Jordan Laris Cohen: Yale University and the Politics of Private Space

On the afternoon of 22 August 1967, Joan Thornell, a resident of New Haven’s Hill neighborhood, called administrators of Yale University with a request. After a white storeowner shot a young Puerto Rican man days earlier, the city had erupted in what was variously referred to as the “riot” or “rebellion” among predominantly poor communities of color. Thornell and other organizers from the Hill Parents Association (HPA) opted to sponsor an evacuation of women and children from the area, fearing violence from a heavily armed New Haven Police Department (NHPD) in the wake of the brutality following similar circumstances in Newark. Speaking to Sam Chauncey, a special assistant to Yale President Kingman Brewster, Jr., Thornell implored Yale to consider offering one of its residential colleges as a temporary shelter for the Hill’s most vulnerable residents.

Chauncey denied the request on the basis that the university had not been assured “adequate police protection” by city government—a prerequisite Thornell later observed had not been demanded by several churches, Wesleyan University, and some 200 New Haven families who volunteered food and shelter for the evacuees. Two weeks later Thornell wrote to Yale’s president to convey her “deep disenchantment with the university” resulting from its “faint-hearted excuse” and inaction. “Here was an opportunity,” she explained, “for the involvement of the university in its community, but perhaps that is not the function of a university. Or perhaps Yale was involved in what it perceives to be its true community: the community of those who hold power.” Brewster replied, “I am distressed by your distress…I simply ask you to believe that the motivation was neither callous nor indifferent.”

These events indeed reflected much more than the callousness or indifference of a couple of administrators, and were indicative of a much broader relationship between Yale and the city. That Chauncey justified inaction with fears about security is significant. As Thornell aptly noted, one is driven to question whose security, from whom? It seemed implausible that those in the streets would seek to harm evacuees from their own neighborhoods; likewise a powerful, established institution like Yale need not fear violence from the police or National Guard. It appears, then, that what Chauncey and Brewster were profoundly uncomfortable with was the presence of the residents themselves in the privacy of Yale’s grounds. The university’s refusal to open its gates to the frightened community, despite that its students had not even returned for the fall term, reveals serious anxieties about the occupation of campus space by outsiders. Rather than welcome evacuees as a humanistic institution let alone neighbor, Yale pointedly denied its responsibility to New Haven in the name of its own prerogatives, and of serving its own, circumscribed community.

In order to fully appreciate the ideas of race, security, and exclusivity that underlie this interaction, we propose a framework that integrates issues of campus policing, urban renewal, and tax exemption during the postwar period. “Privileged segments of society”, David Harvey writes, “use whatever powers of domination [they] can command (money, political influence, even violence) to try to seal [themselves] off (or seal off others judged undesirable) in fragments of space within which processes of reproduction of social distinctions can be jealously protected.”

Campus police maintain special hierarchies by determining those who belong in the university community, and keeping away outsiders. The New Haven urban renewal programs of the 1950s-60s, which Yale presidents closely supported and advised, can be similarly understood as a “power of domination” used to police space and exclude undesirables—people of color and the working-class more broadly. Finally, the university’s controversial “policy of purchasing property and removing it from the tax roll” asserted an extreme kind of privatization: productive space that had once contributed would now only serve Yale, which thereby “[ate] into the vitals of the city.” By pursuing these three interconnected policies, Yale forged what is deemed a “politics of private space” during the postwar period. In doing so, the university demarcated itself as a racialized, exclusive space and community of interest to be protected and served, while ignoring and repudiating obligations to the city.

Through the practice of securing space and controlling access, campus police constantly delineate the university community from those who do not belong. Such everyday interactions form part of what Harvey calls “the production of urban consciousness,” by which space is imbibed with social meaning. Police, argues Robert Fogelson, “have always done more than just enforce the law, keep the peace, and serve the public. They have also decided, or at least helped to decide, which laws to enforce, whose peace to keep, and which public to serve.” In such a manner New Haven resident Edward Grant describes how he understands his claim to geographic belonging in relation to police behavior: “Because, see, the cops can’t go after Yalies…. They could go at us, but they couldn’t go at them, you know. In the first place, they asked you what you doing downtown…. You know, a black man downtown. What is the black man doing downtown in the city of New Haven?”

From its 1894 inception the Yale Police Department (YPD)—by all accounts the first of its kind in the country—has performed the duty of discerning and removing those who did not belong. Founding Yale Police officer Bill Wiser thus understood his “first thing to do…was to keep all suspicious characters from the campus.” To illustrate, Wiser relates an anecdote in which he “found a colored gentleman prowling around one of the entrances,” presumed he was begging, and then “piloted him out” from campus. The category of “suspicious characters” was thus fundamentally understood in racial and class terms, and appears to have continued likewise.

