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Let Voters Decide On Science Center

September 19, 2004

In 1952 Ralph Ellison published his classic American novel, "Invisible Man." If he were alive today he might update it to "Invisible City." Hartford, that "Rising Star," is paradoxically the invisible city par excellence. While every citizen in West Hartford gets repeated chances to voice his or her opinion on that town's major development, Blue Black Square, and even has the opportunity to vote it up or down in a referendum, the residents of Hartford, including Mayor Eddie Perez (though he fights for a role), remain shut out from major decisions reshaping their environment. The residents of Hartford are invisible, made so by the unelected, but actual, government of the city, the Capital City Economic Development Authority.

Why not let the residents of Hartford vote the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration up or down? Let's face it: Adriaen's Landing has a bad track record so far. A convention center rises, but no one wants to book it. Reservations are dramatically lower than projected. The Front Street development has no buildings and no builder. And the Center for Science has no plan.

According to Richard Levin, "The Center will use hands-on interactive learning. Whether you are an adult or school child, skills like questioning, hypothesizing, experimenting, interpreting and communicating are best learned by doing." This boilerplate prose that contains an unexamined assumption is not what I would expect from the president of the state's most prestigious university and it does nothing to tell us about the actual shape and content of the center's program.

Tom Condon worries that "We have too many kids majoring in lunch, instant messaging and MTV." I don't - yet - see how the Center for Science will offer an antidote. Rather, with its status as "tourist attraction" and its "interactive learning," it seems to perpetuate exactly what Condon believes it must counter.

Furthermore, we better hope the Center for Science cafeteria sells lots of lunches to loads of kids. For no one knows who will pay for the annual budget or the promised continually changing exhibits. If corporate sponsorship will meet these demands, then will corporations offer reduced support to institutions that already exist, such as the very fine Connecticut Air and Space Museum in Windsor Locks?

When three of the center's advisors made a public pitch for it they projected little more than a self-serving advertisement for Connecticut's major corporations, corporations that already receive enough state aid in the form of corporate tax breaks. Judge for yourself. Here is an excerpt from what one of the advisors from Pitney Bowes, Pfizer and UTC wrote in the Courant back on the 18th of March: "Here's how it works. Stir together ... and BOOM!" Where's the science? A magician's sleight of hand is neither science nor education.

If the center fails, Tom Condon says, it will be "another knee in the groin" of Hartford. To make sure that doesn't happen, I think only David H. Rhinelander has the right advice: "Stop." Michael J. Crosbie says that the center's board members "should select the architect who is most open and eager to work closely with the center's board, various building committees and staff over the next few years." The residents of Hartford once again are invisible and irrelevant.

I say make it a referendum like Blue Black Square in West Hartford. Let the citizen's who live in the community where it is to be built discuss it - and not just for a single morning at the Bushnell - and let them approve or reject it. Let the residents of Hartford have the final say, rather than no say at all.

Dennis Barone is the chairman of the English Department at St. Joseph College in West Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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