Wall Street seems like just another minor thread in New Haven’s urban fabric. Physically, it boasts nothing remarkable except maybe the size of its potholes, although it is a little wonky, running one-way eastbound three blocks from College to Orange and one-way westbound on its final block between State and Orange. But the street’s history, and that of similar streets running through Yale’s campus, unveil a deeper story about the fraught relationship between Yale and New Haven.
The street is only six blocks long. Walking west along Wall on a crisp sunny day, I pass several parking lots, a daycare center, and two churches. On the corner of Wall and Church, sun reflecting off the green glass Chase Bank tower casts surreal reflections on the pavement beneath my beat-up white Nikes. Moving further, the first signs of Yale gradually appear. Gothic spires slowly fill my vision, and by the time I reach the intersection of Wall and College, I’m encircled by the campus: meticulously planted flower beds, sturdy wooden benches, and students bustling to and from class.
This past summer, Yale turned a section of Wall into a pedestrian walkway. But the story of Yale’s takeover really began in 1990, when the University secured the rights to restrict vehicle traffic on Wall Street and High Street for twenty years. The deal cost Yale $1.1 million up front, with an investment of more than $50 million in New Haven over the following ten years.
In 2011, the University and the city revisited the original agreement. After intense debate about what the future of the streets should look like, lawmakers failed to reach a decision. In the meantime, Yale crafted a new proposal—one that would allow the University to purchase the streets outright for $3 million with no future payments.
When this plan was brought to a vote on June 3, 2013, the aldermanic chamber erupted. Protestors stood in the back of the hall chanting “Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets” and “New Haven is not for sale!” Cops eventually escorted the protestors out of city hall as they belted the 1931 United Mine Workers union song “Which Side Are You On.” After a short recess, the protestors were let back in, and the vote was conducted: the sale passed twenty one to eight. The city needed to fill a hole in its annual budget, and an immediate infusion of $3 million proved too tempting for a majority of alders to turn down.
Two pairs of waist-height black plastic signs bookend Wall between College and High. The signs read “CLOSED TO TRAFFIC” in white serif font on a blue background, an unmistakable graphic identity. This blue-and-white signature, a low-profile marker of an urban crusade, defines Yale’s territory within New Haven.
These four signs, in conjunction with new paving, bike racks, and benches, represent the first stage of Yale’s latest project to pedestrianize Wall Street. The Yale Daily News reported in September that by 2020, Yale plans to have cordoned off an additional block of Wall as well as an adjacent block of High Street so as to surround the forthcoming Schwarzman Center, renovated student life complex, with verdant walkable plazas.
Justin Elicker, New Haven’s mayor-elect who was an alder during the controversy in 2013, told me about his opposition to the sale: selling the street eliminates the city’s “ability to choose how to use that street in the future” and “the amount that was being offered was very, very low.”
Doug Hausladen, another alder at the time, also voted against the deal. He now serves as the director for Transportation, Parking, & Traffic for New Haven. On my bike ride down to the Clerk’s Office to retrieve Board of Alders meeting minutes, I spotted him. I had been trying to reach him, but my emails kept getting sucked into the bureaucratic vortex. As he was getting out of a silver Buick, I recognized his bearded face and shouted, “Doug!” Briefcase in hand, he halted his beeline towards the municipal building at 200 Orange Street and turned to face me. I introduced myself, but he seemed to be in a rush, so we exchanged phone numbers and agreed on a time to speak the next day.
What upset Hausladen most about the street sale was its indefinite nature. Even though Yale assured the Board of Alders that it would keep the street open to the walking public after the purchase, Hausladen argued, “You and I both can see a world where there is no way to legally hold them to that.” Current plans indicate the new plaza will remain accessible to everyone, but Yale’s ownership effectively stretches to infinity. “Forever is a long time. Put it that way,” Hausladen said. “Even I have a really hard time understanding what forever is.”
