Arsalan Sufi and Chris Rice
West Haven is an incredibly dynamic suburb. It’s undergone rapid demographic change over the past two decades with a substantial increase in its minority population. Much of this dynamism has to do with West Haven’s proximity to urban New Haven. Unlike suburbs further away from New Haven, West Haven exists right at the boundary between city and suburb. This makes West Haven a fertile ground for studying social mobility, class tensions, and race tensions. This also makes answering the question of whether or not West Haven is desirable difficult. Whereas urban minority families may view West Haven as a step forward, suburban white families may view it as a step backward.
We present the data that we’ve collected in the following sections. In addition to describing trends, we do our best to provide explanations for those trends.
Population, Race, and Ethnicity
West Haven’s total population has remained relatively constant since 2000, hovering around 54,000 residents . However, the racial and ethnic breakdown of the suburb has changed significantly over the past few decades. The suburb’s minority population has been growing at a steady rate since 1990. In 2000, minorities constituted roughly 30 percent of the population. As of 2014, they constituted 47 percent of the population . Since the overall population of West Haven hasn’t changed significantly, this means that white population is shrinking, both in terms of percentage and in absolute numbers. In other words, as minority residents are moving into West Haven, white residents are leaving. It’s very possible that the most affluent residents are moving to the wealthier adjacent suburbs of Orange and Milford. This pattern of moving further away from the city and into wealthier suburbs is common and tied to American consumerism .
These population changes haven’t been uniform across the suburb’s constituent census tracts. Consider census tracts 1547 and 1550, located in the southwestern and eastern sections of West Haven, respectively. Census tract 1547’s white population dropped by 2 percent from 2000 to 2014. Over the same timespan, census tract 1550’s white population dropped by a much larger 35 percent .
The two census tracts in southwestern West Haven, 1547 and 1548, have historically been the whitest in the suburb and have remained the whitest even as the demographic breakdown of the suburb has changed . We’ll return to these two census tracts when we discuss the economic state of West Haven.
More Hispanic minorities are moving into the suburb than black minorities. In 2000, 9 percent of West Haven’s population was Hispanic, and 16 percent was black. By 2014, the Hispanic population had increased to 19 percent, almost equaling the 21 percent black population. West Haven’s Asian and Native American minority populations have remained small .
Figure 1. West Haven’s Hispanic population by census tract in 1990 (left) and 2014 (right).
Origins of Incoming Minorities
The incoming minorities are likely migrating from New Haven. The southwestern section of New Haven, which lies adjacent to West Haven, has a very high minority population. Census tract 1405 in southwestern New Haven, for example, is 56 percent Hispanic and 34 percent black . Also notable is the fact that the incomes of minority families living in New Haven are lower than the incomes of minority families living in West Haven . The families moving from New Haven to West Haven thus may be up-and-coming urban minorities hoping to reap the benefits of suburban life.
Median Household Incomes
Figure 2. West Haven’s median household income by census tract in 1990 (left) and 2014 (right).
At a surface level, West Haven appears to be ascending economically. Every census tract but one has experienced an increase in median household income since 2000, even after accounting for inflation. Just like the population changes in West Haven however, the income increases haven’t been uniform. Whereas most census tracts experienced income increases between $5,000 and $10,000, the two southwestern census tracts’ incomes increased by $16,000 and $35,000 . As noted earlier, these two southwestern census tracts are also the whitest in the suburb.
A quick anomaly worth mentioning: although the black population in the two southwestern census tracts is low, less than 5 percent in both tracts, the median household income of black families in these census tracts is notably higher than that of white families. In 2014, the median household income of black families in census tract 1548 was roughly 30,000 dollars higher than the the median household income of white families . These families could be a part of a growing black upper-middle class in West Haven.
Unemployment Rates and Poverty Levels
Whereas rising household incomes suggest that West Haven is ascending, increasing unemployment rates and poverty levels in pockets of the city also suggest that disparities in the suburb are widening. Unemployment rates in a handful of census tracts have increased significantly. In tract 1550, rates rose from 3.9 percent in 2000 to 14.6 percent in 2014 . Poverty levels have also increased in a handful of census tracts, specifically in the suburb’s central region. In tract 1542, the percentage of families living below the poverty line increased from 5.8 percent in 2000 to 18.2 percent in 2014 .
Classifying West Haven Using Owen’s Typology
To better understand the processes of economic ascent in West Haven, we’ve attempted to classify West Haven using the neighborhood types identified by Ann Owens in her paper on ascending neighborhoods . Interestingly, it seems there are two distinct sections of West Haven.
