents, only 35.4 percent of whom are Black.

A little further away from Dixwell Avenue, Prospect Street is growing into another artery in the neighborhood, one more populated by Yale buildings and students. There, on the southeast corner of up-the-hill Dixwell, Yale’s two newest residential colleges, Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray, opened this past fall to house two hundred new undergraduate students. Many permanent residents of Dixwell believe the new colleges will widen economic disparities between sites of Yale’s interest in Dixwell and, in particular, down-the-hill.

In the early two-thousands, the University began buying properties near the Grove Street Cemetery, which sits in the southeast corner of Dixwell. In 2002, Yale purchased a commercial laundry facility north of the cemetery. In 2006, the Rose Center west of the cemetery opened on Ashmun Street, housing both the Yale Police Department and the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center. That same year, the University pledged half a million dollars to revitalize Scantlebury Park to the north, just months after paying the city ten million dollars to purchase adjacent land.

In 2008, Yale publicly announced its plans to open two new residential colleges on that land. After a two hundred fifty million dollar gift from University alumnus Charles B. Johnson, the new colleges quickly took shape on lower Prospect Street, and are now part of the ebb and flow of daily campus life.

Planning for the colleges began in 2006 with an agreement between Yale and New Haven. After acquiring the property for the new colleges, Yale worked closely with the city on zoning and mapping around the neighborhood, said Bruce Alexander, Yale’s Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs in a videotaped press conference this past August.

“That was pretty good to get a unanimous vote out of the Board of Alders. That’s pretty hard to do in any event for almost anything,” he said. The vote in favor of this project in the board of alders was thirty to zero, he said.

There had been speculation about plans to open new colleges since at least 2000, when an article published in the Yale Alumni Magazine by Mark Alden Branch said that the area to the north of the Grove Street Cemetery might be “sites for new buildings to further populate the area—perhaps the pair of new residential colleges that have long been discussed but that are not on the immediate horizon.”

John DeStefano, Jr., who served as the mayor of New Haven from 1994 to 2013, worked closely with former University President Richard Levin to develop the University’s real estate focus over those two decades.

“[Yale] had a plan that was developed by the late nineteen-nineties to outline campus expansion, particularly northward movement,” he said.

The plan to which DeStefano alludes is the University’s Framework for Campus Planning, envisioned in 1997 by New York-based architecture urban design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners. The document, which was released to the public in 2000, outlines real estate and architectural plans to the north of the Grove Street Cemetery. In one map showing the areas around Yale, a sketch of future planning superimposes the word “residential” over the area, although the buildings were, at the time, either vacant or unoccupied. Another part of the framework suggests that “joint efforts [between the city and the University] could make connections between Yale and the surrounding neighborhoods safer and more attractive.”

DeStefano knows this history first-hand. According to the Yale Alumni Magazine article, he suggested a joint project with Yale in the area. Lead architect of the firm Alexander Cooper is quoted in the article as saying, “The Mayor looked at the map and said that if you look at Yale as a clock, and if you observe that everywhere Yale goes, it improves the surrounding area, then what’s missing is the area from nine to twelve—the Dixwell neighborhood.”

“Before Yale built the residential colleges, it built the perimeter.”

“So although it was not directly articulated that way in any discussion I was ever in, there was a particular concern around edge neighborhoods around the campus,” he said. Dixwell was a target because campus expansion would “by definition” move into adjacent neighborhoods.

“Before Yale built the residential colleges, it built the perimeter,” DeStefano said.

This “perimeter” effect hasn’t only been around the expansion of the new colleges—it has filled home vacancies in neighborhoods adjacent to campus. The Yale Homebuyer Program assists in this mission by offering university employees grants of thirty thousand dollars over eleven years if they buy homes in East Rock, Beaver Hills, Wooster Square, Dixwell, Newhallville, Dwight, the Hill, Fair Haven, or West Rock.

“The Yale Homebuyer program was created to encourage Yale staff and faculty to put down roots in New Haven and become part of the community,” wrote Karen King, a Community Affairs Associate with the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, in an email this month. “The Yale University Homebuyer Program strengthens [New Haven’s] tax base.”