Sixty years later YPD officer Frank McKeever described identifying a group of youths as “Townies” based on their “Italian extraction,” clothing, and “suspicious mannerisms.” These visual designations were necessarily sharper for Black residents, however, for whom the color line left “little doubt as to the boundaries between ‘we’ and ‘they.’” Such racial dynamics were compounded by the fact that throughout the 1950s, the YPD remained virtually all white. A series of YPD reports from the summer of 1957 reveal that the only individual visually identified as a criminal, by the mere fact of his presence, was a “colored man picked up for loitering outside [an] entrance”—this despite the fact that the vast majority of crimes recorded were committed by white students.

The escalation of campus policing must be read against a backdrop of massive Black migration to New Haven during this period, which rendered the need to maintain racial divisions ever more pressing. The Black community of New Haven had long been a presence on Yale’s campus, where “Negro service was part of the tradition” and “coachmen, butlers, or manservants…[knew] how to attend gentlefolk.” Yet such employees often stepped onto campus as outsiders; they could work for Yale, but could not be conferred true membership in the university community. Black workers were “treated in racial terms” and occupied roles that marked them as separate. Neither did the increasing presence of Black students at Yale constitute or engender a significant engagement with the surrounding community. When an angry alumnus wrote to the university in 1949 over the appointment of Yale’s first Black football captain, Secretary Reuben A. Holden assured him, “[T]here is no cause for alarm with regard to the racial issue… I might be worried about an indication of the tendency you fear, were it not for the fact that this is obviously an isolated case…[and] does not mean a trend of any type.”

Edward Grant, whose father was a janitor at Yale, hence spoke of a “silent separation between Yale and the community.” Despite his father’s full-time employment on campus, Grant only learned in the mid-1960s that Yale had begun to accept Black students (though it had since the nineteenth century). The transformation of campus security nationwide, from “the watchman-janitor image” of the pre-war period to “formal organizational police structure,” was also in reaction to a loss for the sense of the campus as a mythical “safe haven,” free from outside ills. Criminologist Michael C. Smith writes, “the privileged sanctuary status of the campus began to diminish in the post-World War II period…with the wall between academe and the world outside disintegrating.” As Teresa Caldeira has observed in the context of São Paulo’s “fortified enclaves,” a central component of maintaining such a “dream of independence and freedom” from the city is a private police force that “carefully and rigorously exercis[e]” the rules of inclusion and exclusion.

During the 1950s-1960s, Yale took a number of steps in line with this national trend. It joined a handful of other Ivy League universities in 1953 to found the first coordinated association of campus police departments. In January 1959, Yale helped the NHPD found the Police Science and Administration Program of New Haven College, whose purpose was to train police officers for both Yale’s campus and for the city. While the university would refuse less than a decade later to open its doors to the Hill evacuees, it agreed to provide instructors as well as the classrooms for this program. Just as major cities throughout the country shifted toward a “professional model” of policing, Yale appointed a former FBI agent as its first University Security Director in 1959. The following years continued to be a time of “reorganization, modernization, and training” for the Yale Police Department (YPD).

Alongside “strict access control” maintained via private policing, one 2007 sourcebook on campus safety identifies urban renewal programs aimed at slum clearance as another “model [security] strategy.” In such a way both Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania, similarly situated among increasingly poor and Black neighborhoods, expanded during mid-century in a way that “reflected allegiance to the principles of campus isolation and exclusivity—and a commitment to escape from the worst elements” of urban life. In both cases university administrators worked closely with city officials to bulldoze “blighted” areas and construct new roads. Just as Yale sought to control those on its campus, the university effectively policed the space (and race) of its neighbors through its extensive involvement in Mayor

James Baldwin’s famous characterization of urban renewal as “Negro removal” was not lost on New Haven, where families of color in were 4.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be forcibly relocated (often multiple times). Poor communities that such policies were supposed to aid often challenged the notion of their neighborhoods as “slums” or “blighted,” and in any case noticed demolitions were not typically met by the promised construction of accessible new homes. Large swaths of Dixwell, the primarily Black neighborhood bordering the west end of Yale’s campus, were demolished, uprooting many churches and community organizations in the process.

