December 13 - 20, 2006
By ANDY HART, The Hartford News Staff Writer
Like many of us, I experimented with cigarettes at a young age. When I’d managed to swipe a couple of cigs out of my big sister’s pack of Kools, I’d hide them until I had a chance to go to a place where it was virtually guaranteed that no one would see me.
My secret hide-away was called Constitution Plaza.
This was back in the mid-70’s, barely a decade after the Plaza opened. I haven’t checked it out thoroughly, but I’m quite confident that it was not built so that the youth of Hartford would have a deserted but safe place to sneak a smoke.
The truth is Constitution Plaza was built because Connecticut General (now CIGNA) had moved out to a sleek new office park in Bloomfield. To keep the other insurance companies in town, city leaders decided to do what Bloomfield did, and they built a sleek new office park in the middle of Downtown Hartford.
It must be admitted, the insurance companies did stay in town. But the old East Side neighborhood was destroyed in the process and replaced by an architecturally magnificent glass and concrete desert.
A similar process produced the Hartford Civic Center. Like many cities in the early 70’s, Hartford’s place as the retail center of the region had been challenged by the opening of a massive suburban shopping mall (in this case, West Farms Mall).
Our response was to build the Civic Center, a suburban-style shopping mall in the middle of Downtown Hartford. It worked long enough to draw business away and close down many of the small, local shops that once populated Downtown. But eventually the Civic Center Mall closed, too.
It will soon be re-born (as part of Hartford 21) but its anchor tenant will be a grocery store, something you rarely find in a suburban mall, but something that’s desperately needed downtown.
City planners have learned that what works in the suburbs doesn’t necessarily work in the city.
Which is why I believe Hartford should place less emphasis on homeownership and more on job creation.
Hartford’s drive for homeownership also began with the best of intentions back in the early 1990’s. The state’s economy had taken a nosedive. The bottom had fallen out of the real estate market. Building after building was abandoned. Blight spread across the city like cancer.
Numerous solutions were suggested, one of which was homeownership. The general logic was: people keep up their properties in the suburbs because they own their own homes – let’s do that in Hartford.
Helping someone own their own home is a good thing, of course. It does create more stable neighborhoods. And, yes, Hartford’s homeownership rate is one of the lowest in the country.
But will raising that rate cure our ills or just temporarily eliminate one of the symptoms?
I’m inclined to believe the latter. Every year, thousands of men and women return to Hartford after having done their time in jail. They need jobs right away or they’ll return to the kind of “work” that put them in prison.
Kids drop out of school or graduate with few marketable skills. They need jobs that will teach them one of those skills. Single mothers try to raise their children and make ends meet at the same time. They need jobs that are close by and pay more than the cost of day care.
But they all need jobs first, not a house.
Owning a home builds pride, but holding down a steady job with decent pay builds as much, if not more, pride. Whenever I meet someone, one of the first questions they’ll ask is “What do you do for a living?”
The question, “Do you rent or own?” rarely comes up (unless the person I’m speaking with happens to be a real estate agent).
Hartford’s “Golden Age” (roughly from 1860-1960) was not generated by homeownership. In fact, that’s when many of the city’s multi-unit dwellings were built. The Golden Age was generated by good jobs and employers who invested in their workers.
At a recent ground-breaking for a new apartment complex in Frog Hollow, one of the speakers said something to the effect that the complex’s renovated buildings would help return the area to the, “strong, working-class neighborhood it once was.”
Quality housing does not make a “strong, working-class neighborhood,” although it is a key element. Work makes a “strong, working-class neighborhood.”
But where will these jobs come from? Royal Typewriter won’t rise from the ashes. No major factories will come to Hartford because the costs are too high, wages are too high and many other reasons.
I know. I’ve made the same arguments myself to other people, smug in my knowledge of the city and what can and can’t be done here.
But I’m tired of not trying. The need is too great. Ken has given us 40 years (although I think it’s down to 38 now). There must be someone, somewhere out there who has an idea for a business in Hartford that could employ hundreds. And when those employees have money in their pocket and job security, they’ll patronize other businesses, which will grow and provide more jobs.
But job creation has to be a priority in any long-range plan for our city. Hartford works when Hartford works (sorry, I learned how to write at an ad agency).