When is a plaza not a plaza? When it's devoid of people. By definition, a plaza, from the Latin platea, is an open public space, usually with merchants. And yet Bushnell Plaza, an elevated, L-shaped expanse at Main and Gold streets in downtown Hartford, may be the most overlooked and underused space in the city. Despite its enormous potential, the plaza has remained the empty concrete slab it was when built in 1970.
Over the years, folks with imagination have proposed some great uses for this airy site near City Hall, Center Church and Bushnell Towers. Designer Whitey Jenkins once envisioned a miniature golf course there. Now, as then, his idea isn't as nutty as it sounds: The space is perfect for a small, controlled outdoor activity. It's easy to see how, after a few hours at the Atheneum, a family could bolt across Main Street and happily unleash its squirmy kids on something less cerebral.
What about monthly Greenwich Village-inspired flea markets, used book and CD stands and craft vendors? Set up a few mikes and have a battle of the bands. In winter, flood it to make a rink for amateur hockey players. When spring comes, install some benches and stairs from the sidewalk so people can read there during lunch, or, heaven forefend in our staid city, grab a soapbox and argue about politics.
Or let's take a lesson from the fountain-loving Romans: hire some modern Bernini to create our own Piazza di Navona. (Interestingly, in 1983, I.M. Pei's architectural firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, which grew from the group that designed Bushnell Towers & Plaza, was hired to redesign the Louvre. Among its improvements: a fountain plaza where a parking garage had been.)
Let's face it. We'll never have a Trafalgar Square. But we could be a city with a real plaza where people meet, in the sun, for something fun to do. There's no cheaper way to bring life to a city.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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