Tom Conroy, Director of the University’s Office of Public Affairs & Communications, wrote in an email that the “Homebuyer Program is just one of the ways in which Yale contributes to the economic and social progress of New Haven,” also pointing to the New Haven Promise program. “Yale makes the largest voluntary payment of any university in the nation to any city in the nation,” he added.

Forty-four of the program’s homebuyers work in service and staff positions at the University and are members of Local 34 and 35, according to Conroy. This is more than the percentage of both faculty and also professional staff who have bought homes through the program. Collectively, Yale employees have purchased homes with a total market value of approximately two hundred five million dollars. Yale has spent more than twenty-eight million dollars on the program since 1994.

But since May 2002, in addition to the standard amount, the grant has included a five thousand dollar bonus in the first year for homebuyers in Dixwell—if they live up-the-hill. In fact, the description of the special incentive essentially stipulates that all homes eligible for the benefit must be within the limits of Ward 22. This additional rebate was introduced six years before the official 2008 announcement that Yale would build new colleges on Prospect Street.

According to research at DataHaven, the 06511 zip code—which includes Dwight, Beaver Hills, Dixwell, Newhallville, East Rock and Wooster Square—had a twenty-eight percent increase in home values from 2004 to 2015, the largest in the state. The average single-family home in 2015 was worth $75,908 more than it would have been in 2004. By contrast, values in other New Haven zip codes remained relatively flat.

“At what point does it inflate housing values?” DeStefano asked. “You’re creating an artificial subsidy.” He paused. “One could suggest it is inflating values for other properties by introducing this subsidy that, if it wasn’t there, wouldn’t be elevating properties.”

Yet Conroy contends that the program and its Dixwell-specific benefit is simply meant to “focus on the neighborhoods that would benefit from increased homeownership.”

“We certainly reject [the] contention that the Homebuyer Program has been detrimental to Dixwell or any other eligible neighborhood,” he added.

When pressed about why only Dixwell has a special incentive, Conroy said: “It exists to attract homebuyers, and if it helps a Yale employee decide to buy a home there rather than outside the the city, that’s good for New Haven.”

Although it would be impossible to frame the Homebuyer Program as the primary cause of this increase in home value, Yale’s efforts to make New Haven more of a destination have undoubtedly impacted its housing market. Some people who have lived in Dixwell for decades are now moving out, unable to afford their rents or unsettled in a neighborhood that grows increasingly unfamiliar.

Slade remembers the Dixwell of the nineteen-seventies as a vibrant and close-knit neighborhood.

“My grandma lived at 225 Ashmun in a high-rise apartment building,” she said. “The place was immaculate. You could eat off the hallway floors. They called this ‘the projects,’ but we didn’t feel like we lived in the projects because it was community.”
World War I pumped capital into New Haven’s arms manufacturing sectors and the Great Migration brought Black southerners into northern cities. A popular community center called the Q House opened in 1924 on Dixwell Avenue, and historically Black churches like the Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, which was born in 1796 and officially established in 1820, dot the street.

Dixwell also had a vibrant jazz culture. Every Friday and Saturday night, famous musicians stopped in the neighborhood on their way from New York to Boston, playing at famous jazz clubs like the Democratic Club, the Musician’s Club, and the Korners Club—all now boarded-up storefronts or delicatessens along Dixwell Avenue. Many elderly residents remember nights of dancing until sunrise or meeting some of the greatest musicians of the era in their own backyards.

In the following decades, manufacturing began to decline and New Haven entered a period of steadily rising unemployment. In 1954, thirty-three percent of New Haven residents were employed by the industry; by 1977, it was fourteen percent. White residents moved out to the suburbs and New Haven became a poorer, Blacker city, eventually becoming majority Black in 1990.
Speaking about the seventies and eighties, Slade began walking faster up Dixwell Ave., running her thumb quickly back and forth over her knuckles. She had spent time in the Elm Haven Housing Projects, which were managed by the New Haven Housing Authority. In the eighties, she witnessed the dramatic reduction of essential city services like neighborhood maintenance and policing.