Likewise white working-class ethnic communities (Italian, Jewish, and Irish) were permanently splintered by the construction of the “Oak Street Connector” in 1959, an early keystone of Lee’s urban renewal program. Yale President Alfred Griswold heaped praise onto this project, and the same year the university’s Alumni Board voted unanimously to express its “appreciation and commendation for the outstanding program of urban redevelopment being carried forward by New Haven.” Griswold’s successor, Kingman Brewster, Jr., developed a remarkably close relationship with Lee as he advised and helped implement the mayor’s renewal agenda. In fact, after Lee responded to the riot of August 1967 with a firm language of law and order, the mayor wrote to Brewster, “it was support from people like you which gave me the courage to address the City in this fashion.”

The ideal of Yale’s separation from New Haven was most epitomized, however, by an ill-fated “Ring Road” that would have cordoned off the university and downtown area from the rest of the city. A centerpiece of Lee’s 1953 master redevelopment plan, the proposed expressway provoked “outright rage by many community groups,” who believed “the road would starkly divide the city into racialized areas of a ‘safe, white’ corridor down scenic Prospect Street [including Yale],” and an “isolated black and Hispanic ghetto” made up of Dixwell, the Hill, Newhallville, and Westville. As with other renewal programs, Yale was intimately implicated in planning. Though fully aware of the project’s extreme unpopularity among city residents, Brewster continued to avidly push for the road, and even petitioned Connecticut Governor John Dempsey to allocate state funds for the “important project.” Though grassroots resistance eventually halted its construction, the Ring Road furnishes a sharp image of Yale’s attempts to isolate itself from the city, at significant economic cost to those it excluded.

The university’s aggressive refusal to pay municipal property tax constitutes a crucial third prong in the “politics of private space,” which has acted as a frequent and underlying source of resentment for New Haven residents. Given its tax-exempt status, Yale’s acquisition of campus and commercial properties entailed withdrawing vital sources of revenue from the city, which in this sense retracted as the university expanded. The maintenance of this “ancient proviso” occupied a special priority among administrators, who realized “[t]he sums of money involved are enormous.” Recognizing the “heavy burden” this placed on residents, attorney F.H. Wiggin nevertheless recommended in 1959 that administrators display unwavering resolve: “Compromise, weakness, carelessness or sharp practice might do [the university] incalculable damage.”

Over the next year the Yale Office of Information (YOI) developed and honed a line of argument to justify the university’s relationship to New Haven. This series of talking points and statistics formed a virtual mantra among Yale officials discussing town-gown relations: the university’s payroll, building contracts, student expenditures, alumni gifts, libraries, art galleries, concerts, even student blood donations were invoked in defense of the tax exemption. From February 5-May 7, 1961, the YOI brought its arguments for Yale’s tax-exempt status into New Haven living rooms on Sunday evenings from 6:15-6:45pm, in a serial radio broadcast entitled “Yale, Your Neighbor” (YYN). The show began, “Yale is your neighbor, a community in itself, yet an integral part of the civic, economic, social and cultural life of New Haven.” Conspicuously absent among various human interest pieces illustrating Yale’s benefits to the city was any mention of the original political context of these arguments.

Administrators were often puzzled at how New Haven residents and politicians could fail to appreciate the university’s bountiful contributions, and continue to demand changes in tax policy. Yet Edward Grant’s observation that “a lot of people…born and raised in New Haven, ain’t never been inside Yale” begs the question of just how meaningful and accessible its lectures, concerts, and so forth were to the city. Resident Peter Spodick has also commented on how the university’s looming grandeur and wealth alienate low-income communities: “The whole fucking place has a moat around it wherever you look…. Yale is an extremely satisfied, self satisfied, quote, ‘neighbor,’ but they’re not neighbors.”

The university’s tax exemption again became a full-blown political issue in the late 1960s. Alderman Bartholomew Guida made an organized attempt in 1968 to challenge Yale’s zoning ordinance, but was headed off by a concerted university effort with the backing of Mayor Lee. A year later New Haven’s financial straits became so dire that Brewster’s close friend and ally was forced to confront Yale directly. By this time Yale’s operating budget had risen to more than twice that of New Haven’s, and the city’s shrinking tax roll saw the average resident’s property taxes increase by over 70% in less than a decade. In a plea to keep the city running, a desperate Lee proposed the university set aside 3% of its budget (about $3 million at the time) each year for city programs—a flat payment that constituted half of what the university would pay were it taxed. Such a policy the mayor explained would “enable Yale to truly pioneer…a role for the urban university as an urban citizen,” which cared for and contributed to the well-being of its surroundings. The New Haven Register hailed the proposed plan, believing that Yale paying a portion of the tax burden could lead new possibilities in town-gown relations.

