The first time someone asked me a ridiculous question about New Haven, I was twelve years old and at a state-wide middle school band competition, oiling the valves of my trumpet before rehearsal. Upon learning where I was from, the boy with whom I shared a music stand turned to me and asked, “Do you wear a bulletproof vest to school?”
I can’t be sure how serious he was, if he truly thought New Haven was so full of guns and gangs that most kids trudged to school equipped with military gear, or if he was making fun of me, drawing on the most obvious stereotypes about the city to provoke a reaction. Probably, he asked with a mixture of curiosity and derision that fell somewhere in between these two possibilities. Whatever his intention, the question shocked me and I immediately burst into laughter.
On my walk to school, I wore a t-shirt in spring, a jacket in fall, and a coat in winter. I walked with my sister or my parents, and later by myself, the six blocks of gently cracked sidewalk past one- and two-family houses, three bus stops, and a café to my neighborhood school where the crossing-guard in her yellow reflective vest stopped traffic for me. I had never seen a real gun before except on the belt of a police officer.
I was born in the Yale-New Haven Hospital and spent the entirety of my childhood in New Haven. I lived surrounded by family, friends, classmates, and teachers who were from New Haven or knew it intimately. Inside the Elm City, I was mostly protected from outside misconceptions and judgments. The state-wide band festival provided me with a rare occasion to identify myself as a New Havener; usually this fact was assumed and irrelevant.
It’s worth noting that this boy was from Clinton. Where even is Clinton? I had never heard of it, and I probably still couldn’t find it on a map of Connecticut, but I knew that the gliding consonants sounded like marble countertops and tennis courts to me. In this way, we were both sealed into our stereotypes.
Today, of course, his question falls very differently upon the ear. After a decade rattled by school shootings, including in our own state, the idea of wearing a bulletproof vest sounds less like a joke at New Haven’s expense and more like a commentary on safety in America as a whole. But today, this memory forces me to realize that my awareness of my identity as a New Havener was inaugurated with a question about gun violence.
I grew up in Westville, a residential neighborhood usually free of violent crime. I attended the New Haven Public Schools—Edgewood and then Co-op—for thirteen years, and the occasional lack of textbooks didn’t mean we couldn’t share. I was in the school band, choir, and musical; played soccer and ran track; went for long walks with my friends on the weekends. My classmates and teammates mostly looked different from me, and while some unspoken forces—which I would later call by the heavy names systematic racism and in-group bias—seemed to keep us from mingling unselfconsciously, all fifty kids in my elementary school knew each other well enough to be friends, or least friendly. In high school, a slightly bigger world, we seemed to have outgrown some of our racial nervousness and mixed more easily. My world was busy, stimulating, full of difference and sometimes discomfort, but I could feel already that it was good for me.
By the end of high school, I saw New Haven as a city rich in activities and opportunities where people with different names and skin colors and social classes spent time together. And yet, I knew it wasn’t perfect: it was also a place where people shivered on the steps outside Yale’s imitation medieval towers; where, when one of my friends complained that there wouldn’t be anything in the fridge to eat after track practice, I understood that he didn’t mean anything he liked, but anything at all; where my peers worked jobs they hated because the New Haven Promise scholarship covered tuition but not book expenses; where fights and bomb threats punctuated the school year more than field trips. And yet, New Haven meant concerts on the Green, and black and brown and white ballerinas twirling together in the Co-op winter dance showcase, and young men on the city bus offering their seats to a mother trailing a crying toddler. And yet, …on and on, back and forth between the good and the bad of this city. But I didn’t have to try to reconcile these differences; instead, I left for college.
Which only led me back to the same ambiguities. The classic first-year question, after “What’s your name?” and “Do you know where the dining hall is?”, is “Where are you from?” In high school, home meant my house, and New Haven was the outside world. But “home” gets bigger the farther from it you go, and in college, I was suddenly introducing myself as Claudia from New Haven all the time. I began to wonder what that meant. Since I was one of the few New Haveners at my school, I wanted to represent it well, to talk the city up, to challenge the stereotypes and projections I was already hearing in conversation:
“I know New Haven—Yale, right?”
