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Hartford: Municipal Version Of Whipping Boy

Colin McEnroe

April 12, 2009

So, I have to ask:

How bad does the rest of the world need Hartford (and its environs) to feel?

Most of the time, we feel pretty bad about ourselves.

We are always apologizing, as James Boswell is said to have done to Samuel Johnson.

"Sir, indeed, I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it," said Boswell.

"Sir," Johnson replied, "that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help."

So it goes for Hartford.

I once told Randy Newman I wrote for The Hartford Courant, and he told me he was suspicious of any book that carried a blurb of praise from The Hartford Courant because it seemed like a tacit admission that the book hadn't attracted praise from anywhere better.

He said this as if it weren't supposed to hurt my feelings. To Newman, Hartford was just another version of short people.

I've been down in New Haven a lot lately for various purposes, and I will admit that a tear of envy and chagrin forms in my strabismus-plagued eye as I behold the latest Elm City accomplishments, especially the very interesting Ninth Square development with a brand new cluster of interesting restaurants and cafes and dwelling places.

I'm sure some New Haven muckraker like Paul Bass could show me a few worms in the apple — at minimum, entire colonies of feral kittens displaced to make room for upscale hipsters — but here in Hartford we manage to stray into corrupt practices and the destruction of old buildings and have nothing to show for it.

Anyway, last week I made the mistake of feeling — for a fleeting moment — good about Hartford. Maybe good is even too strong a word. Good-ish?

I had been to the Odd Ball at Real Art Ways. It was a fundraiser to which people were encouraged to dress inventively. The tickets were cheap enough so that you didn't have to be a swell to afford it, and there were ways to get in free, including having one's semi-naked body painted by artists.

The result was something even more pleasantly outlandish than even Real Art Ways director Will K. Wilkins could have hoped for. I've long maintained that Wilkins has the right temperament to help Hartford. Cockeyed optimists don't do well here. What works instead is a controlled fury that can be channeled into explosions of positive energy. If Hartford had a waterfront tourism director, it would have to be Ahab, who "piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." Arrgh! Welcome to Hartford, and the devil take the hindmost.

Anyway, Wilkins is just not going to be beaten by whatever is wrong with Hartford, even if it means he'll be dragged, roaring and clutching his harpoon, by giant zebra mussels into the cold depths of the Connecticut River.

He threw a party that had to amaze even him. The artists and artistic people really stepped up, and the costumes were garishly, fluorescently, extra-terrestrially odd. It was as if "Blade Runner," "Fifth Element" and the "Star Wars" cabaret scene transferred their energies into a tiny patch of Parkville all at once. I mean, I put a fair amount of effort into my get-up and wound up feeling kind of drab and stuffy by comparison.

And it made me think that Hartford may have, buried under the rubble of ennui and, well, rubble, that "creative class," supposedly so necessary for the revitalizing of cities. And I said so in a blog post and on Facebook. I even said (perhaps a little recklessly), "Hey, take THAT, New Haven."

And photos from the party were zooming all over the Internet too, annoying people who had not been there.

Pretty soon, I started to hear back. From New Haven people, of course. And from suburbanites who want reassurance that there really is no reason to go to Hartford. There was even a guy from Boston writing on a Facebook thread about how the only possible creative endeavor in Hartford would be to look for a way out.

When Boston picks on Hartford, man, that's geo-bullying.

It began to sink in with me that there may be many, many people who need Hartford to suck and be unhappy. There may be some way to charge for that. At the moment, we're doing it for free.

If you live anywhere else and you have to put your foot on Hartford's neck to get over the coolness fence, you're not cool. New Haven will not be autonomously cool until it never needs Hartford to make itself feel better.

I will be forever amused by my friend Gorman Bechard, one of the adamant Apostles of New Haven Chic, who told me in almost complete seriousness that he was glad that John DeStefano lost the last gubernatorial election because "mayor of New Haven is a much more important job than governor of Connecticut." Hey now. That level of chauvinism that makes you cool.

What would be cooler would be a movement toward détente. (I stole this idea from a blog commenter.) What if we had an Odd Ballish night in Hartford when we celebrated New Haven and welcomed its people? What if they did the same for us on another night? Maybe it could all be part of New Haven's splendid Festival of Art and Ideas. Each night would feature a free Amtrak shuttle to get the drunks home. That would be glasnost. Or perestroika. I get them mixed up. Which one is made from beets?

But maybe New Haven will say, "We don't want no Hartford people round here." So it goes for 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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