New mayor reflects on ‘exciting and innovative’ New Haven

Toni Nathaniel Harp ’78 M.Env.D., first came to New Haven — a place known as America’s first planned city — in 1976, to study environmental and physical planning at the Yale School of Architecture.  She remained in the city after graduation, making a career in community services and serving as a New Haven alderman and Connecticut state senator.

She won election to the ultimate New Haven planning job — mayor — on Nov. 5, 2013, and was sworn in as the city’s 50th mayor on Jan. 1, becoming the first woman to be the city’s chief executive and the first Yale graduate in the mayor’s office in 33 years.

Harp took a few moments to meet with YaleNews and discuss how her home city of 37 years has changed since she arrived, the opportunities and challenges it faces, and some of her plans now that she is mayor. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How is New Haven different from when you first arrived?

New Haven is a far more economically dynamic place — not just for New Haven and south central Connecticut, but also for our whole state.

We are much more of a unique town now, and the mall is gone. We are building on Route 34 — reconnecting the city, the Hill, and downtown, which is very different than when I came, offering a different view of where we are and can go. We no longer have a Coliseum but will be having housing there soon — another focus for the city. Forty years ago, there was Elm Haven and a lot of dense public housing for poor people. Now we look at integrated housing for multiple income groups, housing for all that includes homeownership and apartments, and that has really revitalized housing in our community.

Yale has grown considerably, and today we recognize to a much greater degree the relationship between research universities and the community’s growth.

You have talked about the fierce local pride you knew when you were growing up, and how you want to foster more civic pride in New Haven. How will you go about that, and how can citizens and local institutions help?

We have a history that most of us don’t fully know. New Haven has a history that we can take pride in. We have been around for far longer than most places in America, and we’ve got a lot to be proud of! Maybe that’s a challenge — there’s so much that we don’t find ways to focus on it and celebrate it.

Up at the State Capitol, the legislature engaged the League of Women Voters to take tours through the Legislative Office Building and the capitol. I’m thinking that we could get an organization, a volunteer non-profit, to do the same here in New Haven. When I first came here — and this is another thing that’s different — we used to have more tours, walking tours of New Haven. I think we’ve got to revitalize that and start to celebrate more.

There is a lot that we really need to celebrate, across cultures. The Ethnic Heritage Center, now at Southern Connecticut State University, grew because at one time everyone thought that the history was only the Anglo-Saxon Protestant history. Now we all know there is a rich history of all these emerging populations who’ve come to New Haven and made a difference here and in our country.

We should have regular birthday celebrations each April to mark New Haven’s founding, and regularly celebrate who we are, what has occurred here, so that people can know it, remember it, be part of something they are proud of, and take it with them throughout their lives.

You visited every corner of the city in your campaign last year, and now you occupy a new corner office here at City Hall. How do you see things differently after your citywide campaign and now that you have this new view?

There are a lot of things that we need to do. I always knew that the city had revenue problems, resource problems. On the campaign trail I got to see even more, first hand, all the things that need to be done in the city physically, and to hear all of the concerns that people have for programmatic things they’d like to see happen. Now that I’ve been in transition and now that I’m in this seat, I recognize more clearly how hard it will be to fulfill all those things because of the resource difficulties we have.

You and your late husband, Wendell Harp ’70 MCP ’71 M.Arch., stayed in New Haven to live and make your careers after graduation, as Yale President Peter Salovey and his wife, Marta Moret, have also done. President Salovey spoke in his inaugural address about doing more “to nurture student entrepreneurs from every school and department and encourage them to contribute to the local idea economy” so they “remain in New Haven and play active roles as civic, arts, and business leaders.” What role can City Hall play to encourage alumni of local universities to make New Haven their home after they graduate and help build the economy so there are more resources to meet the challenges our community faces?

A couple of things need to happen. Young people coming out of university need to be able to find jobs — but they also need to be able to afford beginner housing. We really don’t have an adequate supply of starter housing for young people going into entry-level jobs and as they begin to start businesses, especially since oftentimes in the first few years of a business you’re not really earning a lot of money. New Haven has an entry-level housing problem — truly, it’s a statewide problem. If we’re going to flourish as an area and as a state we really have to address that. That’s the first thing.

As for entrepreneurship, the Economic Development Corporation that Yale has invested in is something to keep going — to support business ideas that come out of Yale and that emerge from other colleges and from businesses already here. There are further resources, too, that we can leverage, including with the state government, to support economic growth.

If entrepreneurs know that they can get capital assistance they need to build their businesses, then hopefully they’ll stay. If they know that they can live in an affordable place, they’ll stay. We have already taken care of entertainment and interesting things to do for young people. We do have a high quality of life to offer. The real issue is “can I live here?” and if people are getting married and starting families, we need to have a public education system that’s as excellent as it should be, given that Yale is here.

You’ve been a lifelong champion of youth services and focused much on children in your campaign and in your speech on Jan. 1. What principles will guide your approach to youth services and education policy?

To shape education policy, youth policy, we have to understand the families we are dealing with, and how they are different than the days when many of us grew up. The reality is that if you’re middle class, mom works. If you’re poor, mom works. We’ve got to have a school system and youth services that take that into consideration.  Right now we don’t. As a result, that creates a lot of disharmony in our community. We’ve got to think about that — and think about how we use it as an economic development tool.

