Hartford needs more rich people


A 1957 turquoise and white Chevy BelAir sits abandoned and rusting in a back pasture.  Oh, she was stylish in her day, even yar, but she isn't much to look at anymore.  Time waits for no man, woman or thing.
    You remember this car from her heyday and the better, gentler time in which she was a sought-after prize.  You set out to make her all she once was, maybe even more.  You hire a group of experts to advise you on the restoration.
    They tell you all you need is a new set of tires and a fresh paint job.   You figure what you need is a different set of experts and you set out to find them.  The BelAir rusts some more.
    Welcome to Hartford, whose urban renewal dreams have seen more revivals than there are hot summer nights in the South.  Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies because here we go again.
    Adriaen's Landing complete with a domed stadium and convention center.  New types of public housing featuring single-family dwellings.  Reform of the City Charter.  A downtown college campus.  Please excuse the yawn.
    Maybe these are all dandy ideas, but none or even all of them will make Hartford the kind of place most of us wish it would be.  There should be but one goal to create neighborhoods desirable to people who can afford to live anywhere.
    Hartford will never make that happen until we chose to recognize three truths of urban renewal:
    First, downtown development is good only for downtown.  The  latest plans focus on putting all sorts of attractions in Hartford's central business district.  A few of them include a few new apartments to be occupied by hip, young (and single) professionals.  Great.  A happening downtown brings people and their money into the city and enhances national standing.  But the vital need is to attract families, not tourists.   Show me the best center city in America and I'll show you a place nearby through which you would be afraid to walk.
    A city gets its lifeblood through the circulatory system known as neighborhoods.  Quality places to live attract quality citizens -- the type of folks who join the PTA, make sure their kids do their homework, coach Little League and who get listened to when they call City Hall with a complaint.
    We sometimes talk about luring these people back to Hartford, but it won't happen until we accept truth number two:
    A city has to limit its poor population.  If you have enough food for 10 people and 100 show up asking to be fed, all will starve unless you make some hard choices.  If you somehow manage to get enough for 100, another 100 will show up at your  door.
    Unfortunately, the world has an unlimited supply of poverty.  People don't move to Hartford from Puerto Rico because we have a better climate.
    The sad truth is that poor people have a whole host of social needs that can (and does) suck a city dry.  One can argue about what the fatal number is ten percent, twenty-five percent, whatever, but there is a definite point of no return somewhere in that range.    Hartford has to settle on a figure and limit public housing to correlate with that number.
    It isn't heartless to do so, rather it is an exercise in morality much like the old ethics teaser about a sinking cruise liner with 1000 passengers and lifeboat space for 100.  You have to choose to sacrifice some so that others may survive.  If you don't, everybody drowns.
    Relatedly:
    A successful city needs rich people.   Rich people are spoiled.  They demand (and get) good schools, clean streets, low crime and quiet neighborhoods.  They pay lots of taxes.  They don't work two jobs and have the time and education  to get involved in civic organizations.  They try to elect competent leaders if possible.  People complain that Hartford doesn't have enough racial diversity what it really needs is economic diversity.
    There are a few streets near the Governor's Mansion in Hartford's West End which illustrate the point.  Houses cost upwards of $300,000 (and they pay real estate taxes through the nose).  Blacks and whites live side-by-side.   Gay people, too. Crime is lower than in many suburbs.  The maple tree-lined streets are as pretty as any in the state.
    There is a lot of organizing going on in this neighborhood right now.  The city is considering a proposal for a huge expansion of a nearby school (holding pen) for troubled (delinquent) youths.
    The West Enders are fighting the idea.  Rich people don't want that sort of thing in their neighborhood.
    Governor Rowland and the State Legislature have said they are willing to pony up $100 million or so to save Hartford.  What they should do is condemn a square mile or two and build a brand new subdivision, like the gated ones that house the rich people in the suburbs. Put a handful of retail amenities in the middle of it with a drugstore, a dry cleaner and a gourmet food market.
    Build a new school, one open to all city residents as an honors academy which requires a test for admission.  And a state-of- the-art recreation complex with a lighted baseball diamond, a football field and basketball courts (no soccer field soccer is a weenie sport.)  Like they do in the suburbs, it should have a mandatory community association which levies dues to provide services like sanitation and security patrols.
    Build it and they will come, if only to enjoy the same quality of life but with a much shorter commute. If Hartford can showcase a  neighborhood that is clean and safe with a good school, it will soon have more.  Money not only talks, it does.
    The day a new Hartford arrives will be the day you read in the newspaper about a local neighborhood group in the city organizing to fight off a real estate developer who is proposing to build (egads!) an apartment complex or a shopping center near their digs.  Good cities are about quality of life, not the quality of entertainment.
    All the current proposals for downtown will, at best,  make the city look nice from the gondola of a hot-air balloon, perhaps one filled with all the talk from politicians who are afraid to speak of or unable to understand what Hartford really needs.

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June 1, 1999