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Real Street Culture Would Spice Up Hartford Life

Commentary by Gina Greenlee
September 6, 2005

Hartford has no street culture. I'm not talking about the type that consists of knuckleheads and sociopaths wreaking havoc on the lives of decent folk as they head to work or school, feed their children or gas up their cars. I'm referring to a city's river of life - the kind of street culture that energizes and establishes an ongoing relationship with residents, attracts visitors and magnetizes all feet on the street.

What makes for a street culture? Why is it a key component of Hartford's rise from the ashes? What's the strategy for creating it?

Pedestrians are a significant part of successful street culture. Pick a successful city anywhere on the globe and I guarantee that people - residents and visitors alike - walk that city. People on the street signal that "something is happening here." What's happening? Often, nothing more than other people. But people-watching is a favored pastime of humans, and it's also a window onto a culture.

Want to know about Paris? Skip the Louvre. Sit at a sidewalk cafe, order a demitasse and observe what makes Paris as it promenades before you down the streets of St.-Germain-des-Pres. Want to know about Hartford? Sit at a sidewalk cafe. What do you see? A smattering of people, except during rush hour and in a handful of high-energy blocks scattered throughout the city. That's part of Hartford's image problem of "nothing to do." For new arrivals and visitors who see nothing on the street but buildings and cars, what other assumption could they make? The fact that Hartford has few restaurants with sidewalk seating is a huge clue to lack of street life. Why build the theater if there's no show?

For years, I didn't make the connection between the dearth of taxis on Hartford's streets and the fact that the capital city has no pedestrian culture. In my early Hartford years, I would walk around town and crane my neck on the rare occasions I saw cabs roar by. Fascinated, I wondered, "How do you get one?" Sounds silly, I know, but I hail from a place where people don't call for cabs, they just jump from the sidewalk to the street and flag them down. Then one day, the epiphany emerged: Of course there are no empty taxicabs on Hartford's streets. Who would they pick up?

People attract other people, but something must attract the first set of people. And that something is what Hartford lacks.

The solution is an amalgam of:

Pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, such as sidewalks that don't suddenly disappear, crosswalk signals that last longer than 10 seconds, and traffic-calming measures, especially at intersections that are starting gates for highways.

Performance art that comfortably stirs people out of auto-pilot mode and commands their attention, such as the funky rhythms of the pail-bottom bongo players in New York's subways or the mimes and jugglers that claim the streets of Montreal.

Street-level novelty shops that call to pedestrians from display windows.

Hearty, inexpensive food-to-go such as falafel, noodle shops and rib joints - precisely the kind of food that whispers sweet nothings to the palates and pockets of college students and young professionals. The lines spilling out the door onto the street will attract the rest of us.

Structured community use of the city's many lovely parks.

Tall buildings with many levels to baby-sit cars.

Widespread police presence as a comforting show of force to residents and visitors, and a message to knuckleheads and sociopaths.

Gina Greenlee edits an internal publication for a financial services company in Hartford and writes a twice-monthly column for The Courant. To leave her a comment, please e-mail her at gdg70@hotmail.com.

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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