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September 13, 2011

Fleeing Hartford, Connecticut

by Anne Paddock
Last year the Wall Street Journal ran an article about dying cities in the United States and Hartford, Connecticut was one of the cities included on the list.  Once known as the “insurance capital of the world,” Hartford had fallen victim to flight:  loss of industries and the vital population that keeps a city thriving.

At about the same time the article came out, we returned to the United States and for a bevy of reasons decided to move to the Hartford area. Although everyone told us to move to the surrounding suburbs, we wanted to give the city a try because urban living is appealing – walking to parks, restaurants, shops, and theaters is infinitely more fun than driving to these locations. But, after a year we threw in the towel and moved out of Hartford because the city is not conducive to daily family life.

Bushnell Park is a 50-acre park in the center of the city surrounded by government and office buildings. The website for Bushnell Park (www.bushnellpark.org) states that “Bushnell Park remains an oasis in the heart of the city where people from all walks of life come to renew their spirit and energy.” An oasis in the heart of the city – maybe…could be… but a place to renew spirit and energy…no.
Bushnell Park in the best of times – late Spring and early Summer – can look attractive from certain perspectives (as illustrated above) but the park is one of the most barren and dirtiest parks I’ve ever been to.  Many people don’t clean up after their dogs and in the winter, the snow serves as a display of skirting personal responsibility. On the east side of the park, the small “lake” is polluted; its shores strewn with trash and a children’s swing area looks dilapidated with the perimeter fence falling down.  A port-o-potty planted next to the kids swing area is where drug deals appear to be consummated.

Ugly, rusted 50-gallon garbage drums overflowing with trash abound the park.  And, trees…well there are simply not enough trees; much of the park is wide open space that screams for landscaping. Ironically, the Hartford Courant reports in today’s (9/13/11) paper that Connecticut has one of the highest tree densities of all the states but of the eight counties in the state, Hartford has the lowest percentage (24%) of developed areas covered by trees,the highest being Litchfield County with 43%.

The “Hartford Festival of Light” in Bushnell Park consisted of a few multi-colored floodlights powered by a litany of extension cords held down by duct tape to light up a few barren trees. The temporary makeshift small ice skating rink (3 alternate leg pushes and a skater has gone from one end to the other) was an attempt to provide entertainment during the holiday season but fell short of expectations. Of course, the newspaper editorial writers had a hayday chronicling the festival’s shortfalls, rightfully so.

Hartford has a plethora of cultural destinations including:
  • The Bushnell Performing Arts Center
  • Theaterworks
  • Hartford Stage
  • The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum
  • Connecticut Science Center
  • Connecticut Historical Society
  • Mark Twain House and Museum
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
  • XL Center (sports and concert arena)
There is no shortage of places to go or shows to attend in Hartford as the arts receive tremendous community support but getting to these places requires driving because most people don’t live downtown or don’t walk around Hartford at night because of crime. My daughter was unable to walk the dog after dark because the one time she did, my then 14-year old was approached by a stranger who attempted to recruit her to sign-up for pole dancing lessons.

Hartford isn’t conducive to the outdoor sports enthusiast.  When I first moved to Hartford, I woke up early on a Sunday morning and ran through the city streets to West Hartford – a 7.0 mile loop. While running through parts of the city, I felt uneasy because of the rundown and boarded up buildings; I sensed that I was the only person in the area. Seeking advice from a few local firemen at Jojo’s Coffee – an independent coffee house on historic Pratt Street – I was told not to run:
  • along the Riverwalk bordering the city except at lunch time when many people are present;
  • alone in the city after 5:00 pm;
  • in the north, south or east part of the city; and
  • not on Farmington Avenue (a main thoroughfare to West Hartford).
With my options dwindling, I joined a gym downtown and learned to run on a treadmill despite feeling like a hamster on an exercise wheel.  Normally, running outdoors brings me tranquility but after a runner was raped in the early morning last Fall, any sense of doubt about my gym membership was gone.  I can’t run and relax if I have to worry about my personal safety so I ran in the fortress of the downtown YMCA.

Hartford doesn’t have a decent grocery store. To buy groceries, I found myself driving 5-6 miles to either West Hartford or Glastonbury.  Near the end of my year in Hartford, a small grocery store opened in the first floor of a building called Hartford 21 in the downtown. I took my grocery cart and walked over several times and really tried to make this new business my grocery source but the choices were too limited and the fresh fruits and vegetables were not of the quality of Whole Foods or Stop and Shop.  So, I continued driving out-of-town to get groceries. The grocery store closed within a few months of opening.

Hartford traffic is unbearable.  Hartford has the strategic location of being the crossroads of two major highways:  91 that goes north and south and 84 that goes east and west. There is exactly one lane to interchange each of these highways. How can a city function efficiently with a one lane interchange for each major highway?  The answer:  they can’t and so there is traffic all day long. My daughter’s school was 6 miles from where we lived and the drive took from 10 to 40 minutes, depending on the traffic.  Add rain, 80 inches of snow this past winter, and a driver that plowed into me from behind and driving became a lesson in courage and patience.

Most businesses shut down at 5:00 pm and are closed on weekends.  Hartford caters to the big companies – primarily insurance and financial – in the downtown area and as such the smaller businesses follow the work week schedule which means Hartford turns into a ghost town after 5:00 pm on weekdays and on weekends. Even CVS closes at 6:00 pm on weekdays and is closed on Sunday.  But, who can fault a business for not staying open?  Most people who work in downtown Hartford don’t live in the city.  They live in surrounding suburban areas. So, when they leave, the businesses close.

Dunkin Donuts has taken over downtown Hartford.  There were exactly 4 Dunkin Donuts within a 1 block radius of where we lived. I have nothing personal against Dunkin Donuts; I simply don’t like their donuts or muffins.  What happened to local bakeries and delis? Outside of Pratt Street – the historical block long street in Hartford with half empty storefronts – Trumball, Main, and Pearl Streets, there are few local businesses operating.

But the final straw was a Spring night when I was awoken by gunshots at 1:30 am.  I jumped out of bed and looked out the window of our 8th floor loft and saw groups of young adults running.  The next morning, the news reported a random shooter fired shots the night before on historic Pratt Street – the one street that is always supposed to be safe to walk down was no longer safe.  So, we called the moving company, packed up and left, but not for lack of trying.  Hartford is now a city we visit for the theater, museums, and events; not a city we live in.

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