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Just Back from New Haven

I got back on Friday night from a short visit to New Haven, and I came home, again, struck by the contrasting faces of the Elm City. New Haven is more and less than what it seems.

One of the great challenges for Internet exceptionalists has been creating an online equivalent to the sense of urban vibrancy that Jane Jacobs famously idealized in The Death and Life of American Cities. Steven Johnson‘s most recent enterprise,, is a cooler-than-most effort to map (pun intended) real space localism onto a virtual grid. IP policy, and copyright policy in particular, is sometimes understood as grounded in a related kind of spatiality, with ideas and expression jostling against each other, fighting for attention, and commanding commercial and cultural salience on the sidewalks and in the marketplaces, parks, and gated communities of both public and private spheres. In what I think is the dominant telling, the information ecosystem is fundamentally urban, even if comes freighted with metaphors of “openness” and commons. Carol Rose wrote, “One might envision a public space that is full of junk, trash, lies and risks, but also excitement and thrills–like Central Park after dark. It is important to have such a public space. This commons is not purely tragic; creativity thrives not only on the ability to cash in on one’s ideas– an ability that one gets from property–but also on a kind of free-wheeling give and take that we desire from open-access and public space.”

Does the urbanity metaphor miss something important? Or, what should the Internet learn from New Haven?

Last month in New Haven, on a different visit, I heard Doug Rae give a short talk on his experiences in the city. Professor Rae has taught at Yale for decades, and in the early 1990s he spent some time as the Chief Adminstrative Officer of New Haven, working for Mayor John Daniels. From the ashes of that experience came a magnificent book: City: Urbanism and Its End, which blends social, cultural, and economic histories of a well-known mid-sized American industrial city that suffered a slow collapse beginning around 1920. The detail is gripping, particularly for a reader (like me) who thought he knew something about the city that he has visited and toured dozens of times over the last 25 years. (I suspect that it’s gripping even for long-time New Haven residents.) I had always thought of New Haven as a city built largely around Yale, that it was founded more or less with Yale, that it rose with Yale, then fell in the 20th century and is now starting to rise again. That story is, however, quite wrong; the New Haven that Doug Rae describes rose and fell as the product of manufacturing enterprises that were enabled by late 19th century transportation networks. The urban fabric of the city was the byproduct of the proximity of the factory floor and the working class and middle class residential neighborhoods. Yale was part of this story, but it was not a dominant player. Until the mid-20th century, in fact, there were New Haven public schools located on parts of what is now the Yale campus — where Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges now sit.

Just as New Haven is less than I imagined, it is also more: I knew, for example, about New Haven’s place in the urban redevelopment experiments of the 1960s, but I didn’t know anything about New Haven’s earlier industrial history. And from that point of view, one of the most interesting lessons of the book may be that our urban idealism is largely misplaced. The urbanism of late 19th century and early 20th century New Haven, like that of similar industrial cities (such as Pittsburgh, where I live now) was an urbanism of necessity, not of choice, and that urbanism, for all of its associative virtues, came at a high price. Economists would argue, I assume, that the form of the 19th century city owed much to transactions costs, given the transportation infrastructure of the era. As Rae shows, the rise of the automobile liberated the residents of industrial communities. New Haven was never the same again.

Cities, in other words, aren’t arguments for themselves. If you build it, they may not come, at least not in numbers sufficient to justify the investment. New Haven is like Pittsburgh, where I live now, and like dozens of other mid-sized cities that owe their former prominence to accidents of industry and now find themselves wondering what, exactly, to do next. New York is the exception that proves the rule.  Elsewhere else in the U.S., no one rushes downtown in the evening just to hang out with other people. And there is little, if anything, that governments can do to change things. The forces of governance are too powerful for that. City governments didn’t need to do much to sustain urban fabrics in the late 1800s. City governments don’t have the power to do so today.

What does that mean for application of the urbanity metaphor to cyberspace? A la Venturi, one might say that this is “Learning from New Haven”: Virtual urbanism may not be an end in itself or, perhaps, and despite its appeal, virtual urbanism doesn’t sell itself. The history of the American city is that urbanism is a byproduct of structural forces over which public policy has only limited control. There is only so much that public policy can do to force either physical or virtual urbanism upon us.  Exposure to the give-and-take of public spaces may be a good thing, objectively speaking, but large numbers of people will resist it, given the opportunity and the means to do so. Governance, not government, is the policy watchword, and governance is private as well as public. Metaphorically, urban idealism may be dead. Both physical and virtual cities need to be reconceptualized in terms of contemporary structures that serve the functions that railroads and integrated factories served a century ago: things that pull people together and that push them apart. This post is long enough without my belaboring applications, but the New Haven experience has implications, if we want to draw on them, for software IP, search engine regulation, Google Book Search, telecomm — all kinds of stuff. Whatever you take from Doug Rae’s book, however, I recommend it highly.

1 thought on “Just Back from New Haven”

  1. I like the outside_in idea a lot–I hope to get my neighborhood on it sometime soon. But I think the idea might be better handled by different affinity groups posting..I just can’t imagine wading through all the posts that could cover Jersey City and Manhattan. I’d like to see the stuff from people who share roughly similar tastes and interests as my own.

    Hopefully this will not lead to the degeneration from “community” to “lifestyle enclave” (to use Robert Bellah’s normatively freighted descriptive terms).

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