Encounter with a City

By Howard R. Lamar

American education has somehow managed to fragment itself not only into grammar, high school, college and university units, but between subject matters and between content and method. We have been in a confederation period of education in the United States where educational states' righters have prevailed over a sense of federal union. It is that problem, among others, that I think the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute was founded to overcome: that is to establish, once and for all, the commonality and relatedness of all problems concerning teaching and educating no matter what subject and no matter at what level. That in turn touches a more fundamental problem in the United States: a sense of community. Another purpose of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has been to restore a sense of community to a city that once had one of the most developed senses of civic pride one could find in America.

For these reasons I agreed in 1979 to offer a seminar called "Remarkable City: New Haven in the Nineteenth Century." But there were other compelling reasons as well, chief among them being the fact that the State of Connecticut required a course on state or local history to be taught in the schools. My hope was that we could use New Haven as a way to teach urban history and further, to focus on the major local changes that had occurred while we were in the process of becoming an industrial nation. I also wanted to focus on the resulting art and material culture that came out of American industrialization. Such an approach would also allow us to focus on the history of labor as well as on the elite, and that, in turn, inevitably meant studying immigrant and minority history. While we did not realize all of our plans in the seminar, a number of new courses on local history did emerge, a great deal of fresh research was done, and I, for one, made a series of discoveries about local and urban history in the abstract and about Connecticut and New Haven in particular that genuinely surprised us all.

My first discovery was that one cannot live in New England without acknowledging first the colonial period. But what struck me most about New Haven's founding was the nature of its settlers. Economically they were the very opposite of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The latter spent years in poverty and in getting out of debt to their English sponsors. In stark contrast we have the statement in Reverend Benjamin Trumbull's 1818 edition of the History of Connecticut that "the New Haven Adventurers were the most opulent company which came into New England, and they designed a capital colony." New Haven was not a rural frontier settlement but a mercantile center and religious haven founded by urban types. Thus New Haven is one of the most persistent urban centers in American history and deserves to be a major case study of urban life in America over the three-and-a-half centuries of its existence.

During our study of New Haven teachers used the students themselves to do research, to compile family and neighborhood histories, to build a nineteenth-century oyster boat, to study architecture and to interview older New Haven citizens. Benjamin A. Gorman fashioned an excellent teaching unit entitled "Discover Eli Whitney" from the materials on the inventor and his career, while Valerie Ann Polino found that she could create a unit called "New Haven and the Nation, 1865-1900," in which the relation of industrialization to labor, immigration and reform history was traced. She recorded the impact of ethnic labor on New Haven by following the names of those arrested by the police department in the years 1865-1900. At first Irishmen were arrested for many violations, but when the city's police force slowly became Irish, those arrested tended to have Italian names. By 1900 28 percent of New Haven's 108,000 population was foreign-born. That included 10,000 Irish, 6,000 Germans and Swedes, 5,000 Italians, 3,000 Russian Jews, and 2,000 English and Scots. Thus the local story of New Haven labor becomes a paradigm for the immigration history of the United States in the years between 1865 and 1900.

Let us go back for a moment to look at themes. New Haven citizens created or developed an extraordinary number of things that had shaped modern life: first, transportation systems, whether they were coastal and Caribbean trade shipping, canals, toll roads, or railroads. Then they dealt with what you might call support services such as road surfaces, oil, rubber, carriages, wagons, steam engines, the telegraph and the telephone, and interchangeable parts. It seems no mere accident that Eli Whitney coming from such a crafts-man's paradise would invent and sell gins to Southern planters who in turn used their profits to buy New Haven carriages and clocks, or even that Southerners interested in such items came to New Haven to buy them and then decided it was a great place to vacation. Nor should it seem accidental that New Haven's first black population was West Indian­because of the shipping trade.

By tracing the industries of New Haven we can trace its social and ethnic history as well as the city's aesthetic history. Indeed, we cannot divorce art and material culture from the economy. We cannot tell the story of the entrepreneurs without telling the story of the labor force. Nor can we ignore an intriguing statistic that 40 percent of the work force in the various New Haven factories in the nineteenth century were women. When one asks this question one is not talking about the world of labor unions and strikes but the workers' world and how it evolved from a religious small-town preindustrial economy to a secular industrial one. My plea is not that we substitute social problems about the drinking parent or Vietnam for the impersonal story of national political history. It is that we go beyond both to try to relate the past to the present in a personal, believable way. And one way of doing that is to study one's own past and relate it to the national scene.

But this cannot be done without also comprehending that urban history means entrepreneurial history, labor history, social and cultural history, and ethnic history. It is this interdisciplinary approach that holds as much promise for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute as any other teaching method or updating we have tried. And in the process of learning and talking we found that the problem of New Haven history like that of American history was, in effect, a failure to apply Eli Whitney's concept of interchangeable parts to its own past. We discovered that we were all a part of a whole and that by an intelligent study of the parts we would better understand the whole. Therein lies the purpose of a local effort called the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and its significance as a model for a national effort to relate town and gown, and the secondary school to institutions of higher learning in a mutually advantageous way.

In 1991 I was again invited to teach a seminar for the Teachers Institute. This time I pursued the older theme­how is local history shaped by larger social and political national events­from a very different angle. The seminar, "Studies in American Regions and Regionalism" focused on the impact of the regional cultures and inhabitants of New England, the South, and the West on New Haven. Again the seminar proved to be a highly rewarding and often surprising experience for all of us.

Some of the most revealing seminar papers traced the coming of African-Americans from the South to Harlem in New York and then to New Haven. At one level the accounts, often based on the experiences of the parents of the seminar members, reflected familiar internal twentieth century migration patterns, but at another, it proved to be a remarkable saga of how the migrants managed to bring with them not only a rich enduring religious and family heritage, but a quiet continuing pride in their Southern origins. There was and is a pride of place about their former communities in North and South Carolina and Virginia. In short, much of New Haven's recent history could best be understood as an encounter between urban New England and the rural South that was far more complex and mutually rewarding than any of us in the seminar had expected. The members of the class also traced similar migrations from Mississippi to Chicago and that of Black Americans migrating to California in this century.

Two years later, in 1993, Yale's and my own ongoing encounter with New Haven was placed in perspective when the University conducted a survey of all of its educational outreach programs in the city. The survey found that in addition to the activities of the Teachers Institute some twenty-eight other programs existed ranging from museum and art gallery programs for public school students to participation in part-time teaching by Yale graduate, professional and undergraduate students. These activities have been seen by cities elsewhere in the nation as a possible model for university-public school programs­a recognition of how much "common ground" there is in these endeavors.

As important as the New Haven story may be as a mustard seed leading to the growth of other town-gown education programs, however, the most fundamentally positive outcome of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute program is the coming together of teachers at all levels to design courses in an atmosphere of mutual respect and the excitement of shared discovery about more effective ways of teaching and learning. One splendid result has been that all involved have helped articulate what it means to be a true urban community.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

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