In his book The Great Disruption, Francis Fukuyama writes that the flight to the suburbs was not merely the result of “automobiles, cheap gas, and mean-spiritedness.” People also moved to try to recreate a society with physical security and social order. Once cities became livable again—when crime rates decreased and order returned—people began to return, “since cities are, after all, much more interesting places to live.”
But creating social order ex nihilo can be arduous to say the least, and for a city attempting to recreate itself it can be a long trip back. No single effort is likely to restore a city to health, and turning things around usually takes the involvement of a small army of participants from the private sector, private philanthropy, government, and sometimes the local college or university.
Hartford, Connecticut is a city currently attempting to recreate itself as a more livable community. In nearly constant decline since the 1950s, Hartford has seen deterioration in virtually every measure of economic health. A center for industry, the city suffered as the American economy moved away from manufacturing. Middle class flight began in earnest in the 1950s.
The bottom fell out in the early 1990s as Connecticut was hit by recession. The defense industry, an important part of Hartford’s economy, was weakened by procurement cutbacks and many key industries restructured to stem their losses from the slowing economy. By the mid-1990s, Hartford was among the poorest cities in the United States with a steadily decreasing population, high unemployment, rampant crime, and low rates of home ownership. Hartford was more than ready for some form of revitalization.
And revitalization is what it got. Where five years earlier visitors perceived the downtown area as “sinister,” the city center has been cleaned up and Hartford’s waterfront is now attracting record crowds for concerts and water sports.
Much of Hartford’s revitalization can be laid at the doorstep of the booming economy. But much could also be credited to the collaboration of many different groups, including the city government, private industry, nonprofits, and local colleges. Their efforts have encouraged further development that will substantially improve the nature of the city’s downtown area.
Town and Gown
Local colleges have played a significant role in revitalizing Hartford. Trinity College and its president, Evan S. Dobelle, committed to the improvement of the community around the college. The neighborhood surrounding the college was dilapidated and crime-ridden. Other colleges similarly situated have often chosen to isolate themselves from their neighborhoods; Dobelle, however, opted to revitalize the area.
Today, Trinity is in the process of constructing a 17-acre “learning corridor” that will include an elementary school, a middle school, and a magnet school, as well as a theater, a commons building, daycare facilities, a Boys and Girls Club, and a Center for Families. The college hopes that the learning corridor will become a focal point for educational programs and a vibrant community. To that end, the college has donated $6 million to the corridor from its endowment.
It doesn’t stop there. In 1996, the college announced a $175 million initiative to revitalize the community surrounding the college. The state of Connecticut contributed, as did the city of Hartford and the federal government. Funding also included a $5.1 million grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, as well $400,000 from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and $500,000 from the chairman of Trinity’s Board of Trustees and his wife. Several Hartford-based corporations also gave sizable gifts, as did local foundations and organizations.
The college was located amid subsidized public housing and deteriorated multi-family rental properties. Grasping the basic principle that people take better care of their own property, Trinity decided to encourage owner-occupied housing, a strategy that appears to have paid off. In the words of the Metro Hartford Chamber of Commerce’s president, Tim Moynihan, Trinity’s efforts under Dobelle have “changed the whole character of the neighborhood” and have “made the community more livable.”
Residential housing is often key to a city’s success or failure; people who live downtown patronize local businesses and provide a sense of security to others nearby. Hartford has recognized this relationship; speaking at a recent meeting of the local economic development authority, the city’s mayor described housing as “one of the key elements for the survival of downtown.” Efforts to create more residential housing in and near the central business districts are underway, and an apartment building recently received town approval in Hartford.
A River Runs through It
Access to the Connecticut River from downtown has been another priority for the city. For the past sixty years, a highway and flood barriers have virtually cut off the cities of Hartford and East Hartford from one another and from the river that runs between them. Today, however, the reunification of the city with the Connecticut River and the development of riverfront parks are underway.
In the early 1980s, an organization called Riverfront Recapture decided to press for development of Hartford’s shoreline. In the words of the organization’s president, Joe Marfuggi, the river had always been a “dividing line” between Hartford and East Hartford, but the reunification of the cities with the riverfront would “become a theme to tie together both Hartford and East Hartford” as well as “a catalyst for economic development.”
Currently under construction is a landscaped plaza that spans the interstate highway and flood control walls. The plaza will allow public access both to the Connecticut River and to East Hartford. Grass-covered terraces will descend to the riverfront and create amphitheater seating for 2,000 people as well as access to water taxis and other water activities.
Funded by corporations, private donors, government, and foundations like the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the project will be completed this year and will be the culmination of two decades of planning. Marfuggi states that it is the riverfront program’s broad base of support in the community that has led to its success, and that “everyone has rallied around this and believed that it would have the long-term benefits that we’re now seeing.”
Though still under construction, the riverfront project has already changed the atmosphere of downtown. The riverfront was once notable for its broken glass, graffiti, unmowed grass, and crime. Today, the area is becoming a vibrant recreation center for the city, replete with water taxis, concerts, and fishing tournaments. Last season, 475,000 visitors went to the riverfront parks. And the improved ambiance seems to have been contagious. Planners are discussing $1.5 billion in further development near the riverfront parks. As a result of the investment in the riverfront, the land near the parks, which had been underutilized for years, is back in demand.
The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving’s financial support—$1 million over four years—has been vital to Riverfront Recapture’s efforts and the resulting positive consequences. Michael Bangser, the foundation’s executive director, describes the river as the “centerpiece of redevelopment in Hartford.”
There is no single solution to urban blight. Yet the steps that Hartford has taken are moving the city in the right direction. The city’s downtown has been greatly improved by the addition of entertainment activities and new and appealing sites to visit, combined with efforts to provide residential housing and educational services. With support from local businesses and foundations, and with leadership by enthusiastic residents, the city has begun to attract positive attention.
Nor should this come as any great surprise. After all, according to Francis Fukuyama, cities can compete with the suburbs when they offer orderly, safe environments filled with interesting activities and sites to visit. Hartford has taken the difficult first steps toward becoming such a city once again.
Leslie F. Greenberg is assistant editor of Philanthropy.