The two southwestern census tracts, which are the furthest out from New Haven, resemble an “upper-middle-class white suburb.” They have high white populations, but their housing is too old to be considered a “new white suburb,” and their education levels aren’t high enough to be considered an “affluent neighborhood.” The median years houses were built in the two tracts are 1959 and 1952, whereas the housing in most new white suburbs was built after 1970 . Likewise, whereas half of the residents in an affluent neighborhood have bachelor’s degrees , only a quarter of the residents in southwestern West Haven have bachelor’s degrees . Interestingly, the education levels in southwestern West Haven aren’t significantly higher than the levels in the rest of West Haven where, in most census tracts, roughly a fifth of residents have bachelor’s degrees . Thus, the relative wealth in southwestern West Haven doesn’t appear to be a result of increased education levels. One possible explanation is that some southwestern West Haven residents have accrued their wealth over generations .
Meanwhile, the rest of West Haven resembles a “diverse urban neighborhood,” given its high minority population and proximity to urban New Haven.
Owens has documented economic ascent in both upper-middle-class white suburbs and diverse urban neighborhoods. Regarding upper-middle-class white suburbs, she specifically notes that they are “more likely to experience ascent over time, suggesting a transition of these neighborhoods to an extremely affluent status reflecting the increase in economic segregation over time” [7, p. 358]. This observation aligns with our earlier observations. Although West Haven appears to be ascending, economic segregation also appears to be on the rise.
Zoning laws have guided development in West Haven, contextualizing the shifting population patterns mentioned in previous sections. Southeast West Haven is composed of a central business district surrounded by multi-family residences. South of the business district is shoreline commercial retail. At the heart of West Haven is its only affordable housing project, 15 Glade Street. The affordable housing is surrounded by other multi-family complexes. There are two large swaths of land in central and northern West Haven zoned for industrial planned development. The proximity to these industrialized spaces may explain why property values are relatively low in West Haven compared to other nearby suburbs . These low prices may further explain why the minority population has been increasing.
The more affluent southwestern section of West Haven consists almost entirely of single-family detached residences surrounded by open spaces along the shoreline. The region is entirely residential, unlike the rest of West Haven, which consists of a blend of residential and commercial areas . Some residents have made it clear that the commercial areas deter wealthier families who hope to provide a safe environment for their children. When describing a commercial area, one commenter on the New Haven Independent explains, “no parent would want their kid to be raised anywhere in that neighborhood to begin with”  highlighting the assumption that the parents who do raise their children in the area must not care as much about their wellbeing.
There are 525 homes/apartments up for sale/rent in West Haven. Of these listings, 27 are rentals, 256 are homes for sale, while the remaining 160 are listed as “pre-foreclosure.” This last fact is particularly interesting because Zillow defines the pre-foreclosure stage as “the period between the time in which a Notice of Default or lis pendens has been issued to the homeowner and after the property is sold at a foreclosure auction” . This might suggest that the families who live in these 160 listings are facing financial troubles. Nevertheless, this value shouldn’t be taken at face value because the definition is broad and could include families that have paid their debts.
Retail in West Haven consists primarily of department stores such as Wal-Mart, Sears, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Super Stop and Shop. The suburb also hosts many auto shops: Monro Muffler Brake and Service, G B Wheels, Saveway Tire Center, NAPA Auto Parts, Star Tires Plus Wheels, Discount Tire Center, Sherwin Williams Automotive Finishes, and Larkin Tire East . It’s possible that many of West Haven’s blue-collar residents work in the automotive industry. West Haven is also home to a small Turkish enclave neighborhood . This explains the presence of Makkah Halal Meat and Istanbul Import Market.
Minority Student Population
Figure 3. The minority student percentages in West Haven’s public schools over time.
The minority student population in West Haven’s public schools has consistently increased since 1990, reflecting the general increase in West Haven’s minority population. However, the breakdown of the minority student population reveals an anomaly. Although the number of Hispanic students has increased considerably since 1990, the number of black students has remained almost constant despite increases in the suburb’s black population .
One potential explanation for this is that black middle-class families are sending their children to private schools. In his case study of Rolling Acres Public Schools, L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy notes that “The reputation of Rolling Acres Public Schools among white families was stellar, yet among black families, particularly the black middle class, RAPS was viewed as hazardous for educating black children” [9, p. 140]. Perhaps black middle-class families feel this way about West Haven’s public schools and have the financial means to send their children elsewhere. The median household income of black families in West Haven is higher than that of Hispanic families , so black families may indeed have more school choice agency than Hispanic families.