Hausladen sees the university’s tendency to buy and close off vehicular space as a mission to isolate the campus from the city. In fact, fifty years ago, Elm Street almost went the way Wall has gone today. But instead of peaceful protests, there were aggressive altercations, revealing that New Haven’s streets are an arena of town-gown tensions.
Before Morse and Stiles were built in the early 1960s, the northwest border of campus was defined by two high schools: Commercial and Hillhouse. Every afternoon at 2:30, students would make their way home after school down Elm Street, and Yalies would heckle and pelt them with snowballs. The high school students would jeer back, “if you can’t get a date, get a Yalie.” “There was a long period in which Elm Street was a place of high tension,” veteran Yale administrator Sam Chauncey explained to me.
When I met Chauncey in Atticus cafe, he was sitting alone at a large round table casually sipping an iced tea. Without getting up, he extended his hand for a shake, warmly inviting me to sit down. Chauncey began working for the Yale administration immediately after graduating in 1957, and by 1963 he was appointed special assistant to University President Kingman Brewster. After working for Yale for almost 30 years, Chauncey is now retired and lives in New Haven, volunteering as a student advisor for Yale College and giving alumni talks.
Last spring I wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News about jaywalking on Elm Street, in which I had jokingly proposed routing cars through an underground tunnel to keep street-crossers safe from oncoming traffic. Right after the article ran, Chauncey emailed me to say that Yale had actually explored that very idea in the 1960s. I sat down with him to see what he remembered about the initiative.
Chauncey explained that town-gown tension reached its zenith on March 17, 1959, during the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade down Elm Street.
“There had been a very early snowstorm. Wet snow. Perfect snowball snow,” Chauncey said. As the parade progressed down Elm, hundreds of Yale students began to bombard the paraders with their hard-packed, snowy projectiles. Some aggressors posted up on the upper floors of what was then Calhoun College, turning dorm rooms into makeshift turrets. New Haven Police chased students into college courtyards, swinging nightsticks. An all-out brawl ensued, students beating officers, officers beating students.
The following morning, the Yale Daily News reported that “for an hour yesterday afternoon New Haven had the appearance of being a city at war.” A photograph taken during the riot shows a Nazi flag displayed in the window of a room in Hopper College, a sign that bigotry had been swirling around parts of the student body. A 2001 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine reported that the riot was thought to be motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment towards the St. Patrick’s Day paraders.
“All hell broke loose,” Chauncey said. “I mean it was a nightmare. I was a young assistant dean then, and it was awful.” So awful, actually, “that the mayor of New Haven and the president of Yale, who were very good friends, wouldn’t speak to each other for three or four months.”
But the two administrators eventually collaborated: on March 31st, New Haven mayor Richard C. Lee and Yale president A. Whitney Griswold announced the formation of the Commission to Study Yale-New Haven Community Relations, made up of a retired Connecticut chief justice, a former Yale athletic director, and a New Haven police commissioner.
In September 1959, the commission published a report on town-gown relations. The document devoted an entire section to “Traffic,” recommending “routing vehicular traffic underground” on Elm for two blocks from York to College (from what is today the Patagonia store to Hopper College). This newly freed space would possibly “be integrated in the campus” so that “New Haven and her citizens as well as Yale would benefit.”
Desperate to resolve the Elm Street question, Lee offered to help fund studies for the project: “Dear Whit, I am sure we can find the $2,100 to do our share of the engineering job on the Elm Street tunnel,” Lee wrote in a letter to Yale president A. Whitney Griswold on October 30, 1959. Lee was an urban renewal poster child, famous for razing ‘blighted’ areas across New Haven to make way for new highways. So it comes as no surprise that he was keen to help Griswold with a monolithic auto infrastructure project along Elm, one that would conveniently result in new space for Yale’s elite.
Despite the collaborative effort, the tunneling project was never completed. The Elm Street Underpass report, conducted by a New York-based engineering firm, estimated that the tunneling would cost over $3 million: too high for the University. The infrastructure under Elm, such as electrical connections and water lines, also prohibited a full excavation of the street. Yale administrators continued to explore the idea throughout the 1960s. Even though Morse and Stiles took the place of the high schools, Yale liked the concept of a unified campus. Correspondence as late as 1966 suggests the university continued to entertain the idea of a tunnel beneath Elm Street. But nothing ever materialized.
