5:26 PM EST, January 30, 2013
New Haven was struggling in the early 1990s. Schools were decrepit. Downtown was moribund, with litter wafting past empty storefronts. It looked like another once-bustling urban core that was dying of disinvestment, suburbanization, racism, lack of interest.
But reports of its death were premature. In 1994 a new Yale president, Richard Levin, and a newly elected New Haven mayor, John DeStefano, Jr., joined forces to improve the city.
Long story short, they did — vastly. Downtown is bustling, schools are much better, businesses are opening.
Now the two are passing the baton. Mr. Levin announced his retirement last year. Mr. DeStefano, 57, announced this week that he would not seek re-election in the fall. He will leave office after 20 years, making him the Elm City's longest-serving mayor.
Mr. DeStefano's career argues against term limits. He made some mistakes early on, learned from them and had many successes. The Yale-New Haven Partnership has resulted in a major revitalization of downtown and some neighborhoods near downtown, with hundreds of new stores, restaurants and other businesses, as well as an upsurge in tech and biotech businesses and entrepreneurship in other fields.
Yale's willingness to put serious money into the effort was vital to this success, to be sure, but coordination with the city was essential as well. In 1999, for example, 16 properties on Chapel and College streets were in foreclosure. Mr. DeStefano approached Yale officials about buying them to keep them from being auctioned off separately and left to an uncertain fate. Yale bought and renovated the buildings, which today anchor a remarkably vibrant downtown block.
When Mr. DeStefano announced his retirement, some praised him as the "education mayor," a sobriquet he earned. He was an early champion of interdistrict magnet schools, and rebuilt virtually every school in the city. New Haven's school reform effort, begun in 2009, gained national attention.
While much of the country was debating school reform and teacher accountability, New Haven created a system of performance evaluation, in partnership with its teachers union. Under the new system, teachers are constantly evaluated, good teachers are rewarded and weak teachers are either retrained or shown the door. In 2011, 34 teachers were let go, with no objection from the union.
Mr. DeStefano also gained national attention for his innovative efforts to help immigrants. Six years ago, the city began handing out identification cards to residents regardless of immigration status. Without IDs, immigrants were targets for crime. With them, they could open bank accounts, cash checks and pay bills, among other things. The program was at first criticized, then copied in many cities.
Mr. DeStefano said he believes one function of a city is to be a gateway, a place for immigrants to start their lives as Americans. Now if Congress will do its part, mayors won't be put in the position of having to create immigration policy.
Mr. DeStefano has also been heard on the gun issue. After the Newtown massacre, he — as a former head of the National League of Cities — took on the NRA and reminded officials that the horrific assault with a semiautomatic rifle was part of a broader problem that also involved pistols in cities.
New Haven under Mr. DeStefano has been imaginative. The mayor knew he couldn't revitalize downtown if he had to tear half of it down for parking, so he encouraged the construction of a second railroad station, on State Street. The city is removing an elevated highway, Route 34, that will double the size of downtown. There are cool things like shared work spaces and pop-up stores in downtown.
We were driving in downtown with Mr. DeStefano once when he stopped the car and said, "You've got to see this." He took us to one of the few private libraries left in the state.
The man loves cities, he has made his better, and we wish him well.
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