The day I moved to Hartford I went to Park Street, to a bar called The White Swan. I loved it - the Swan was no dive -but I also liked the feel and scale of the street and its compact group of businesses. That was more than 30 years ago, and I've been sold on Park Street ever since.
Not everyone has shared my enthusiasm; decay and neglect over the years threatened the milelong thoroughfare. In the much-publicized gang troubles of the early 1990s, the term "Park Street" became shorthand for urban pathology (even though there was no gang violence on the street itself, and people kept going to the stores and shops).
At the same time, not splashed on the 6 o'clock news, there were people who saw the potential. Pedro de Pedro, head of the Spanish American Merchants Association, believed the street could be the northern equivalent of Miami's Calle Ocho, a cultural and mercantile center for Latinos from several states.
Though de Pedro died, way too young, his vision eventually held sway. By the late 1990s, the city and a number of strong nonprofit groups were poised to rebuild the neighborhood.
But damage had been done, infrastructure was decaying, housing was being abandoned. Ill-advised demolition had punched holes in the streetscape.
It was going to take an enormous amount of work to remake Park Street. It would take a leader who was both practical and visionary. The merchants found such a person when they brought Julio Mendoza over from La Casa de Puerto Rico to head the Spanish American Merchants Association a decade ago.
Have you been to Park Street lately?
The traffic is a little dicey because of resurfacing right now, but you'll see new sidewalks and curbs almost finished from Pope Park to Main Street; new housing with shops on the first floor near Squire Street; and new facades on some blocks. The Gitano Food Warehouse is about to open in the former Carlton Supply plumbing building. More is coming.
Mendoza is a bright and engaging guy, a relentless problem-solver with an intuitive grasp of good planning. Virtually every city in the state is trying to revive its neighborhoods. Their mayors ought to visit the third floor of a fascinating old building called The Labor Temple on Park Street and see how Mendoza is doing this.
For openers, Mendoza understands that development is more a process than a single project. He's not trying to build, say, six pillars, and go home. He's thinking years ahead.
He is undertaking many aspects of Ken Greenberg's development plan in a sensible sequence. The infrastructure has to come first, but so does safety and cleanliness.
To that end, he helped form the city's first special services district. The district's workers clean the sidewalks twice a day - litter was a major problem - shovel snow and see to the needs of more than 150 businesses on the street. This fall, the first of 38 security cameras are going up along the street, to be monitored by Hartford police. "Park Street is safe; the cameras will make it safer still," Mendoza says.
He understands that the street has to look good. The facade program is moving ahead with touches of the architectural elegance of Old San Juan, as well as plants and flowers. Parking will feature new meters that take debit or credit cards as well as old-fashioned dinero.
A commercial district is best supported by surrounding residences. Some of housing on the side streets off Park was lost in the past three decades. Mendoza and the Spanish American Merchants Association are partnering with Broad-Park Development and Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, among others, to rebuild it.
Mendoza understands the value of public and private partners in the Park Street revival, and has a bunch of them; Aetna, Hartford Hospital, Bank of America, CL&P, etc. And, of course, the city. If you're developing the main Latino commercial district, it doesn't hurt to have a Latino mayor, Eddie Perez, who used to work in the neighborhood. "Eddie understands development, and that is a big help," Mendoza says.
The big coming project for the Spanish American Merchants Association and its partners is the Park Street gateway at the corner of Park and Main streets. This was going to be two giant towers of 12 and 16 stories on either side of Park Street, but it's been wisely scaled back to, probably, four stories. This is more in scale with the surrounding area, yet can still serve both as a gateway to the Latino neighborhood and a link to downtown.
There should be room for something Park Street really needs, and that is a major restaurant or two. There are a half-dozen fine small eateries along the street, but not the destination restaurant for downtown types, as Aqui Me Quedo was when it was on North Main Street in the 1970s.
When the gateway project gets rolling, Mendoza won't be resting on his laurels. He's got his eye on the block between Seymour and Hudson street. An ill-planned office tower on Hudson took out the buildings along Park Street. Mendoza believes there's room for a narrow row of commercial buildings along the street, with small businesses to serve the neighborhood.
I'm excited about what's happening on Park Street. It wouldn't surprise me if, in a year or two, someone reopened the White Swan.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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