Imagine an archive that chronicles much of New Haven’s modern history through the eyes of the last four mayors spanning four decades. This repository would include correspondence, proclamations, newspaper articles, photographs and campaign literature dating back to 1980 – the same year Ronald Reagan was first elected president, and Ella Grasso stepped down as governor of Connecticut because of illness.
Much has happened on the local scene during this era – economic development projects; school reform; the launch of the New Haven Promise program designed to give more New Haven students an opportunity to attend college; a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the city; and of course, many town-gown partnerships with Southern and other area colleges and universities.
Although not quite complete, the New Haven Mayoral Archive is being housed here at Southern near the Special Collections section in Buley Library. It is also accessible online. The collection will include material from former New Haven mayors Biagio DiLieto (1980-1990), John Daniels (1990-1994), John DeStefano (1994-2014) and Toni Harp (2014-2020).
A fall exhibition of the archive is currently being planned.
DeStefano – whose papers were the first of the mayors to be housed at Buley – said his collection includes nearly 100,000 documents and a wide variety of other artifacts.
“Nothing was held back and together the collections represent a rich source of research opportunities,” DeStefano said. “What better location than New Haven’s premier education institution for these documents, which ultimately belong to the public?”
He added that Southern’s commitment to digitalize the collection, which provides the public with online access, convinced him it would be the right decision.
The New Haven Mayoral Archive is becoming a veritable treasure trove for professors, students and history buffs who wish to delve into modern New Haven history.
“Our political science and history students have already been using it,” said Jacqueline Toce, head of technical services at Buley and has played an integral role in setting up the archive.
“We’ve supervised interns from those departments and we have had one student use the papers for his thesis,” she said. “Since there are so many different aspects of city government covered in the archive: economics, education, arts, etc., it could be used across more disciplines, too. We’ve also had quite a few non-Southern students and researchers use the digital archive.”
Bruce Kalk, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, pointed out that after DeStefano donated his papers to Buley a few years ago, SCSU alumnus and author Neil Proto endowed a fund for a mayoral archive.
“Neil’s vision has been to make Southern a destination of choice for the exploration of New Haven’s recent past,” Kalk said. “The collections cover the full range of mayoral activities, from community policing to economic development to the city’s enormous school rebuilding program.”
Patrick Crowley, metadata librarian for cataloging and digital projects at Buley, said the papers are part of an “uncommonly interesting archive.”
“They bring together official and personal papers across multiple administrations,” Crowley said. “The strong core of official mayoral papers has attracted (other) papers that are more personal and are outside of what state archives are legally required to retain.”
He pointed out that in addition to paperwork representing the day-to-day operations of local government, the archive also includes “more personal insights into the individuals governing, including aides, who defined New Haven public policy.”
DeStefano said the archive will include the successes, failures, controversial decisions, points of pride and background of the various administrations.
He said the creation of the New Haven Resident Card for undocumented immigrants, public school reform and New Haven Promise were among the highlights of his administration.
On the other hand, he said the decision to demolish the New Haven Coliseum was one of the least popular of his tenure.
“It was not a popular decision – but one which the public finds interesting, probably because we imploded the building and the fact that so many folks in Connecticut went to their first concert or circus in the building,” as well as attending hockey games at that venue.
But DeStefano believes it is important to include his entire record, and those of his fellow former mayors. “Southern has committed to transparency and staff resources to support academic research from which everyone can draw their own conclusions,” he said.
DiLieto was a former chief of police in New Haven before entering into politics. Daniels was the first Black mayor of the city. DeStefano served for 20 years, the longest mayoral tenure in city history. And Harp became the first female mayor of the Elm City.