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The man with odd socks

About the author

Vron Ware is professor of sociology and gender studies at Kingston University and author of Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country.

One of the charms of small-town America, immortalised by writers like Bill Bryson and Garrison Keillor, is the weekly consolation of the police log published in the local newspaper. We used to collect gems like: “Chickens interfering with traffic were reported off County Road at 7.14am. One dead chicken was located when police arrived; no others were located”, or “An ‘anarchy’ symbol was spray painted over a stop sign in East Creek Circle”.

After a couple of years of this, the novelty wore thin. The ones that made us laugh seemed to diminish in proportion to the ones that were just plain paranoid and downright mean. “A suspicious man was reported in the vicinity of Guilford Lakes School at 11.44a.m. A man wearing two different coloured socks came into the school office and asked when kindergarten was dismissed.”

We began to see a mentality of fear and insecurity running through the town culture; anything and everything that seemed out of place was being reported to the police at the drop of a hat. All this in a town where you don’t need to lock your doors or close your garage at night.

Beyond the town lies New Haven, Connecticut, a medium-sized city with an illustrious colonial and industrial past. For various historical reasons, including its connections to Yale University which occupies a large section of its downtown, it bears the imprint of all manner of urbanist experiments – from Moses-style freeways and wholesale slum clearance in the mid-20th century to the new vogue of community policing and block-by-block development.

Visit in the summer, say on a Saturday evening in late June or July, and the imposing town green will be covered with people of all ages listening to musicians performing on the permanent stage. It might be opera, funk, jazz or world music; there will be food stalls, the smell of cooking, an atmosphere of relative ease and conviviality. What you wouldn’t see are the deep structural forces that have brought those people together for this occasion but which also keep them apart for the rest of the year.

It’s hard to fathom how segregation works in New Haven without looking at the larger area. You can walk away from the Yale buildings in any direction and within minutes you lose sight of the blue lights indicating the emergency phones that dot the campus. Walk north, for example, up Whalley, Dixwell or Goffe Avenues (all native Englishmen wanted for aiding and abetting in the execution of King Charles I, but who found refuge in this first planned town in New England) and you stop seeing anyone who looks white as well.

It was here that a (London) Observer journalist, researching poverty in Bush’s America in October 2002, overheard a New Haven resident asking for his money back after purchasing a packet of cigarettes that were four cents cheaper in another store. I have taught a course for the past five years that explores the boundaries between Yale and the city, and have learned a lot with the students as they move out into parts of the city they never knew existed.

One thing is constant in their approach: the majority have rarely strayed further than the edge of Yale buildings; many have never even strolled across the green with its idyllic church spires to see what life is like on the other side. The fact that the last undeveloped section on the far corner has been turned into an upmarket residential block seems to have escaped their notice entirely.

But then how would they know? They would not dream of walking to the railway station, a journey that would take twenty minutes on foot. It took me four years to learn that a special bus meets the Sunday evening trains back from New York so that students are not obliged to encounter city residents on their way back to base.

But once the students start to discover evidence of the city’s extraordinarily heterogeneous past, they become hooked. They fasten on to details, like the fact that the information board at the railway station only gives departure times, not arrivals; that passengers arriving at the station are greeted with large signs directing them to the bus stand for the large casinos further down the coast. They are amazed that if you look above the Dunkin’ Donuts and subway stalls inside the station hall you can see the gallery where the glee club used to serenade important visitors in days when they would arrive by train instead of stretch limo.

But what of the man with unmatching socks? We will never know who he was or what threat he might pose, but the fact that his presence was reported to the police tells us a lot. The small towns that lie outside New Haven complement the city in a neat Manichean pattern: entitled affluent versus undeserving poor, suburb versus ghetto, the allure of social purity threatened by the ever-present danger of the dark-skinned and dispossessed.

The draw of culture, with Yale at its centre, is offset most of the time by a city that represents urban problems, racial divisions, poverty, disease, crime and instability. The suburban areas are where you go when you don’t want to be bothered with these things on your doorstep. Except when the Latinos come out in daylight to mow the summer lawns in the summer and clear the fall leaves.

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