When workmen began tearing up the concrete slabs on Bushnell Plaza in downtown Hartford recently, I took a hard look at it. I see it every day, or at least I pass it while my mind is somewhere else. It's not pleasant to look at, but thinking about it brings dreams of a lovelier, more livable city.
The plaza is that large, empty space in front of Bushnell Tower, at Main and Gold streets. It covers an underground parking lot for the Bushnell Tower condominiums, though the plaza and the tower have different owners. The two were built in 1969, the tower to a design by I.M. Pei.
Regardless of your taste in architecture, the tower is a Hartford landmark. At first there were potted plants and trees up on the plaza, but as water leaks began to affect the parking area they were removed. For years the plaza sat empty, the ugliest place downtown. Now the leaks are being addressed, and it's time to think of the future.
"Go green" isn't just an environmental change, but a physical one. A more attractive city can be a more environmentally conscious one. The perception of a place is not dependent on how much money is spent; any McMansion is an object lesson in how crass money can look. That's where Bushnell Plaza can succeed — by creating a space that can be shared with the rest of the city.
Let's imagine the tower ringed in green, from Bushnell Park to the west to the sliver of land with Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture to the north, with the plaza to match. A formal garden of potted shrubs and plants, drawing inspiration from Pei's tower, could bring sophistication to emptiness.
As Stone Field Sculpture draws on the geologic history of the area, planters could showcase native plants. Perhaps there could be a maze, with a modern gazebo in the middle. A sculpture garden was suggested years ago, in collaboration with the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which is right across the street. Other ideas include a farmers market, an outdoor cafe or a place for street theater, like Harvard Square in Cambridge. Small tables and chairs for sitting out and reading the newspaper on a summer evening would help bring the tower dwellers down to earth.
What's that? Sit outside in Hartford? The idea may sound strange, but attitudes change when places change. If Bushnell Plaza remains a wasteland, it will be by choice — many choices. The goal is to make the plaza a place where people want to be.
There are factors beyond the control of any one individual, but so many people can benefit, who is to say no? For what reason? Even now someone is saying "Well, the expense ..." knowing that you cannot put a dollar amount on an improved quality of life. I recall Margaret Mead's famous saying, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does." To which I add: Never underestimate the power of small actions to improve the larger world.
In a 2000 essay, the art critic and novelist John Berger proposed planting an apple orchard on the site of a prison scheduled for demolition in the French city of Lyons. I wouldn't go that far for Bushnell Plaza, but the need for some change is obvious. Small steps can have a major effect.
There is no excuse for urban nothingness, a place people no longer see when they walk by. I hope the owners of the plaza, the residents of the tower and everyone who passes by it is paying attention.
Stephen Persing of Rocky Hill is an administrative assistant at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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