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“Respect New Haven” 
(The TLS, May 2020)  

Respect New Haven: On Life in the Pandemic 
The TLS, May 2020 (Cover Story) 

By Hirsh Sawhney 

My partner and I get to enjoy lockdown from the comfort of home, one of us working in the bedroom while the other cares for our four-year-old daughter, who keeps us focused on healthy things like riding bikes and making collages. Despite this privilege, the days contain moments of friction, with disagreements about how and when to discipline children, about whose scaly hands deserve a break from the dishes. There is little room for solitude in our two-bedroom apartment, except when indulging in that sweetest of pleasures, a scalding hot shower. To curb feelings of suffocation and despondency, I limit my internet surfing to thirty minutes per day. Today the main news sites show images of masked white men with machine guns protesting against health guidelines inside the statehouse in Michigan. There’s a good chance they have been inspired by the violent rhetoric of the US President, who has encouraged Americans to “liberate” states that are not controlled by his party. He has explicitly called for his followers to defend their right to form militias and wield arms. 


When I feel asphyxiated by such information, I spend an hour or two walking the city with my dog, a tiny chihuahua-dachshund mix who can ramble for miles. Pinky is yellowish, though her muzzle and muscular chest have whitened with age. When we adopted her from a kill shelter six years ago, she had recently been mauled by one of her co-prisoners, a German shepherd. Knowing her as I do now, I wouldn’t be surprised if she started that fight. Pinky doesn’t care much for other animals, though she is loving and gentle with humans, especially small children, except when they do something stupid like ring our doorbell. Today is a dreary spring day in New Haven, Connecticut, and she is curled like a comma underneath her crocheted orange and yellow blanket, which an aunt made for my daughter. When I say, “Walk, Pinky?” she pops out her seal-like face, gets up and does her dog yoga, then scampers like a puppy, making it difficult to fasten her harness. 


Outside on Orange Street, the pert rows of daffodils have turned to husk, but radiant tulips stand to attention. Pinky sniffs at them, then pisses. We live in the East Rock section of New Haven, a picturesque neighbourhood with charming Italian delis and hundred-year-old wooden houses. It used to be an area inhabited by large middle-class families, but it is increasingly composed of wealthy professionals and graduate students, most of whom are affiliated with Yale University, whose lavish campus lies just over a mile away. There are also people like me, townies who grew up in the surrounding suburbs and have moved here for a more satisfying life. East Rock is the type of yuppie enclave where a person will pick up your compost, by bicycle, no less, if you are willing to pay the price; where residents stick up signs in support of immigrants and people of colour, though not too many immigrants or people of colour actually live here. Pinky noses her way down the street, defecating close to a sign that reads “Yale: Respect New Haven”. Hundreds of these have gone up across the city as part of a grassroots campaign to encourage the university to be more inclusive and ethical in its employment practices. 


Yale has a long history of being an elitist power structure with links to discriminatory ideologies. It takes its name from Elihu Yale, who made his fortune as an administrator of the East India Company, an institution that subjected millions of Asians to chaos, violence and famine. In the 1930s a Yale University president was an advocate of eugenics and wrote about his desire for “an Armenian massacre confined to the New Haven district” in order to “protect our Nordic stock”. Though Yale makes efforts to address this sordid past, some locals remain deeply critical of the institution, claiming that it fosters a type of development that yields luxury apartments and fancy restaurants but does little to alleviate dire local problems in housing and education. Yale pays certain fees and taxes to New Haven, and it makes a voluntary annual contribution – this year $12 million. But some consider this figure minuscule in light of the university’s $30 billion endowment and the fact that it generates more than $4 billion in revenue each year. What truly angers New Havenites is

that the university owns $2.5 billion of property that is exempt from tax because of its non-profit status. With Yale in possession of such preposterous wealth, many believe it should be required to contribute more money to its cash-strapped host city. That way New Haven could, among other things, finally pay its teachers adequate salaries, so that they wouldn’t have to work second jobs or flee to better-paying suburban schools. 


Pinky’s ears are erect. She has spotted one of her nemeses in the distance, a golden retriever named Sunflower. Sunflower’s human caregiver is chatty with others, but she shoots me her usual glare when Pinky lunges and snarls at her store-bought pooch, who is smiling an unintelligent smile with a tennis ball in her mouth. We cross the street to avoid confrontation and conform to social distancing norms, then head to the deserted downtown. We pass some glorious mansions, built during the first Gilded Age, then the sleek Yale School of Management, a specimen of architectural pornography, as if a cubist had been commissioned to design the summer palace of Darth Vader. We pass the glistening, shuttered Apple Store, which sits on a spot previously occupied by an independent record shop, where I bought my first Miles Davis CD way back in the 1990s. We pass a swanky boutique hotel that has recently replaced a single-room-occupancy residence for working class people. A firetruck speeds past sounding its siren though there is not a single car to impede it. Pinky halts, cocks her head back, and howls like a wolf. 


The endorphins are now pulsing through her. She is trotting ahead with her ears pinned back, but I struggle to share her enthusiasm. I am sad that to defeat the virus we must allow the government to surveil us more than it already does, that we must become even more dependent on soul-crushing technologies that undermine genuine communication. And I am unsettled by the possibility that these thoughts have something in common with the thinking of those gun-toting men in Michigan. We arrive at the New Haven Green, with its flock of eighteenth-century churches, a space that is perpetually occupied by the homeless. In 2018 more than seventy people overdosed in this part of town when they were sold a batch of tainted drugs. Despite the virus, numerous desperate and ailing individuals are still here, sitting on benches, quite possibly sharing pipes and bottles. Across from the Green is City Hall, where a new mayor, Justin Elicker, was installed not long ago. He campaigned on promises of increased transparency and more inclusive development. He also pledged that he would get Yale to be more forthcoming with its dollars. 


Some were sceptical, for he was young (forty-three) and had little political experience. He grew up in a posh suburb down the coast and had little connection to New Haven before studying at Yale, the institution that is now the object of his ire. He was a white man in a city that is largely populated by brown and black people. I too was suspicious. History has taught me to be mistrustful of missionaries who profess an interest in the customs and welfare of natives, for such saviours often remain beholden to the empires that wean them. But since taking office, Elicker has been earnest and bold, cancelling his police escort because it was an unnecessary financial drain. He has put forward a responsible but contentious budget, one that would eliminate vacant city jobs and increase taxes to rectify previous fiscal management while also expanding funding for the schools. 


During the pandemic, he has come across as both decisive and compassionate in his daily press conferences. He and his team have made testing available to residents who lack health insurance, and kept school meal programmes running for low- income families even though the schools are closed. He has also partnered with state officials to get homeless people into hotels. In late March, he asked Yale to provide dorm rooms to first responders requiring isolation, and the university initially declined his request. Elicker responded with fury, comparing Yale’s attitude to that of a neighbour refusing to shelter your kids while your house is burning down. “It is in these times of crisis”, he remarked, “when people are exposed for their true selves.” Yale revised its decision. 


One evening, Pinky and I spot Mayor Elicker jogging with a face mask. He looks tired but offers us a friendly wave. I know to be vigilant when politicians point fingers at big, bad Goliaths, for they are usually positioning themselves to star as David. But I am filled with gratitude as he bounces away. While the pandemic has confirmed that many leaders on the international stage are as malignant as we feared, the person at the helm of my home town is so far living up to expectations. 

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