“At the same time, New Haven is flooded with drugs, and employment opportunities dry up,” she said. “These factors fertilize a breeding ground of decay and brokenness.”

During the War on Drugs, reports of violent crime increased dramatically. In 1960, there were 64.5 crimes per hundred-thousand; in 1970, there were four hundred; in 1980, there were over one thousand five hundred. According to research from the Yale Law School, the New Haven Police Department responded with brutal force, deploying a “beat down posse”—a street unit that focused on eradicating drug crime—mostly comprised of white officers. This group would bring dogs and white vans to Dixwell, targeting Black men and often arresting them on low-level drug offenses.

By the nineteen-nineties, New Haven was at its most economically desolate. In 1994, the same year that the Homebuyer Program started, GQ magazine published an enormous, inflammatory piece called “The Last Boola Boola,” describing New Haven as a “war zone of poverty, crime, and drugs as frightening as any American city.” In 1991, crime in New Haven touched the Yale community with the murder of Christian Prince, a student who was shot on Hillhouse Avenue.

DeStefano remembers “an extraordinarily large number of vacant properties” during those years. He said there was a strong desire on the part of both the city and the University to create the Homebuyer’s Program, which would hopefully make city blocks safer, cleaner, and more inhabited.

“By the time the nineties came around, nobody wanted to be here. Would you?”

“Good things don’t happen in vacant buildings,” he said.

Slade paused, looking down Foote Street towards Ashmun, where her grandmother’s apartment building used to be. Then she turned to walk up Dixwell again. She remembered cuts to affordable housing programs, cuts to art programs in schools, and cuts to library budgets.

“You cut all that and then you make people live like animals. And only then do you ask, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ What sent people out initially was just pure neglect,” Slade said, walking in silence for a while. “By the time the nineties came around, nobody wanted to be here. Would you?”

Since the nineteen-nineties, crime, particularly in the areas of New Haven that surround Yale, has declined. Nationally, the economy has improved. From the perspective of Richard Cleary, a white resident who has lived on Mansfield Street in up-the-hill Dixwell since 1979, Yale’s involvement in the neighborhood has yielded only positive effects.

Cleary served as a civil engineer for years and lives in the upstairs apartment of a two-story home with a turquoise porch and tiled floors. “The street’s gone up and down,” he said. “Right now, it’s quite good. And of course, one of the reasons is that Yale has security types, uniformed security types around here.”

Cleary lived on Mansfield Street in the eighties and nineties, back when city residents called it “Manslaughter Street.” Cleary recounted an assault when he ran out to the street to protect his downstairs neighbor from a violent mugging. Now, he said, he feels much safer.

Over the years, Yale has paid special attention to Mansfield Street, which DeStefano called “clearly an edge street.” According to the website of Yale real estate company Elm Campus Partners, there are twenty-seven Yale-owned houses and rental apartments on that street, mostly populated by graduate students. These properties join the commercial holdings at Lake Place and Dixwell Avenue, the Rose Center housing the Yale Police Department and Yale Health, and the new residential colleges. Altogether, it’s over forty real estate holdings.

DeStefano laughed dismissively at the implication of a causal relationship between Yale’s real estate development the area’s declining rate of crime.“It’s not like Yale bought some houses on Mansfield Street and the freaking crime rate dropped,” he said. “There’s a lot more going on than that.”

Cleary welcomes the increased presence of law enforcement officers. “It’s basically crime-free now,” he said.

Although he had not heard of the Dixwell-specific incentive, he knew of the Homebuyer Program. “Of course the University would want to have a solid neighborhood,” he said. “They’d want a border or a periphery around campus. Why? It’s so obvious. Why do you not want to be hit over the head? Why would you not want your students and employees to be safe?”

Alder Jeanette Morrison, who has represented New Haven’s Ward 22 since 2011, oversees all the parts of Dixwell covered by the extra rebate. Before the construction of the Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin, Ward 22 already housed four residential colleges: Ezra Stiles and Morse to the West and Timothy Dwight to the East. The new colleges on Prospect Street will pump more than six hundred voters into the existing three thousand currently living in Ward 22, transitioning the electorate from majority permanent city residents to a constituency split between the two populations: students and permanent residents. Yale votes are becoming a greater component of Ward 22 votes, influencing up-the-hill Dixwell. As more students in the new colleges register to vote, this tilt will only continue.