“Well … yes and no ….”
“Oh god, the train station is so scary. There’s not much in the city, is there?”
“I’ve never been there, but I’ve been to Hartford!”
“Good for you! I too have been to cities that are not New Haven!”
I found myself singing praises of the Elm City to curious acquaintances, defending it from stereotypes, and detailing the diversity, the food, the arts, the engagement of the people, the public schools I’d loved, the sports, the location. I had a lot to love and a lot to say.
I also grew more aware of my love for New Haven because of how it contrasted with the distaste or discomfort that many of my new friends felt for their hometowns. I heard stories of divorcés being ostracized in a conservative, church-going Pennsylvania town, of glittering Westchester mansions concealing families filled with violence and substance abuse, of spending hours watching TV in a tiny apartment because there was nothing to do and no car to go anywhere. My roommate once pointed to the two small black magnets on the blank expanse of our white mini-fridge and said, “That was my high school.” I knew people who dreaded going home for breaks, while I couldn’t wait to see our exit on I-91. New Haven just looked better and better as I rolled these strange and often very sad stories of other places around in my mind, and often I was glad to be an advocate, to tell people the truth about this great city.
But as time went on, I found that I didn’t know what that truth was. There were too many holes in my narrative, too many oversights, too many statements that felt true for me but weren’t true at all for other people, including people I’m close to. My New Haven, primarily white, safe, and financially stable, is not a reality for many New Haveners. So how can I say I know and love New Haven? I only know and love my own New Haven.
New Haven is a city, like most cities, constructed of multiple narratives, of difference and diversity. The fact that I don’t represent every single person makes sense, of course, and I can’t expect to. But New Haven also has a poverty rate of 25% while already being snugly situated in a state with one of the highest levels of wealth-inequality. To say, then, that the differences among New Haven residents are just part of what make New Haven a diverse city is, in part, to normalize and accept how many people here live in poverty or in sickness or in the street, and to assign them a place at the bottom of the urban ecosystem. To say that it’s completely fine for me to praise New Haven based on my own life because “other people just have different experiences” is to condone how unhappy and stuck many people feel here.
The pleasant white narrative—my narrative—cannot be the siren song calling other pleasant white people into pleasant new high-rise apartments downtown. Praising New Haven may be one way for me to show my love and draw positive attention to the city. But for every compliment, it’s wise to critique and criticize, too; to be honest about the ways in which New Haven still needs to grow and change. Positive mythologies can be as false and harmful as negative ones.
As far as I know, I am one of the few people alive who caught on to the short-lived “Greatest Small City in America” tagline, which still often escapes my lips when I tell someone where I’m from. But after they’re done laughing at me and ask, “Okay, so why is it the greatest small city in America?”, I don’t know quite what to say. I am full of questions and low on answers; I have no neat conclusion. I still don’t know how to reconcile my warm memories, my safe childhood, my imperfect but ultimately enriching public school years, and my diverse friendships with the harsh difficulties many New Haven residents face. But over the past couple of years, I have been talking differently about New Haven, launching into longer and more complex conversations, pointing out that I can only share one very fortunate story that takes place here, tempering my enthusiasm with caveats. I’m grateful to come from a place that still fills me with love when I think about it. Expressing that love, qualified with an awareness that New Haven isn’t inherently fabulous just because I have been lucky, is one way to tell the truth.
I can only speak with my voice about my New Haven, but I think we need to listen to a multiplicity of truths about this city in all of its complexity. If you love New Haven, maybe even enough to critique it, say so! With a mixture of positivity and honesty, New Haveners may just be able to both defend the Elm City from and explain it to the people who think you need a bulletproof vest to live here.