“Our community has been judged by 45 seconds of tape.”
JEFFREY B. COHEN
June 12, 2008
It is the street that gave the world a view of Hartford as a city gone wild, where out-of-control motorists can blindside an elderly pedestrian in broad daylight while onlookers stand by and watch callously.
But Julio Mendoza says the image of Park Street that has been replayed countless times on television news shows and over the Internet during the past week doesn't represent the street he has worked to improve for more than a decade.
Mendoza knows Park Street as the center of the city's Latino life. It has a thriving retail district with new facades, sidewalks and curbs. Hoped for, if stalled, plans are in the works for a multi-million-dollar pair of residential towers -- right where 78-year-old Angel Arce Torres was hit and paralyzed last week.
Drugs and crime do persist. That's why Mendoza and the Spanish American Merchants Association that he runs were gearing up to announce this summer the operation of nearly three dozen video cameras high atop light posts, intended to deter crime and make visitors feel safe.
But he fears that the video's first attention-grabbing release, the one that shows people staying away from the injured Arce Torres and cars driving past him, may have done just the opposite.
"Our community has been judged by 45 seconds of tape, or a minute of tape, by four people that were standing there that nobody knows how they felt," said Mendoza, a friend of both Arce Torres and his son, Angel Arce.
"If the same thing was to happen in other parts of the city or other parts of the suburbs, they wouldn't say ? 'That community is a bad community,' " Mendoza said. "When these unfortunate things have happened at colleges, they don't blame the community itself. They blame the individuals that did it."
"And that's the way it's supposed to be," he said.
Arce Torres remains paralyzed from the neck down following the May 30 hit-and-run that occurred as he walked across Park Street after buying some milk. His family learned this week that he would never breathe again without a respirator and would never return home.
When he released the video, Hartford Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts said the crime, like the June 2 mugging of former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone, illustrated what he called was the city's "toxic relationship" with itself.
The apparent image of uncaring Park Street, and the ensuing national furor, prompted Mayor Eddie A. Perez to stress Wednesday that "Hartford is a city of commitment and compassion."
Standing on the front steps of city hall, joined by police, community, business, and civic leaders, Perez said, "We as a community are outraged," and asked the community to turn that outrage into action.
He and police officials released some fresh details about their investigations into the two incidents.
In the Carbone case, Perez said that police had found Carbone's wallet, his glasses, and a blunt object. He offered no further details. Roberts had earlier indicated some evidence in the crime had been sent off for forensic analysis.
In the Arce Torres case, Assistant Police Chief Neil Dryfe said that video shot from a different security camera and witness accounts have led investigators to believe they are looking for a Hispanic man, 20 to 28, with dark hair. As for the car involved in the incident, Dryfe said police think it was a late-1980s or early-1990s, dark-colored Honda Accord or similar vehicle, Nissan Sentra or Toyota Corolla.
The four-door car is possibly maroon, and may have aftermarket wheels and an aftermarket cover on its headlights. The car may also be missing its hubcaps, Dryfe said.
No description was offered for a second vehicle that was involved in the incident with Arce Torres.
The state has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the hit-and-run.
Maritza Estrada says she has seen Park Street's compassion firsthand.
She cleans and tends the bar at El Bohio, a Park Street restaurant where Arce Torres -- known as Ponce -- was at home. He'd help open up most mornings and play dominoes there. It was from there that he'd give people who asked rides to a North End methadone clinic, and it was there that he'd collect cans for the woman who needed money next door.
"I have seen how the people help here," she said in Spanish. "They help," she said.
"It's not fair to say that people didn't care what happened to Ponce."
Former mayoral candidate and current state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez says her Frog Hollow community has gotten a bad rap for the type of incident that could have happened anywhere. It just happened in her community's cultural heart.
"People ask me, 'What's going on on Park Street?' " Gonzalez said. "And I'm saying, 'What's happening on Park Street could have happened somewhere else.' " First-term city Councilman Luis Cotto said he felt personally betrayed by the incident and the aftermath because this is home, it's his people, and he knows them as caring.
Still, Cotto finds himself having to defend his city and his community, he said. "Do we judge the United States based on how we treated Katrina victims?" he asked. "This is an anomaly. Unfortunately, it hit really close to home with the Latino and Puerto Rican community."
"Perception and stereotypes are set by small little things like this and the damage is done," he said.
A fund has been set up to help Arce Torres' family. Checks can be sent to the Angel A. Torres Relief Fund, Webster Bank, 108 Farmington Ave., Hartford, CT 06105.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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