Figure 4. West Haven 3rd graders and high schoolers’ scores on the SBAC. ELA stands for English and Language Arts.
Regarding scores on the SBAC, Connecticut’s new standardized test, nearly all public schools in West Haven (elementary, middle and high) underperformed relative to the state. There was one exception however, visible in Figure 4. Edith E. Mackrille Elementary’s 3rd graders performed better than the state in both math and reading . This school resides at the border between the affluent southwestern census tracts and the less affluent central census tracts. Interestingly, Seth G. Haley Elementary, which lies at the heart of the affluent southwestern census tracts didn’t perform nearly as well as Mackrille . This suggests that neighborhood wealth and school performance don’t always go hand-in-hand. It’s possible that the most wealthy parents are sending their kids to private schools outside West Haven, directing their resources away from the public school system.
On greatschools.org, no West Haven school receives a GreatSchools rating higher than 6 out of 10. These relatively low ratings aren’t surprising given that they’re based primarily on test scores. However, the user ratings for West Haven’s schools are reasonably high, usually around 4 out of 5 stars. Some positive comments include: “I am a current Junior at West Haven High. I personally have had a great educational experience,” “WHHS is a great school u get what u put in,” and “I got great writing classes there.” Of course, not all comments are positive. One less positive comment states: “Unfortunetly as a public school it has been caught up in the degradation of schools by unions, local, state, and national politics” .
Perception vs. Reality
The news tends to portray West Haven in a negative light. Running a search for West Haven on the New Haven Register’s site brings up several stories about crimes. There are only a handful of positive accounts among the generally negative accounts. Comments on articles are similarly negative: “Good start to Friday news with another West Haven resident in cuffs. That town doesnt need a carousel, the land should be used to build a jail big enough to hold all these idiots if thats possible,” and “West Haven was a great town prior to the 90’s….anyone still living there AND owning property needs to get out ASAP” . The chronology in this second comment is important. The commenter marks 1990 as the cutoff date for when West Haven was desirable. It was also around 1990 that West Haven’s minority population started to grow.
The crime rates in West Haven reflect the general trend that we have identified throughout this report; they are lower in the wealthier single-family residential areas to the southwest and higher in low-income areas with multi-family housing. Minorities moving into eastern West Haven may not only be causing white flight, but also informing the assumptions that white residents have about the crime that is occurring in the city. Perhaps this dynamic is fueling the negative perception that some residents have of West Haven and its future?
A More Positive Reality
Community posts on Facebook groups made by West Haven community members are much more positive and tend to reveal the characteristics of a tight-knit group of concerned citizens. West Haven – What’s Happening, for example, is a group composed of 2,897 members that “posts information of events and activities” in the city . Recent posts demonstrate a more desirable side of West Haven, one in which neighbors happily attend each other’s events and are supportive of one another’s causes. Communication is free flowing and no negative comments are to be found. It may be that this forum specifically facilitates this type of communication; however, this is certainly a side of West Haven that is not perpetuated in the media. After taking a deeper, unbiased look at the suburb, it starts to become much more desirable.
- Social Explorer, Population Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
- Social Explorer, Race Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
- Cohen, Elizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.
- Social Explorer, Income Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
- Social Explorer, Unemployment Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
- Social Explorer, Poverty Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
- Owens, Ann. “Neighborhoods on the Rise: A Typology of Neighborhoods Experiencing Socioeconomic Ascent.” City and Community 11.4 (2012): 345-369. Print.
- U.S. Census Bureau. Social Explorer, Education Data Set. Web. 9 February 2016.
- Lewis-McCoy, R. L’Heureux. Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Print.
- Busemeyer, Stephen, and Matthew Kauffman. “How Did Your School Do On The Connecticut SBAC?” Hartford Courant. Hartford Courant. 27 August 2015. Web. 21 February 2016.
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- Turkish Cultural Center Connecticut. Turkish Cultural Center Connecticut. Web. 21 February 2016.
- Elementary / Secondary Information System. National Center for Education Statistics. Web. 9 February 2016.
- “Zoning Regulations.” City of West Haven. City of West Haven. Web. 21 February 2016.
- New Haven Independent. New Haven Independent. Web. 21 February 2016.
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- “West Haven – What’s Happening.” Facebook. Facebook. Web. 23 February 2016.