As in the summer of 1967, however, Yale turned its back on the city. Brewster declined Lee’s proposal on the basis that its endowment (more than 97% it would appear) was tied up in private donations, grants, and other earmarked funds. Rejecting this opportunity to become an “urban citizen,” Brewster reasserted the university’s separation from and lack of obligation toward the city. Yale’s campus and the other land it owned would serve its community exclusively, to the continued detriment of its neighbors.

Yale’s decision to close its gates to frightened Hill evacuees in August 1967 was no mere accident or aberration, but was consistent with wider policies and attitudes we have called the “politics of private space.” At a time when the city’s racial composition was radically shifting, Yale police helped maintain the campus as a predominantly white space, in which Black residents could work but expect little genuine integration or membership. Beyond the boundaries of campus, Yale administrators worked closely with Mayor Lee to advance urban renewal programs that disproportionately harmed Black neighborhoods—what the paper has suggested should be viewed as another form of policing space. Lastly, Yale’s refusal to pay its share of property tax to the city articulated a radically isolationist and self-serving vision, which the university vigorously defended throughout the 1960s. The underlying logic of these three strategies entailed protecting private, racialized space from, and eschewing responsibility toward, those regarded as outsiders. Understanding these policies in relation to one another reveals the centrality of geography in Yale’s contentious relationship with New Haven, and suggests the construction of an oppositional “politics of public space” must account for the manifold mechanisms through which spatial hierarchies are maintained and reproduced.

Jordan Laris Cohen is reading for an M.Phil. in Politics (Political Theory) at Balliol College. He received a B.A. from Yale in 2012.

An extended version of this article was originally written in an undergraduate seminar at Yale entitled, “Urban History in the United States 1871-present.” Many thanks are due to the professor of that course, Jennifer Klein, for her insightful teaching and comments, as well as to James Cersonsky for his thoughtful feedback. The article’s inevitable errors and shortcomings are entirely my own.

