New Haven holds a special place in American political theory. Since Robert Dahl wrote his classic 1961 treatise Who Governs?, which examines how power functions in the city and what it says about American democracy, New Haven has been a focal point for studying urban development and how it shapes people’s lives. In political science and urban studies programs all over the country these studies are dusted off at the beginning of the academic year to give students a theoretical foundation. It is not conventional to think of them as anything more, to go one step further and try to breathe life into the material, to ask what an intellectual difference it would make to see where this theory really comes from.
On Oct. 15, Sarah Lawrence professor Samuel Abrams took his Politics and Geography class, of which I am a part, to do just that. We took a school van over to New Haven to meet professor Douglas W. Rae. A force of energy at age 75, Rae has had a unique vantage point on New Haven’s development. Rae has been one of the most prominent chroniclers of the city’s urban decline, was one of Yale University’s last big-deal professors from the 1970s, and was the city’s chief administrative officer under its first African American mayor. We met him at his top floor office at Yale’s business school for a guided tour through the landmarks and phenomena that have formed the basis of the classic theory and that he has spent a lifetime observing and shaping.
As we crowded around his office, he began with a brief, general symposium on just what urban decline means, how “Meds and Eds” currently form the basis of a city’s support (Yale and two hospitals alone employ 25,000 people in New Haven), and how the proliferation of automobiles destroyed cities, weakening the roles of local government and power elites in affecting change.
Soon he hopped onto one of the large windows that cover the walls in his office to give us a bird’s eye view of the city’s sprawl and landmarks. The gothic towers that make up some of Yale’s oldest buildings shot up over treetops. Further off, Rae pointed out Windsor Square, a historically Italian neighborhood that still boasts a strong enough Italian presence that “I’d probably raise some eyebrows if I tried to buy a house there.” Right next to the business school sat the New Haven Lawn Club, an established WASP social club that has been a contentious point of historical debate over the functioning of the city’s power. (While it has changed considerably with the times, its long history of bigotry continues to define it within the community).
After taking us through the views in his colleagues’ offices (eliciting suspicious looks from secretaries and professors not used to seeing a group of students prance through their suite), Rae led us on a driving tour of the city. His path gave us a clear idea of just how disjointed a city like New Haven is, which would likely not be apparent to most Yale students who spend their time ensconced behind the university’s walls. We began with the historically African-American neighborhood that bore pockets of construction for new colleges and enclaves of New Urbanism, that latest architectural experiment in uniformity. Rae had us pull over to a dirty, brick strip mall whose stores all looked abandoned. He called it “New Urbanism’s idea of a strip mall.” Then quite literally around the corner was a much larger line of shops that boasted an Apple store, high end clothing outlets, and the Yale bookstore (a Barnes & Noble), in a shockingly blatant example of gentrification.
This led us east through Yale and into Fair Haven, the city’s latino neighborhood. Throughout the drive Rae remained generous in imparting the unique viewpoint his time as CAO provided him, pointing out discrete places of political importance, from churches to the elementary schools where federal officials came to publicly discuss decisive injections of funds and plan new projects. We drove past a fire station that Rae had attempted to dissolve during his time in office.
Until, that is, he was woken early one morning by a call from former eight term mayor Richard Lee, who in his colloquial Irish tongue said, “Doug me boy, I just wanted to give you a word of advice: don’t fuck with me fire station.”
As we drove through Fair Haven and back into downtown New Haven, Rae expressed a general optimism about the trajectory of the city. He discussed how new immigrants, specifically those coming from Latin America, have largely received a welcoming atmosphere in which to settle. He discussed programs Yale has initiated to improve underdeveloped neighborhoods, one of which grants a substantial housing loan to faculty who decide to live in these neighborhoods, with the confidence that they have kept Yale as a force of uplift in the broader community.
The class largely met his optimism with skepticism. After all, the construction sites of new Yale property and the Meds and Eds transition that Rae described to us at the start are enough to show that Yale has not paired its increased concentration with a broader commitment to community uplift. Still, the opportunity to see through Rae’s vantage point granted our difference empowerment and clarity.
And Rae, it is worth noting, also seemed to benefit from interacting with us. When professor Abrams told him the amount of weekly student teacher time at Sarah Lawrence, Rae was taken aback, joking “I don’t have that much student time in two years.” Throughout the visit he seemed to relish this student time, getting to know as many of us individually as he could, easing between discussions about our academic programs, the political life at Sarah Lawrence, and the styles of our shoes.
His secretary later told Abrams that he never gets to spend time with undergraduates and enjoy it. So we can look back at that trip with the confidence that Sarah Lawrence’s particular brand of undergraduate left its mark. And while other students will open their copies of classic political theory, viewing them as no more than abstractions, we will be able to see beyond to the concrete world on which they’re built.
by Samuel Harwood