The Other Side of Prospect

  • By Nicholas Dawidoff
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 464 pp.
  • Reviewed by Larry Matthews
  • December 17, 2023

The price of living on the wrong side of the tracks.

The Other Side of Prospect

Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Other Side of Prospect might well be the best book on race in America in the past decade. At least from a white man’s point of view, given that both the author and I are white, and he is writing about Black people. I understand that there may be those who would say neither of us is qualified to opine on this issue, but let me explain.

The Other Side of Prospect is a meticulously researched book about a Black section of New Haven, Connecticut, a bastion for East Coast Brahmins who matriculate at Yale, a launching pad for “those who matter” since 1701. Yale, with its $40 billion endowment, is one side of New Haven. A neighborhood across town called Newhallville is the other. Newhallville is mostly Black, poor, and bears no resemblance to the university and its well-heeled, well-educated patrons. Writes Dawidoff:

“Prospect street was the invisible railroad track, the boundary that cleaved their New Haven into two unequal cities, one affluent and white, the other poor and Black. Those on each slope of the hill spoke of the community up and over as the other side. The word ‘other’ communicated the distance and unfamiliarity of close neighbors, and plenty of people on the Newhallville side felt also that there was disregard, an assumption that their circumstances existed because they were different rather than differently treated.”

There it is: Different rather than differently treated. Dawidoff’s research takes us all the way back to the Jim Crow South to explain how those who now live in “the Ville” got there. How their ancestors, free after the Civil War, had their land and dignity stolen. How families were nothing more than serfs to the white men who took the land and hanged their sons for minor transgressions.

During the so-called Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century, millions of African Americans boarded trains and headed north, some to New Haven. For a while, there were industrial jobs to be had, but they melted away, leaving families impoverished with no way out.

The book is about the wreckage left behind. The wrecked families, the hopelessness, the bad policing, the neglect, the drugs. There’s also a story here about a guy named Bobby. Dawidoff, a seasoned journalist and Pulitzer finalist, does such an outstanding job of telling his story that, at times, you feel Bobby is someone you know well enough to hurt for.

This is not a book filled with charts and graphs and research about race explained by so-called “experts” at Yale. It’s one that brings you into the lives and family rooms of those who’ve been differently treated. Good people. People who hear gunshots in the night. People who sleep on the floor to avoid the rounds coming through their walls. People who long ago lost any sense of hope. People who, says one of them, “are more than the debts they carried.”

Back to Bobby. Dawidoff writes:

“Poverty suffused Bobby’s classrooms. Students had holes in their shoes, took cold showers all winter and gathered at home by the open oven door…There were days when Grace wouldn’t let Bobby go to school because she heard that kids with guns were shooting up the bus stop.”

As for those guns:

“There were gun rentals, group-owned ‘community’ guns, time-share guns, and even loaners that went out with a warning. ‘Don’t have a body come back to me.’”

I was a street reporter for over 30 years; The Other Side of Prospect is the finest piece of urban race reporting I have ever read. It answers the question, “How did this happen?” But it’s not just about New Haven. It’s about pretty much any American city. There is a high probability that tonight, any night, your local news will lead with a shooting. The kids who fire these guns tend to have no training; the innocent dead tend to be bystanders, often children.

Policing is a longtime problem in such neighborhoods. The people who live in these places don’t trust the police, who, in turn, don’t particularly have fond feelings for the residents. If you’re white and middle class, you get one kind of policing. If you’re poor and Black, you get another.

Do yourself a favor this holiday season. Read The Other Side of Prospect. It’s not going to bring you any holiday cheer but it will teach you about Americans who — because of their skin color — are treated differently.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2022.]

Larry Matthews is the author of I Used to Be in Radio.

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