Early December was my first time at the Colt Building since moving out in 2002. I had been a resident for seven years. I visited former neighbors during the 15th Annual Hartford Artists' Open Studio Weekend, an event inaugurated by the once robust artistic community that called Colt home. Though many of the south armory's residents have gone, a hearty bunch still occupies the units and plans to stick it out for the long term.
I admire their pluck and commitment. They remind me of why I moved to the Colt Building in the first place, why I'd hope to stay for as long as I lived in Hartford, why I cried when I walked down the long, empty concrete hallways that once bustled with thousands of shoppers and visitors, and why it burns me that a once thriving artistic enclave has been decimated.
Is this progress for a city trying to transform itself into a destination? From Manhattan's SoHo and Austin's SoCo (South Congress Street) to Paris' Montmartre and Washington state's Port Townsend, artistic communities are magnets for international visitors. And what do we do in Hartford? We blow up the one attraction that had proved for more than a decade to magnetize out-of-towners who spend money and return with friends who also spend money.
We Colt dwellers had an idea that "tipped," that took on a life of its own through word of mouth, to use a term from Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 best-seller "The Tipping Point," and we torched it.
Homes for America Holdings Inc. didn't run the artists out (I was gone before this most recent developer took over), but it lacked enthusiasm for collaborating with the creative community to keep it intact. "You can't make money off of artists," said an artist friend who left Colt for Parkville's burgeoning design district. Sure you can, if the artists' work and way of life are attractions for tourists with open wallets. (Besides, isn't cash cow supposed to be the role of Colt's commercial tenants?) Besides, I wasn't living at Colt for free. I was paying almost $1,000 in rent - more than my current monthly mortgage for my Southwest neighborhood home.
I can appreciate why Coltsville's developers have focused on securing commercial tenants such as Insurity - a revenue source to help keep the trains moving while new track is laid. So, too, can I appreciate Homes for America's plan to renovate the residential spaces for more mainstream market appeal: Not everybody is up for swinging from a 10-foot ladder to change light bulbs or manually operating an industrial freight elevator. And windows that close should be a domestic staple, not a luxury. Quiet as the truth is kept, artists embrace creature comforts and dependable services, too. During my tenure at Colt, I would have loved regularly working elevators, controlled heat and closable windows.
What I will never embrace is the proposed Colt National Park. Let's pretend for a nanosecond that it becomes reality. No one will come to Hartford expressly to visit this "park" any more than people come solely to visit Mark Twain's or Harriet Beecher Stowe's homes, historically significant though they may be.
Call it what you will - Sam Colt's innovative firearms factory or the birthplace of precision machinery - this "contribution" to the Industrial Revolution does not a destination city make.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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