Bundled in a bright yellow parka, Gabor Kovacs offered a handful of Sun Chips and a partially toothless smile as he slid down a wooden bench to make room for me to sit down. It was 10 degrees below freezing, but sunny at midday on the Green. “Do you live in New Haven?” I asked. “You could say that,” he said, shrugging. The gray-haired Hungarian immigrant has resided in the Elm City for 15 years, occasionally sleeping in the Safe Haven homeless shelter on State Street, but often spending nights on the Green. During the day, he dwells in the public library and in Trinity Church, one of three churches that populate the Green, where he contemplates theological quandaries. “Do you think people executed by the state can go to Heaven?” he asked suddenly, as if the question had been gnawing at him all morning. “We didn’t have an answer in Sunday school.”
As we chatted for the next half hour, the snow banks piled high around us, I realized that Kovacs was not part of the future of the Green envisioned by its private proprietors. The proprietorship, formally known as the Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven, is a five-person self-electing committee that owns the Green, cooperating closely with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. In 2012, the proprietorship commissioned the Project for Public Spaces—the urban development firm that famously gentrified Manhattan’s Bryant Park—to refashion the Green into a downtown cultural hub.
The plans describe a bourgeois playground, boasting attractions including a seasonal beer garden; a farmer’s market with wine tastings and chef demonstrations; an outdoor reading room with mobile book carts; a temporary ice skating rink; bocce courts; a study area with free Wi-Fi; and yes, even a waffle cart. Development on the Green is part of a larger trend of gentrification in the downtown. A number of popular eateries have opened up in the real estate surrounding the Green in recent years, such as Chipotle, Shake Shack, and Ordinary.
The Green, version 2.0, would seem to cater more to the tastes of yuppie Brooklynites than the surrounding low-income communities. Lucy Gubernick, ES ’14, who is writing her senior thesis about the Green, says that the Project for Public Spaces design is clearly catering to a particular demographic and has historically been involved with gentrifying projects in New York. Yale Urbanism professor Elihu Rubin, who studies New Haven city planning, echoed Gubernick’s sentiments. “There is a sentiment among many living and working here in the downtown that they would like the Green to be a pristine showcase of a thriving and successful city,” he explained. The proprietors originally brought on the Project for Public Spaces with the city of New Haven and the Parks and Recreation Department at the urging of Mayor DeStefano, but have not publicly stated whether or not they intend to instate many of the plan’s initiatives.
The Project’s managers write that the Green has the potential to become a “place for repose and the heart of the community,” as it once was. Founded by John Davenport in 1638, downtown New Haven was modeled as a 9-square grid plan with the Green and a Puritan church at its center. The architecture of the city was thought to produce civility and a sense of congregationalism, establishing the Green as a place of worship, military training, protest and commerce. Gubernick described its design concept as “conditional public space.” She added, “In order to be part of the town, you also had to be part of the congregational idea.” This vision of the Green as a community center endured for generations, defended by the proprietorship even when faced with a popular proposal in the 1950s to build a parking garage underneath it.
But the Green’s reputation as an immaculate historical landmark fell apart in the 1980s with the rising crisis of homelessness and crime in New Haven, remarked Rubin. Since then, the space ceased to be a jewel of the city, and instead came to be viewed as a haunt for drug dealers. The Green will therefore have to overcome public perception that it is unsafe in order to attract investment and “play an important role in the rebirth of the entire downtown,” as the Project for Public Spaces plans suggest. Bryant Park was a similar hub for unsavory activity until renovations in the 1990s changed the face of the space and made it synonymous with haute couture as the home of New York Fashion Week. So is all the Green needs to spark a renaissance in downtown New Haven a cosmetic makeover, a nip-and-tuck, a waffle cart?
Last November, City Hall Corporation Counsel, Victor Bolden drafted park ordinance amendments that would implement new regulations for the Green—including prohibitions on sleeping in the park overnight and charging organizations for police presence at demonstrations and protest events. The amendments would have displaced many of New Haven’s homeless, who are already crippled by the lack of affordable housing in the city, says Alison Cunningham, executive director of the Columbus House homeless shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. The ordinance was withdrawn in the interest of further debate, but may be revived, forcing Green-dwellers like Gabor Kovacs to seek refuge elsewhere.
