Every fall, as Halloween nears, I am drawn to Stephen King. What better way to spend a crisp night than curled up with his books? One of my favorites is “Under the Dome,” in which a Maine town is suddenly enveloped by an impassable force field.
This feels eerily familiar to me. I live in New Haven, Conn., a city where about a quarter of residents live below the poverty level. The big establishment in town is Yale, which despite its $25 billion endowment pays only limited property taxes. There is a town-gown divide in New Haven, and the city feels deeply segregated—by both class and race. Invisible barriers separate us as surely as a force field.
Despite this, I feel devoted to New Haven. I live in an enclave called East Rock, a place offering outstanding public education in the much-beloved Worthington Hooker School. My wife and I counted the days until we could plaster our car with the bumper sticker: Proud Hooker Mom. The only problem: Often there are more eligible students than desks.
To get my kids into Hooker, I camped out on the sidewalk in front of the registrar’s office, equipped with a sleeping mat, a beach chair, a rain tarp, some rope and an X-Acto knife. The one dad ahead of me was a scrappy, bearded fellow named Anthony. By the time I arrived he already had been there 15 hours. When the skies darkened, we banded together, commandeered some police traffic cones and configured a crude shelter. We felt like contestants on a third-rate reality TV show. All we wanted was for our kids to go to Hooker.
Some would call this hypocrisy. If I were truly devoted to the city, why hunker down in my neighborhood? Why not embrace a more troubled school? Isn’t this what Jimmy Carterdid in the 1970s when he sent his daughter to a public school in Washington, D.C.? Nowadays it seems like a wistful notion. Even among my liberal neighbors, few venture regularly into the city’s poorer precincts. Six blocks to the east or west is terra incognita.
Ultimately, my kid got into Hooker. I tried to congratulate myself for staying in the city instead of fleeing for some tony seaside suburb, but it felt hollow. In the two years since, I have watched my children acclimate to life in an enclave.
Not long ago, we pulled up to a red light on a street near the Yale campus. On one side was a panhandler in a fast-food parking lot. On the other stood a gleaming Apple Store. My 7-year-old son asked whether people from one side of the street could cross to the other side. The way he posed the question, it sounded as if he was asking whether the laws of physics would allow it. For a moment I saw the world through his eyes—insane, surreal, frightening, like a Stephen King novel.
Then the light turned green.
Once a year, what breaks down the barriers—oddly enough—is Halloween. Throngs of people from other neighborhoods converge on our street, as if, briefly, the force fields have vanished. We get about 900 trick-or-treaters from all over the city. My kids sit on our steps, marveling at all of these New Haveners who emerge suddenly, magically. Everyone is talking, joking, laughing. It’s a fleeting vision of a city that isn’t, but that—maybe, if we don’t give up on it—could still be.
Mr. Halpern is the co-author, most recently, of the young adult novel “Nightfall” (Penguin, 2015).