Hitchhiker’s Guide to the University

Posted on 30. Oct, 2000 by in Uncategorized

In the title of Michelin’s new Green Guide to Yale University
and New Haven
, the city and the institution of higher education
huddle together, like college sweethearts in a twin bed, separated
by a mere conjunction. After 300 years of often strained coexistence,
Yale and New Haven, it seems, have finally joined together in
a blessed union that is a worthy subject for one of the world’s
most respected travel publishers. The blandishments surrounding
the new Guide’s birth confirm this impression: At a press conference
celebrating the Guide’s completion, both Yale University President
Richard Levin and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., emphasized
the harmonious rapport between Old Blue and the Elm City. For
blushing bride DeStefano, the Guide "underscores the beneficial
relationship between the city and Yale." Levin, the proud
groom, echoes these sentiments: "I can think of no better
way to honor our partnership." Naturally, I approached
Michelin’s Guide expecting a cheerful depiction of its two subjects
and the union that ended years of strife, some sort of Mid-Connecticut
Night’s Dream.
However, the saga is anything but romantic or comic, more akin
to that of Aeneas and Dido or Catherine and Heathcliff than Hermia
and Lysander. The story revealed is more like a bad high school
play in which the school’s diva grabs the spotlight and forces
the more timid actors into the unlit corners of the stage. Rather
than celebrating a peaceful and prosperous relationship, the
Guide seems to parody the Yale-centrism that many see as the
perpetual stumbling block in Yale-New Haven relations with its
onslaught of Yale matter and its dearth of New Haven content.
After wading through a Cervantes-length account of the University,
one almost comes to believe that Michelin intentionally ignored
its Sancho Panza in favor of rosy tales of its Don Quixote.
One need not even open the Guide to get a sense of its true focus.
Although the words "Yale University and New Haven"
are emblazoned across the center of the cover, all the other
graphics feature only Yale. Directly under the title is a picture
of a corner of the Branford courtyard, the vista most over-used
by Yale’s publicity machine. Beneath this photo, Handsome Dan
sits on the Yale Fence, a Georgian window peeks out from behind
its cover of ivy, and the now-ubiquitous tercentennial logo shines
forth in pure white text. Together, the trinity proves the equity
proclaimed by the Guide’s title to be as illusory as the University’s
policy on alcohol consumption. The only reminder of the non-Yale
Elm City is indirect at best: small, vertical text reading "with
hotels and restaurants." This, despite the Guide’s own acknowledgement
that New Haven’s trademark green and three churches are "the
most beautiful and most photographed view in New Haven."
In a Guide that ostensibly depicts New Haven, the relegation
of its most beautiful sight to a murky watercolor at the bottom
of two later pages seems too contradictory to be accidental.

The first eight pages, a visual tour preceding the text, reinforce
this impression with a blitz of Yale-related images that overwhelm
the occasional mention of New Haven, present only when absolutely
necessary on the title page, the table of contents, and the first
map. The successive visuals seem to be drawn from the Admissions
Viewbook. Included are the Yale Seal in its full-color, Latin
and Hebrew glory; a watercolor of Harkness Memorial Tower and
the Memorial Gateway (minus construction workers and dumpsters);
a student poring over her work under autumn leaves; and a map
that features all of Yale but lacks such New Haven destinations
as Wooster Square, East Rock, and Long Wharf.
When the introduction proper begins, New Haven reenters the picture.
Because it predates the University by some 63 years, the city
necessarily occupies the first half of the first page of the
introduction’s history section. However, with the arrival of
Yale in the middle of the page, New Haven almost disappears.
Throughout the section, Michelin glosses over grand events in
New Haven history in favor of petty particulars concerning Yale.
Two of the most important events in New Haven’s history, the
Amistad affair and the concealment of the regicides at West Rock,
receive nearly the same amount of space as the opening of Yale’s
Henry R. Luce Hall.
After a short list of hotels, restaurants, and night spots, Yale
receives 42 pages of the Guide, with headings that cover such
crucial topics as "Yale Today," "Traditions,"
"Student Life," "Legacy," "Three Centuries
of Growth," and "Evolution of the Campus." This
section includes two walking tours of the campus, describing
in detail everything from the phallic wonder of Harkness Tower
to the grandiose mansions on Hillhouse Avenue to the unforgettable
tablet in Berkeley’s wall commemorating the site of Yale’s first
telephone exchange. It also includes four-page Guides to both
the British Art Museum and the University Art Gallery, not only
describing in detail the different sections of each museum floor,
but also providing lessons in art history for the uninitiated
reader.
If one disregards the occasional Yale office in the New Haven
Savings Bank building, pages 64 and 65 showcase the Guide’s first
Yale-less photo. These are followed by the ten pages that constitute
New Haven’s portion of the Guide. Although New Haven is, surprisingly
enough, much larger than Yale, the Guide provides only one extensive
walking tour of the city and a paragraph-long Wooster Square
tour. The main walking tour seems to embody the work’s main flaw:
At no point can the tourist turn in a complete circle without
seeing Yale University. The tour is more an inculcation of the
Yale administration worldview than a way to become acquainted
with New Haven.
Unlike the detailed four pages that the Yale University Art
Gallery receives or the one page devoted to the Collection of
Musical Instruments, only one paragraph deals with the New Haven
Colony Historical Society. Like Kline Biology Tower rising over
the city from the top of Science Hill, Yale’s portion of the
Guide drastically overshadows New Haven’s.
The Yale-centrism of the Guide is most likely a result of its
progenitors, the folks at the Yale Tercentennial Office. A Guide
by a world-renowned publisher that skips over as much of New
Haven as possible seems to be the perfect accompaniment to a
celebration that will be broadcast throughout the world so that
alumni need not return to New Haven. However, the Guide is nowhere
near as subtle nor as cunning as the University’s standard modus
operandi; the obtrusiveness of the Guide’s slant leads one to
search for answers outside the frequently shadowy operations
of the University. In fact, the impression that remains with
the reader after finishing the Guide -that something is missing,
that some crucial part has been withheld-is so strong that this
failure seems intentional. Could the lack of New Haven content
be a deliberate ploy on Michelin’s part to critique and subvert
the University’s magnificent tercentennial celebration with a
chilling portrait of unrelenting Yale-centrism? In accepting
Yale’s proposal and publishing this opus extolling the wonders
of Old Blue, was Michelin able to bite the very hand that fed
it the idea without arousing any notice? Could Michelin, like
Shakespeare, Molière, or other subtly subversive scribes,
have managed to indict the institution that it claims to praise?
By packaging a version of The Yale (albeit somewhat more Yale-centric)
under a title that includes both Yale and New Haven, the Guide
parodies the very concept it embodies. Still, the question of
authorial intent remains. Did Michelin merely do an inadequate
job, or did the company succeed in criticizing its own benefactors?
If Michelin chooses to turn the university-town theme into a
series, future Guides may provide an answer: a Princeton Guide
focusing entirely on the golf courses, yacht clubs, and bmw dealers
near campus; a Brown Guide without any sort of logical structure
that allows the reader to choose his or her own path through
the text; a Harvard Guide that leaves the reader miserable but
sure that somehow, someday, the reading experience will prove
invaluable. Any one of these works would prove that Michelin
intended much more than praise in its Guide to Yale and New Haven.

 

Patrick Casey Pitts, a sophomore in Berkeley
College, is on the staff of
TNJ.

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