1 Joan Thornell, Letter to Kingman Brewster, Jr. September 6, 1967. Kingman Brewster, Jr., President of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 161 Folder 6, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
2 Herbert F. Janick, “Racial Violence of the 1960s.” Connecticut’s Heritage Gateway; For a discussion of this terminology, see Fred Harris, “Now we’re getting together,” Yale Daily News, September 29, 1967, 4.
3 Thornell, Letter to Kingman Brewster, Jr. September 6, 1967.
4 Kingman Brewster, Jr., Letter to Joan Thornell. September 11, 1967. Kingman Brewster, Jr., President of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 161 Folder 6, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
5 Admittedly this gaze toward the inner workings and logic of the university does not adequately account for various forms of resistance that emerged to counter New Haven’s redevelopment initiatives and assert alternative visions for city politics. For a definitive account of such efforts see Mandi Isaacs Jackson, Model City Blues: Urban Space and Organized Resistance in New Haven (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008).
6 David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985): 14.
7 Jackson, Model City Blues, 15.
8 Douglas W. Rae, City: Urbanism and its End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003): 20.
9 Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience, 251.
10 Robert M. Fogelson, Big-City Police (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977): 12.
11 Edward Grant, 37. Oral Histories Documenting New Haven, Connecticut. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
12 Seymour Gelber, The Role of Campus Security in the College Setting (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, 1972): 16.
13 Bill Wiser, Yale Memories (New Haven : The Tuttle Morehouse & Taylor company, 1914): 18.
14 Ibid.
15 William Michael Johnston, “On the Outside Looking In: Irish, Italian and Black Ethnic Politics in an American City,” (Phd diss., Yale University, 1977): 243.
16 See Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series II Box 52 Folder 324, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
17 Yale University Police Department, “Summer Thefts,” report from October 17, 1957. Alfred Whitney Griswold, President of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 46 Folder 434, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
18 This influx, part of the process historians have deemed the Second Great Migration, woefully coincided with a precipitous decline in the industrial sector. Rae, City, 14. Representing just about 5% in 1940, the city’s Black population doubled by 1950 and again by 1960. Johnston, “On the Outside Looking In,” 265.
19 Robert Austin Warner, New Haven Negroes: A Social History (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1969): 247, 19.
20 Johnston, “On the Outside Looking In,” 248.
21 Reuben A. Holden, Letter to Franklin G. Russell. May 31, 1949. Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 13 Folder 170, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. 22 Grant, 38. Oral Histories Documenting New Haven, Connecticut.
23 Ibid., 33.
24 Gelber, The Role of Campus Security in the College Setting, 28.
25 In Jerlando F.L. Jackson and Melvin Cleveland Terrell, Creating and Maintaining Safe College Campuses (VA: Stylus Publishing, 2007): 6.
26 Teresa P.R. Caldeira, “Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation,” in Theorizing the City, edited by Setha M. Low (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999): 91.
27 Gelber, The Role of Campus Security in the College Setting, 32.
28 Police Science and Administration Program. Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series III Box 282 Folder 1017, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
29 Van V. Burger, “Transplanted Special Agent,” Yale Daily News, February 25, 1960, 2. For a discussion of the movement to professionalize American police departments, see Fogelson, Big-City Police, 155, 48.
30 Annual report of the Yale University Police Department 1960-1961, 5. Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series II Box 131 Folder 1171, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
31 Jackson and Terrell, Creating and Maintaining Safe College Campuses, 131-2.
32 Ibid. On Penn, see Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold war Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005): 143-4.
33 Ibid., 152-3, 158.
34 James Baldwin, Conversations with James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989): 42.
35 Rae, City, 340.
36 Lillian Brown, 4; 19. Oral Histories Documenting New Haven, Connecticut. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
37 Johnston, “On the Outside Looking In,” 267.
38 Jackson, Model City Blues, 13.
39 Alfred Whitney Griswold, Letter to Richard C. Lee. October 19, 1959. Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series III Box 282 Folder 1015, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library; Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., Chairman of the Yale Alumni Board. Letter to Richard C. Lee. June 18, 1959. In Ibid.
40 Melvin J. Adams, Letter to Kingman Brewster, Jr., February 23, 1967. In Ibid.
41 Richard C. Lee, Letter to Kingman Brewster, Jr. August 25, 1967. In Ibid.
42 Jackson, Model City Blues, 17.
43 F.H. Wiggin, Yale President’s Office memorandum. January 15, 1960. Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series III Box 282 Folder 1015, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library; Richard C. Lee, Letter to John N. Dempsey. October 5, 1966. Kingman Brewster, Jr., President of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 160 Folder 13, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
44 Reuben A. Holden. “Excerpts from talk at Rotary Club.” September 15, 1959. Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series III Box 282 Folder 1015, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library; F.H. Wiggin. “Yale University. Confidential Memorandum for the Officers Concerning Non-Taxation and Use of University Tax-Exempt Buildings.” April 22, 1959. In Ibid.
45 Ibid.
46 See Carlos F. Stoddard, Jr. [Yale Director of Information] Letter to Reuben A. Holden. February 19, 1960. Reuben A. Holden, Secretary of Yale University, Records, Series III Box 282 Folder 1015, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
47 Yale University Office of Information. Transcripts from “Yale, Your Neighbor.” In Ibid., Series III Box 282 Folder 1018.
48 Grant, 38. Oral Histories Documenting New Haven, Connecticut.
49 Peter Spodick, 12-13. Oral Histories Documenting New Haven, Connecticut. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
50 See “Guida petition [for taxing private and public universities].” Kingman Brewster, Jr., President of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 108 Folder 1, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
51 Richard C. Lee, Letter to Kingman Brewster, Jr., 1. March 28, 1969 Kingman Brewster, Jr., President of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 160 Folder 15, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
52 Ibid., 2.
53 Francis J. Whalen, “$3 Million Per Year Asked in Lieu of Tax,” New Haven Register, March 31, 1969.
54 Kingman Brewster, Jr., Letter to Richard C. Lee. April 13, 1969. Kingman Brewster, Jr., President of Yale University, Records, Series I Box 160 Folder 15, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.


→ next article


  1. Dear Mr. Cohen,

    I am an antiquarian bookseller who once had a bookshop at 146 York Street from 1957-1960. In August of 1960 I relocated my shop to 29 Broadway. In August of 1968 I closed my shop and have since been using the Internet as a means of selling. I am writing to let you know that I do not find mention in your bibliography a paper which I have in my inventory entitled: “An Open Letter to Mayor Richard C. Lee, Concerning the Violence in New Haven’s Ghettos. August, 1967”. It is in mimeograph and is 21 pages in length. I would be happy to send you a copy and would especially grateful if you were able to identify the author. The paper begins with “How are we to react to your (RCL’s) statement quoted in the August 20 Register: “I seriously thought it would not happen!” Is our Mayor naive? Doesn’t he know of the plight of people with no economic or political power? Has he no idea of the violence, disruption, and insecurity that has become a permanent part of their daily lives? Is he unaware of the violence that is daily perpetrated by the Redevlopment Agency?….

    Thanking you in advance for an early response.

    Elliot Ephraim
    Northford, Connecticut 06472

    25 December 2013

  2. Everything is very open with a precise description of the issues.

    It was definitely informative. Your site is very helpful.

    Many thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s