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Yale and New Haven: an awkward couple

''You wanna know about Yale?'' Mike, the hot-dog vendor, slaps a gob of mustard on a quarter-pound frank. ''My grandmother, she was from the old country - you know, Poland. She worked 'til the end scrubbing floors for 30 cents an hour there.''

He waves his hand vaguely in the direction of Yale University, its brownstown walls rising fortresslike over the elms of New Haven Green. ''The strike,'' he concludes, ''shows that they don't care about the people in this town.''

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A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale, assumes the exasperated look of one who has heard it all before. ''The strike,'' he asserts, ''is the llama upon which everybody that has a problem with Yale is riding up and down the mountain.''

Dr. Giamatti slouches in an armchair in Yale's imposing boardroom as the visage of Elihu Yale, the university's 18th century benefactor, peers out from over the fireplace. A handful of strikers, generally ignored by passersby, pace about in a circle just below the boardroom's windows as they have done since Sept. 26, when about 1,800 of Yale's clerical and technical workers walked off their jobs.

''Until the strike, what you would have heard was that Yale and New Haven relations - personally, corporately, officially, symbolically, and other ways - were better than they had been in years,'' says Giamatti, raising his hands in a helpless gesture. ''This was supposed to be an era of good feelings.''

It still is, or it never was, depending on who one talks to. While the university long ago shed its blue-blooded admissions policies, old perceptions hang on.

Yale, one of the nation's wealthiest universities, has as its home a city where nearly a quarter of the citizenry live below the poverty line. As long as that remains true, many agree that no amount of ''good feelings'' extended by the university will ever be enough to bridge that economic chasm.

''A lot of people still see Yale as a bastion of elitism, power, and arrogance which they can neither understand nor trust,'' decided law school professor Julius Getman after walking the picket line with striking Yale workers.

Others see Yale as New Haven's biggest asset. ''Without Yale, New Haven would be just another tired old factory town,'' says Richard Lee, who was mayor of New Haven from 1952 to 1969. But Mr. Lee's view does not represent a consensus.

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''The opinions split pretty clearly down socio-economic lines,'' says city alderman Stephen Medrick. ''If you're with the chamber of commerce, things must seem pretty grand and Yale very crucial. The less-well-off might look at it differently.''

Such a characterization applies with less certainty to the strikers who, while not particularly well-heeled, are generally educated and articulate. Some loudly declaim that the situation confirms all their worst suspisions about Yale. Others, however, are more circumspect, speaking of the conflict in hurtful tones that might otherwise be reserved to describe a serious family quarrel.

Many find themselves feeling antagonistic toward the university for the first time - caught in the middle of the legendary rift between town and gown they thought they had avoided. ''I love this university and I've always been proud to be a part of it,'' says Laura Welter, a self-described ''townie'' who normally works in Yale's library system. ''But the question for me is, just how much do I mean to the university? . . . They need us and we need them. I don't think they realize that it goes both ways.''

Talks broke off a week ago with no new negotiations scheduled. The major point of disagreement is wages. The university's ''final'' offer: a 24 percent across-the-board hike in wages above the current average salary of $13,300, parceled out over three years. The union wants a 26 percent hike but says the university's offer would actually amount to 18 percent.

New Haven's business community, on the other hand, has good reason to take satisfaction in its relationship with Yale. Cooperation between the two has evolved from the smoldering neglect of 15 years ago to perhaps its highest point yet. The city's once-crumbling downtown core is embarking on a facelift of historic proportions - much of it choreographed by the Downtown Council, a private development organization Yale helped establish.

The stagnant construction market of the early 1970s has been whipped up to include $250 million of current construction, over a third of which is due to the presence of Yale.

''We believe it makes good sense to invest where we live,'' assures university secretary John Wilkinson, pointing out that the institution's New Haven investments usually do not give the rate of return of its other holdings.

''Investment possibilities in the hometown get special consideration.''

Yale is also New Haven's largest employer, and it pays about $1 million a year in taxes on noneducational property such as the Yale Bowl football stadium, making it the city's third-largest taxpayer. That is in addition to its $2 million annual contribution to city coffers under a 1979 state program to subsidize cities for part of the revenue not collected from tax-exempt institutions - a considerable factor in New Haven, where 37.2 percent of the property is owned by such organizations.

Then there are the less-tangible factors. Yale counts no less than 22 separate collaborative programs with the New Haven public school system. One of them, the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, brings city public school teachers to campus for seminars with Yale faculty members. It is recognized as a national model for town-gown collaboration. Yale boosters say that the very presence of the university gives New Haven a cultural vitality unusual in a city of 135,000.

Says former Mayor Lee: ''No city between Boston and New York can match the cultural resources of New Haven - five legitimate theaters, the greatest collection of British art in the Western hemisphere, two symphony orchestras, a ballet - without having a Yale at the core.''

At least some of the town-gown accommodation is the result of Giamatti's efforts, and his background. He not only is the first Yale president of Italian descent, but his roots are deep in New Haven's large Italo-American community. His grandfather came to New Haven as an immigrant, his father was born there - and, he insists, ''I have as many relatives here as anybody,'' he insists.

Much of the positive relationship began to evolve when after the New Haven Board of Aldermen rejected the university's request to build two residential colleges and Yale responded by establishing an Office of Community relations.

Then there were the urban riots of the late 1960s, which ''woke us up to the fact that we are a part of New Haven,'' says Giamatti, '' that our fates are linked, and that the people of this city exist as more than mere impediments to the greatness of Yale.''

Some critics argue that the benefits Yale is currently offering New Haven have little impact on most of the city's problems. The 1980 census pegged New Haven as the nation's seventh-poorest city, with a population over 100,000. Yale University, with its $1.1 billion endowment, is the nation's fourth-wealthiest institution of higher learning.

That gap is not expected to close anytime soon. A poverty study panel commissioned by Mayor Biagio DiLieto last year concluded that New Haven's ''working population is likely to get poorer as the city continues on its inevitable path from a manufacturing to a service economy.'' In addition, New Haven has been left the abandoned legacy of sixties-era ''Great Society'' programs. At that time it was a proving ground for many antipoverty programs which, when they ended, left the city with a network of increasingly dilapitated public housing units that it can ill-afford to support. While economic expansion is slowly enlarging the city's tax base, property taxes remain high.

Such facts are sore points in any community conflict, and the present strike at Yale by Local 34 of the Federation of University Employees is no exception. The current conflict is being invoked as a reason to resurrect a perennial question in New Haven politics: How can Yale be made to pay more taxes?

''If they really want to help the city, then they can pay for the services that they get,'' argues Frank Carrano, president of the Greater New Haven Labor Council, who is spearheading a campaign to revoke parts of the university's tax-exempt status. ''A lot of people in this community feel that Yale takes far more than they give. It's time to square things.'' Most observers think that such efforts would go nowhere, the ramifications for other institutions such as local churches would be too odious.

Even if a legal maneuver could be crafted to single out Yale, former Mayor Lee doubts it would ever have much support. ''Not many want to help kill the golden goose,'' he says, recalling a campaign run against him for mayor in 1954. The opposing candidate, having accused Lee of overaccommodating the university, ran on a slogan of ''Let's save New Haven from Yale.'' Lee won the election with a 65 percent plurality.

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