“Elm Street today is kind of a sad street in my way of thinking,” Chauncey said. Taking his napkin from his lap, he began wistfully drawing what he dreamed Elm could look like now, thinking out loud along the way. Chauncey illustrated how he would remove a lane of traffic and add dozens of pin oak trees flanking the street. (He was very intent on the pin oaks, insisting, “If you prune them high, fifteen feet, they create a canopy.”)
Much of Chauncey’s explanation was admittedly very difficult to follow—the details of his vision were hard to decipher from his napkin drawing—but his sentiment was crystal clear. City streets create fractures in what could be a more complete campus, which could serve as an amenity not only to Yalies but to New Haven residents, too. Chauncey recounted a story of a New Haven resident he knew who worked on Park Street and would walk home through the colleges, before the gates were locked to the public, because she felt safer that way.
“Nothing broke my heart more than when we decided we had to lock all the college gates,” Chauncey said. “We don’t do anything, in an urban sense, to welcome the citizens of New Havens onto the Yale campus.”
For years, Chauncey has worked to repair town-gown relations. In 1972, he started Yale’s Community Relations Office, a group that has worked on charitable projects like New Haven Promise, New Haven Reads, and Squash Haven. If I knew about all the generous contributions Yale makes to New Haven, I’d be “astounded,” he told me. “It isn’t just the $11 million, it’s a whole lot of other stuff.”
But in Chauncey’s eyes, Yale’s commitment to New Haven has deteriorated significantly. I asked him if the current administration was making any effort, but he cut me off before I could finish my question: “Absolutely not. I am appalled. And I’ve told him, so I don’t mind saying it, but I am appalled at how little Peter Salovey is interested in the relationship other than nice words.”
Chauncey’s rhetoric about pedestrianization conveys a belief that walkable areas will benefit everyone. But his work on the 1960s Elm Street tunneling project also shows an intention to isolate the campus. “After that snowball riot we all talked about tunneling underneath and closing that street off,” he said. These seemingly opposite impulses left me confused, wondering whether Chauncey’s ideas about walkable spaces would only end up solidifying the town-gown divide.
My interviews with Chauncey and Hausladen, roughly a week apart, felt like a staged debate on Yale’s relationship with New Haven. If they were in the same room, the discourse would be, let’s say, passionate.
Chauncey thinks a more pedestrianized campus would help make Yale more “appealing and welcoming… Even for the citizens of New Haven, just walking home. It becomes a more pleasant trip.”
Hausladen passionately refuted this notion, explaining that foot traffic and auto traffic are inherently at odds. “Yalies want pedestrianism and the region of New Haven is a vehicular-based region,” he argued. The prioritization of pedestrians would constrict New Haven’s auto thoroughfares and prevent commuters from efficiently getting to work, in order to “take all the space back just for Yalies’ use.”
After such intense controversy over outlandish tunneling projects, closing arterial streets, and the relative values of pedestrians and drivers in the context of the university and the city, the four small signs bookending a block of Wall Street may seem inconsequential. Closing Wall St. to cars won’t significantly impact traffic patterns, and it doesn’t formally exclude New Haveners from walking in that space. But a pedestrian space is not necessarily a neutral space. The Elm Street plan of old and today’s Wall Street project both reflect an effort to isolate Yale from New Haven, a city that is so often portrayed by Yalies as rundown, depressed, or dreary.
There’s a future in which I return to Yale to find wrought-iron gates guarding the entrance to Wall Street that beep upon the swipe of an ID. It’s really not too hard to imagine—just think of Old Campus, which had its gates locked in 1976. But isolation does not always come in the form of physical barriers. Even if Wall is never formally closed off, its purchase and pedestrianization serve as a reminder of Yale’s tendency to co-opt public urban space in the name of campus continuity. Maybe on Wall we are already witnessing a barrier under construction.