The impetus for the ordinance was the 2012 Occupy New Haven movement, city spokesman Laurence Grotheer said. The city initially tolerated protestors who set up camps on the Green with tents and cooking supplies, abiding them for longer than residents in most other U.S. cities. Martina Crouch, CC ’14, who organized a protest event on Cross Campus incorporating Occupy-related art, said Occupy changed popular perception of the Green by demonstrating that “public spaces can be employed—not individually, but communally—to express shared public sentiments.” She explained that protesters came to the Green for their own reasons, but, once there, sparked a conversation that exposed people to each other’s views. “People were forced to explain or defend their politics and practices in ways that they had maybe only dealt with abstractly before,” Crouch added.
But after six months of public outcry and bleeding tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on supplementary police presence in the area, the city ultimately evicted the Occupiers. Bolden, of the City Corporation Counsel, told the New Haven Register that the Occupy camps infringed on the rights of others to use the Green, claiming “if someone gets to dominate public space for an indefinite amount of time, that space is actually no longer public, it becomes a private space for them.” He applies the same logic to the homeless—if they permanently reside on the Green, the space is no longer public.
In light of this debate, the city faces a definitional problem in Bolden’s argument: what do we actually mean by “public space”? Rubin claimed that it is not the “pleasant pleasure-ground” that the proprietorship of the Green envisions. Rather, he suggested, the function of public space is to force people to confront the ugly realities of the city. Bringing to light disenfranchised people like those who sleep on the Green may encourage city government to dedicate more resources towards their welfare.
“Is it possible that public space is not pleasant, but challenging and difficult because it challenges our tolerance for people different from ourselves?” Rubin contemplated. “You can remove people from the Green, but that won’t remove the broader problem of income inequality and lack of housing… Development is a worthy goal in some ways, but I don’t think it should be attained as a kind of sweep of the area.”
As New Haven founders intended, the Green remains a prevalent platform for free expression—for Occupiers and the homeless alike. To evict the homeless from the Green and place restrictions on demonstrations might force the voiceless further into the shadows. Crouch remembered one instance in which she came to terms with the powerlessness of the homeless on the Green on a particularly cold night during Occupy. A man who did not give his name came to her group asking for shelter and a coat and they took him in. “He had these absolutely luminous, watery pale green eyes despite their depth and sadness,” she recalled. “He was telling us, quietly and in scattered sentences, about how lucky we had to consider ourselves as people who could self-advocate in crowds… He told us we were not invisible and that this makes all the difference.”
The homeless are not the only potential victims of displacement from the Green. The proposed ordinance would “cause harm to many individuals and groups who use the Green for purposes of public gathering,” said Cunningham of Columbus House.
Specifically, the ordinance included a permit requirement for demonstrators accompanied by a small fee to cover police costs, which came under fire for violating First Amendment rights. Brian Soucek, LAW ’11, who teaches law at the University of California at Davis, led the backlash by writing a petition to Bolden, the City Corporation Counselor. The ordinance would have made “unpopular speech more expensive than happy speech” because demonstrators would have had to cover police costs out of pocket, he explained. “Requiring some kind of fee for speech that is in any way content based is patently unconstitutional,” Soucek said.
In spite of measures to reinvent the Green as a public space, New Haven citizens remain committed to protecting the landmark’s historical purpose: a gathering place for free expression. The Green’s proprietorship may prescribe its own plan for the park’s future, but they should recognize that the space is ultimately in the hands of the people—be they Yalies, Occupiers, or the homeless. Occupy brought about a “type of reclamation” of the Green that was larger than the movement itself, said Crouch. “It reminded people that any public space can be co-opted in this way, if there is a need or desire for radical expression and specifically opposition to larger governmental structures, figures, and decisions.”
Occupy represented a turning point for the Green, a return to roots. Now, the Green’s defenders have the opportunity to revive a modern-day interpretation of the congregationalism envisioned by the city’s Puritan founders. The gentrified downtown and low-income communities that encircle it are at odds. That contrast will become starker if the proprietorship brings in outside urban developers to redesign the Green and discourages its use as a forum for public expression by implementing new regulations. With the traditional spirit of the Green at its core, New Haven need not remain a tale of two cities.