If you think about a community school that is a 6-to-6 school and has pre-school as a part of it — underwritten and subsidized by the school and the state, as we have the ability to do — you are saving young families, no matter who they are, almost $5,000 a year. You can begin to build communities with those kinds of savings. I don’t think we’ve thought about it enough as an investment like that, and we should.

There are many steps we will take to support kids and bolster education, some of which I outlined in my inaugural address. Another example that we need to think about is having a really strong police athletic league, as they do in Waterbury. There, the police work with schools and young people who are likely to be the ones who might cause disruption. Kids who’ve been identified as having difficulty are assigned to a police officer, so when they act up in the classroom, the police officer is contacted — not to take the kids away and march them into juvenile detention, but to interact, to say, “What’s going on? How can I help?” and contact the parents. They are someone in authority who says, “I care about you. You must be going through something, and I want to help.” And that’s reduced the number of kids suspended and expelled, and reduced the juvenile delinquency. We’re not a huge city, and we can seize the opportunity to better engage young people.

What is your vision to enhance public safety and community policing in the years ahead?

We have got to make community policing real up and down and across the NHPD. It has to be a part of how the department sees itself, so that if we lose a chief, we don’t have to start all over again. It really has to be the way in which the department and the community operate. There have to be real relationships among the officers on the beat and the people in the community. The officers really have to see the people in the community as the people they serve; the people in the community have got to see the officers as part of their community who are there to help them. They’ve got to be on a first-name basis.

In your inaugural address you spoke a lot about economic growth. What are some of the steps you and your team will be taking to further boost New Haven’s economy?

We’re looking at doing more work on Long Wharf. There are infrastructure issues that need to be addressed there. We will ensure that there’s more housing downtown and grow those opportunities. There are opportunities to build synergies with discoveries in biotechnology, to build labs and grow small businesses, so we will pursue those.

I also think New Haven has the ability to attract manufacturing — precision manufacturing. We have examples of at least two precision manufacturing companies owned by European companies, and they love working in New Haven with New Haven people. Our workers are comparable to the workers in Europe, but the costs here are competitive. We should build on success and go to Europe to get more of those manufacturing operations here — like what we already see in ASSA ABLOY and Radiall. Often times we forget that manufacturing — not the old kind, but clean manufacturing, precision manufacturing really is something that we do well here, and we need to get more.

ASSA is very bullish on New Haven and our diversity. The president of the Americas Division said that what makes New Haven unique is the cultural diversity they have on the floor. They have 23 other plants, and there are some plants that are not as culturally diverse — those are the most difficult to work with. They bring plant managers into New Haven to show them how this actually works. We’ve got something here, but we don’t beat our drum about it. We should, and we will.

New Haven is an asset for Yale, and Yale is an asset for New Haven. From your perspective as mayor, what should the city and Yale do so both stay strong?

We have to recognize that we are mutually dependent: The success of one is the success of the other. One of the ways that we help Yale is by working together to ensure that we have safe streets, that we continue to foster a vibrant economy for young people, that we keep building up the ways we are a pedestrian-friendly and bicyclist-friendly town. It’s also good to encourage people from Yale and the other colleges to get involved and put to the test their ideas of how government works. It’s important for people who are young to feel that they can have an impact here.

On a practical level, there has to be a strong relationship among the mayor, the leaders of the board of alders, and the leadership of Yale. When we have differences, we have to have a mechanism to work those things out.

As a state senator you were an advocate for the arts, history, and culture, and you have celebrated New Haven’s arts institutions and festivals often. What’s your hope as mayor for the role the arts and culture can play in the city, and what role do you see city government taking?

We will continue to support local arts and culture — including doing everything to ensure that New Haven arts groups continue to get support from the state. I think we’ve got to deepen what we do. In some of our neighborhoods we need to help develop arts and cultural events that don’t currently exist there. The International Festival of Arts and Ideas goes out into the community. We’ve got to build and sustain arts activities in the neighborhoods and make them accessible to everyone.

On a personal note, what are some of your own favorite places to go around town?

I’m really not a highbrow person! I like the Criterion Theater. I love our restaurants. My favorite is Adriana’s. I love Indian food, and we have wonderful Indian restaurants. I love the Tandoori Kitchen. I like diners — the Athenian Diner. I love Pacifico. Ernie’s Pizza … There’s a lot of places!

How do you hope individual citizens — including the staff, faculty, students, and alumni of Yale in New Haven — will join you in moving the city forward and making the city more unified?

There are many ways each of us can make New Haven better at no cost to the city’s budget or ourselves. The police have a major role in public safety — but so do we all. I’m asking people to find ways to resolve issues so that we don’t have a lot of violence. I’m also calling on people to abide by our traffic laws. We’ve tried to pass a red light camera bill in Hartford, and we’re going to put it on the agenda again, but people really need to abide by our traffic laws and understand that they are part of public safety. It’s really not okay to run red lights or stop signs, and to make U-turns.

As citizens, we’ve got to make it our personal business and responsibility that our city is clean. I’m asking people not to throw trash on the sidewalks and streets — find a receptacle. If you smoke, surely try stopping, but definitely dispose of your butts properly if you do smoke. Those are some small, doable things for all of us to take on.

And I definitely hope people will share their ideas with my administration and me. This is an exciting place. We have an innovative culture here. We are going to be doing exciting and innovative things.

We are open to ideas. We are going to engage as much of the public in moving New Haven forward as possible. If folks want to be involved, let us know!