Today, almost thirty years after the devastation of the nineties, vacancy is no longer a glaring problem in New Haven housing. In fact, according to real estate research firm Reis Inc., New Haven had the lowest apartment vacancy rate in the nation at 2.1 percent, beating out the notoriously oversaturated New York City housing market’s 2.4 percent vacancy rate. Fewer vacant apartments in New Haven drove up housing prices, pushing low-income residents into more expensive rentals or neighboring towns like Hamden or Bridgeport. Now, the issue isn’t vacancy. It’s the lack of affordable housing, pricing residents out of rentals and, as a result, out of Dixwell.

“It’s not like Yale bought the houses on Mansfield Street and the freaking crime rate dropped.”

According to a 2016 Brookings Institution study of inequality in cities, New Haven was sixth on the list of all U.S. cities with the greatest gap between the richest and the poorest. In New Haven, the top earners had 15.3 times the income of the poorest residents. That same study found that New Haven’s income inequality gap has widened the fastest of any city since the Great Recession.

“Both the President and Vice President of Yale live in my ward,” Morrison said. “And you have some of the poorest in Dixwell, too.”

Considering rising inequality in the neighborhood, due in no small part to housing stabilization, DeStefano wondered about the intention of the Homebuyer Program’s special incentive in Dixwell. Mansfield is not exactly unstable at the moment, and neither is the rest of “up-the-hill” Dixwell. He pointed to the safer neighborhood statistics and over-saturated housing market.

“Are we trying to fill vacant housing?” he asked rhetorically.

That used to be the intention. But now?

“Well, to be honest with you, filling vacant housing is not a problem in New Haven at this moment,” he said. “Forget the downtown rental market, I’m talking about the neighborhood rental market.” He spread his hands wide. “It’s not a problem! So what are we trying to do?”

Despite what Slade describes as the “doom and gloom” of the period, the lower property values associated with Dixwell’s vacancies in the nineties allowed its poorer residents to keep living there.

“A lot of people are angry in feeling that Yale has their hands in everything going on and only does what is expedient for them,” said Bridgette Russell, who works for the New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), an organization that helps low- and middle-income residents of New Haven purchase homes.

“As Yale usurped more of the properties, the landscape was changing,” she said. “Those prices just escalated in the nineties as a lot of change started to take place.”

Russell, who has worked at NHS for over a decade, believes her job has become much more urgent since she started because the housing market in New Haven has become so constricted. She tells her clients to expedite their homebuying processes.

“You need to own. At least then you have some power. If you’re renting, there’s a greater chance you will be pushed out.” She paused and reconsidered. “In fact, if you don’t own a home, you’re eventually going to be pushed out.”

A few blocks away from Cleary’s home, Slade stopped in front of a small, brown building. Inside, behind windows made from squares of thick antiqued glass, there is a large, empty space. On the front, a rumpled yellow sign: “FOR RENT: Studio Apt.” And another: “FOR LEASE: 1000 sq. ft.” The house behind it has slats missing on the front, a boarded-up window on the second floor. A closed deli and grocery store are next door. According to Slade, this little brown building with the wavy glass window used to be the spot for jazz in Dixwell. Now, she’s heard rumors that developers are going to tear it down.

“New Haven is the tale of two cities,” Slade said as she walked away up Dixwell Avenue again. “The best of times and the worst of times. The home of the fit and the fat, the home of the have and the have-nots.”

Longtime Dixwell residents watching their neighborhood change say they feel left behind. Although the neighborhood has grown wealthier and safer during the past two decades, in part through the influence of Yale and city-wide policies, some residents see only part of that population—the up-the-hill, Yale part—reaping the benefits. It seems that the disconnect between the bell tower of the Varick Memorial AME Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue and the bell tower of Pauli Murray College on Prospect Street will only continue to grow.

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