Drawing Boarders Around Yale
In a back room of Amistad High School on a Monday night, folding chairs squeaked as residents of the Dwight neighborhood sat down under the fluorescent lights for the monthly meeting. Many of them had never been to one of these meetings before; newcomers dutifully stood in line to sign in as they made small talk, anxious to hear the news that had brought them there.
After information from various speakers regarding storm preparations, trends in crime, and changes to properties, Timothy Franzen stood up and walked to the front of the room to begin his presentation. Many audience members, including one of the heads of the meeting, looked outwardly skeptical as Franzen, who lives in Chicago, explained his presence.
Franzen is the president of Graduate Hotels, a division of AJ Capital Partners that describes itself as “a hotel collection that resides in the most dynamic university-anchored towns across the country.” AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago-based hospitality investment firm, has just purchased the historic Hotel Duncan in downtown New Haven.
For the past 123 years the hotel, whose black-and-white checkerboard tiles and ornate decor are reminiscent of decades past, has occupied its spot on Chapel Street between York and Park. Seating areas tucked away in its lobby provide a common space where guests and residents alike can be found socializing under the warm glow cast by the chandeliers and floor lamps.
In addition to offering a nostalgic atmosphere, the Hotel Duncan’s weekly and long-term rental options provide affordable housing to dozens of permanent residents. But once AJ Capital Partners renovates the Duncan in January, those options will no longer be available. According to an August article in The New Haven Independent, all of the full-time residents must be moved out by Nov. 1.
The Duncan is the latest in an ongoing wave of gentrification projects in the areas surrounding Yale — a wave intentionally jump-started by Yale’s administration when they bought swaths of property along Broadway, displacing independent sellers in order to bring in high-paying chain stores. In the case of the Duncan, however, the stakes are more personal: boarders must pack their bags and prepare to leave behind their homes, routines, and shared communities.
At the Sept. 4 meeting, Franzen said that AJ Capital Partners is drawn to developing in New Haven not just by “the university but the community itself,” and hopes the new interior design of the hotel will “reflect the community” in which it is situated. He cited plans for decorations that would celebrate New Haven’s history, but did not specify what would be depicted.
“We want our hotel lobbies to be like a community living room,” he said. In order to achieve the goal of “inviting the community back in,” Franzen spoke of plans to include a cafe in the lobby.
In order for AJ Capital Partners to achieve that goal of inviting community members in, however, they will first have to kick them out; there are currently 39 permanent residents, according to a representative from a non-profit that is helping with the relocation process.
Current resident Dollette Harris has lived at the Hotel Duncan since April 2017, and although she will miss the people who comprise its community — they, she said, are her favorite part of living there — she feels comfortable both about the transitional period and the future. On the subject of the displacement of the hotel’s residents and the search for new homes she simply commented, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Frank E. Douglass, Jr., who has been the Ward 2 Alderman for six years and counting, shares Dollette’s optimism about the changes that await.
“I know that there will be some displacement, but [AJ Capital Partners] did say that they are going to assist with the placement of these folks,” he said.
To assist residents with the moving process, AJ Capital Partners has hired Glendower Group, an affiliate group of the Housing Authority of New Haven with the stated goal of “support[ing] redevelopment activities. . .for the benefit of residents with low income.” A representative from Glendower Group spoke at the Dwight neighborhood meeting and addressed the concerns about the Hotel Duncan’s residents.
She explained that Glendower Group has been working with the displaced boarders, assisting with security deposits, moving expenses, and housing applications. “This is obviously not an easy thing to do,” the representative said of the relocation process. “To say it’s a big deal is an understatement.” Somewhat evading an audience member’s question about the affordability of the Hotel Duncan, she said, “We fit [the residents] with units that fit their income requirements.”
There is room for doubt, however, considering her statement that only four of those 39 long-term boarders have moved out so far.
Many of the residents are also employed by the hotel. Douglass, who prioritizes jobs for New Haveners, was additionally reassured by AJ Capital Partners’ promise to continue employing locals. While no hotel staffers will be able to maintain residence at the Hotel Duncan unless they pay the nightly rate — which on a long-term basis would be entirely unsustainable — they will be able to return to their jobs if they choose to, Franzen told community members.
Even for those who have never called the Hotel Duncan home, the changes may feel like a loss. For Benjamin Verdery, who is beginning his 32nd year as an Associate Professor of Guitar at the Yale School of Music, the Chapel Street establishment became a “home away from home” while he was living in New York City.
“Because I lived in NYC, I would commute to Yale, but my teaching responsibilities meant that I had to spend two or three days in New Haven, and the Duncan became my regular hotel for a few reasons,” Verdery said in an e-mail message. “It had tons of personality. I loved that the furniture was different, that the floors were in some rooms slightly tilted. It reminded me a bit of my grandmother’s house,” he said. “It boasted that the elevator was the oldest in Connecticut. The elevator man would take you up and down and you would chat about this or that. . .The Duncan had a funky quaintness about it. It was worthy of many a director choosing it for scenes in a movie.”
Although Verdery said he has not stayed regularly at the hotel for several years, he felt disheartened when he learned of the changes affecting the Duncan.
“I was of course sad because it is an old-school New Haven town hotel,” he said. When he stayed there again last spring, the people he had known “were still there and as always wonderfully welcoming and kind,” he continued. “I was happy to be back but I had a feeling its days were limited. I shall miss it for sure, but as we know, all things change.”
Verdery’s fatalism about the gentrification of the neighborhood does not quite convey the gravity of the situation for those who are losing their homes. At the Dwight meeting, tensions were high as attendee after attendee stood up to politely but intensely reprimand Franzen for his apparent hypocrisy. One resident of the Duncan passionately asserted that what many of the displaced boarders needed was social workers. Franzen’s presentation eventually had to be cut short for the sake of the meeting’s agenda, and attendees were told that Franzen would be at the back of the room for a “sidebar” — nearly half the audience followed.
Douglass, like Verdery, was hesitant to condemn the trend of new developments. He said he hopes the transformations to the Hotel Duncan will have a “positive impact” on the neighborhood. Douglass is aware of the concerns shared by many community members, but said he didn’t feel that there was any reason for “pushback.”
Douglass said he expects similar processes of change, expansion, and renovation to continue throughout the neighborhood in the coming years. “Yale is expanding and getting more students enrolled. There’s going to be more room for everyone to expand around them,” he said with apparent optimism.
But as residents are relocated to make room for more cash flow in the downtown neighborhood, the question of who is included in that “everyone” remains to be seen.