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No Man's Land?

Young Singles Bemoan Dearth Of Dating Potential In Hartford

February 7, 2007
By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer

They find themselves here in Connecticut, nestled between the bright lights of Boston and New York City, lost in an awkward space.

They've graduated from the boozy hive of college bars packed around downtown Hartford's train station.

They're not yet pushing strollers through suburban town centers or sipping cocktails with divorcées at Max's.

Dating Picture

This, they say, is the void of young, not-so-swinging singledom in the Hartford region. And this Valentine's Day, while the unhooked masses bemoan that "Man, it's tough out there," some singles in the Hartford area's dwindling 25- to 34-year-old demographic say: You don't know from tough until you've tried dating out here.

"We're in this no-man's-land," says Katherine Ruddick, 26, sitting pretty with friend and fellow single Kylie Dec at the front bar of Joe Black's in Hartford Saturday night. "Because even though there are people in their mid-20s living in the Hartford area, they're not single people in their mid-20s."

It made for a rough homecoming three years ago, when Ruddick returned to her native Connecticut after study and work stints in Washington, D.C.; Bloomington, Ind.; Puerto Rico; and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"It was something that really struck me when I came back to the Hartford area after living in all these different places," says Ruddick, a schoolteacher living in Middletown. "There isn't much of a weekend scene here. It's just not very vibrant."

And what does it all mean for dating and mating in New England's Rising Star? |"It's difficult. Extremely difficult," says Dec, 26, a physical therapist from Glastonbury.

She waves a hand toward Pratt Street to punctuate her point. "Look outside. It's desolate," she says. "There's nobody out there."

There's nobody out there.

It's a gnawing feeling shared by countless other young, single professionals who have come, gone or even stayed in the region. There's a transience among young professionals here, a sense that Hartford is more Stepping Stone than Rising Star as they come to pick up graduate degrees, internships or job experience on their way to the next big job in the next big city. With a shortage of social outlets that suit their maturing tastes, with the lack of a cohesive community feel, many flee on weekends for the glow of Boston or New York.

This is not new terrain. Government officials and local developers have been wringing their hands for a decade or more, trying to figure out how to beef up the eroding number of twenty- and thirtysomething professionals in the state, and even across the Northeast. Reams of reports have been written about the impact the flight of this precious demographic has on region's social fabric, of the consequences on the economy and workforce.

But what of the romantic consequences?

There's nobody out there.

OK, sure there is. But the numbers show these singles are right to feel that way sometimes.

Between 1990 and 2004, Connecticut saw the largest flight of 25- to 34-year-olds than any other state, according to U.S. Census figures. The demographic makes up about 12 percent of the state population - fourth from the bottom nationwide.

And those are just the young and the generally restless.

Let's zoom into the dating pool.

In the Hartford region, the most recent census figures show a little more than 66 percent of men and 61 percent of women between 20 and 34 are unmarried (which does not necessarily mean they're available; they could be in a committed relationship and off the market). That's just slightly better than the national average, but it's still harsh compared to the healthy singles scene in Boston, where 74 percent of men and 72 percent of women in that age range are single. In New York, it's 75 percent of men and 70 percent of women.

"What I've found from my twentysomething clients, especially those who are not from here, is they really can't wait to get out," said Dave Hovey, who largely works with this age group as a licensed counselor at Hartford Family Institute.

"They're finding that people in the Northeast aren't very friendly, that they tend to be really reserved and not really interested in adding new people to their cliques," Hovey says. "It makes it that much more difficult when you've left your town, left the comfort of your family and friends."

Hearing so much of this shared unease, Hovey set out a few months ago to form a support group for local twentysomethings. But he couldn't even amass enough of them to get it off the ground.

This is not a woe-is-Hartford situation, however, says Hovey. Sure, the region and demographics make it difficult to date and mate. But there's also a cultural phenomenon at play unique to this generation.

Technology has become the new social lubricant, and dates are made and broken via e-mail and text- and instant-message. Relationships are managed via social-network sites like MySpace.com, he says, "but they're using it to connect with the friends they already have. They're using that for their support system" rather than taking a chance and going out to meet new people.

"It serves to isolate," says Hovey. "And I think what's happened as a result of this kind of communication is they don't know how to socialize face to face. People nowadays seem to be inept at the art of conversation and the art of socializing.

"I don't care if you're living in Hartford, in South Bend, Ind., or San Jose, Calif. It's a phenomenon in our culture and society. And it's only going to get worse."

When clients ask Hovey how to meet new people here, he suggests activity groups or hobbies.

"That's my standard answer, but it's not a great answer," he says. "I know there's not really a great social scene in Hartford for urban professionals to meet quality people without feeling they're being analyzed like a piece of meat."

Ah, the meat market.

That sense of being lost between college scene and wedding ring, says Ryan Lawless of Enfield, is epitomized in the dating divide drawn by the Hartford Civic Center.

"On this side," at places like Vaughan's and Trumbull Kitchen, "it's more of a professional and a little bit older crowd. It's more of a place you meet someone you'd like to take out on a date," says Lawless, 25, hunkered with a post-work crowd on a Wednesday night at The Fish Tank, a Hartford sports bar off Pratt Street, adjacent to Woody's, a hot dog joint.

"On that side of the Civic Center?" He smirks and says, " it's the Pour Houses and those types of places. On that side, it's mainly you get really drunk and try to take someone home.

"That was fun a few years ago," says Lawless, who works at Prudential in Hartford. "But if you're young, and you have a real job, and you're looking to meet someone? There really isn't much."

So, shall we sign off in anguish as Hopeless in Hartford?

Not so fast, says Kevin Henry, who, as vice president of MetroHartford Alliance, helps head up the fledgling Hartford Young Professionals & Entrepreneurs group, or HYPE. Sure, he might be paid to say it, he jokes, but there's plenty going on, plenty of good people to meet in Hartford.

There are the arts scenes at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Real Art Ways, both of which hold regular social events that mix cocktails with conversation and art. There are new restaurants and bars constantly cropping up in downtown Hartford. And there are networking events, from luncheon talks with local CEOs to tasting parties at new eateries, that HYPE has orchestrated since its launch last summer. He says HYPE has about 1,000 names on its e-mail list. And he counts at least 25 new people he has met since the group's inception.

"But if you sit back and do nothing, then two years from now, you'll be in the same situation," says Henry, who adds that HYPE is planning to amp up its offerings as it nears it's one-year anniversary. "Sometimes it's about coming out of your comfort zone and learning how to connect. A lot of young professionals are still learning how to network.

"This is happening in Milwaukee, in Chicago. It's no different."

So, says Henry, go out and volunteer. Get involved with your church. Host a party. Join a sports club - all those things your mother told you.

As for Ruddick, she knows she's not going to meet her match in a bar.

"And when I go out on the weekend, it's not with the objective in mind of meeting someone," she says. Still, she wonders just where all the young singles are hiding.

"I do have some hobbies. But it's like yoga. And you're not going to meet a guy at a yoga class."

Your mother, and Kevin Henry, would say: You never know.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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