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Soon 2001 will sail into the sunset and the First Night merriment will begin. On a cold winter's night, downtown Hartford will turn into a fun zone, with tens of thousands of people sampling the fruits of urban life. The city that sometimes is derisively described as the nation's filing cabinet morphs into a frolicking, dancing, singing, parading, whistling and whooping gathering place.
If only the heart of Hartford so throbbed on the other 364 nights. If only the city were the place where people routinely crossed paths in peace, joy, civility and commerce.
But the year's end is less an occasion for wishful thinking than for looking backward and forward to assess what went well, what didn't and what could be done better.
To say that Hartford has much to offer is not to deny painful realities. The city is one of the poorest in the nation. Its tax base has eroded and its government has been dysfunctional.
Since the 1960s, migration has been one way - to the suburbs. Few urban centers have shrunk as dramatically as Connecticut's capital. Empty lots and boarded-up buildings deface downtown and neighborhoods.
But lamentations about certain conditions serve no useful purpose. Neither does doomsaying about the permanent decline of old frostbelt cities. Industrial cities in Europe and the Far East are much older and more resource-deficient than Hartford. Yet they continue to thrive; they're not mired in self-doubt.
Hartford is not Boston, London or San Francisco, but neither is it a drab dot on the map. The tendency to dwell on negatives must be overcome.
Failing to recognize what's working and to promote to the hilt the city's precious assets certainly does not help. Cities of similar size or bigger envy Hartford's mainstays. It is no accident that a national cable television network last week focused on Christmas in Hartford. There is much to showcase: the festival of lights at Constitution Plaza, the Old State House and Mark Twain House in full holiday regalia, decorations at the top of downtown skyscrapers, the wonder of Bushnell Park, where ice skating is finally a reality.
The Wadsworth Atheneum, effervescent with holiday cheer, is moving forward on plans to redesign its Main Street façade and to expand so that more of its collections can be exhibited.
The spectacular Belden Theater has turned the Bushnell into a full-fledged performing arts center.
Frank Gehry, the renowned architect, is working on a new headquarters for the Connecticut Historical Society. This should be the year for unveiling design sketches.
After frustrating delays, a new wing at Hartford Public Library, whose book collections are the envy of its siblings elsewhere in the country, is almost done. We look forward to Phase II, which includes a glass front and cybercafe on Main Street.
Hartford Hospital's $68 million expansion is a reality.
Conversion of the G. Fox building into a community college campus and office space is well under way.
A parking garage, with space for 2,200 cars, is open for business on Morgan Street.
The Marriott Residence Inn in the attractive Richardson Building is in its second year of business.
The Bond Hotel, which has been in deep slumber, reopens Jan. 13, having been refurbished without a public subsidy. It offers upscale rental apartments, a banquet hall and a catering operation.
Nothing To Do?
Those who complain that there's nothing to do in the city for young people with limited budgets don't read the entertainment listings. As a Courant letter writer recently reminded, Cinema City, Cinestudio and Real Art Ways offer affordable and exciting options, in addition to Crown Palace on New Park Avenue. Try the Webster Theater for low-priced alternatives to Pearl Street and Toad's. Visit City Steam comedy club. Take a ride on the carousel in Bushnell Park.
Check out the Wolf Pack minor league hockey team and find what's on at the ctnow.com Meadows Music Centre and the Civic Center Coliseum.
The club and restaurant scenes around Union Place and along Trumbull and Pratt streets are alive.
And what resident or visitor doesn't hear about the symphony, the opera, the Hartford Stage and Theaterworks, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, the Butler-McCook Homestead, the Capitol, the Legislative Office Building, the state museum, the Connecticut Historical Society and the Charter Oak Cultural Center?
There's More, Much More
Resuscitating historic Lewis Street into housing, a garage, restaurant and shops should begin in the spring. This diamond in the rough, known on paper as Trumbull Centre, should have been polished long ago. At least there's forward movement now, as there also is at the Civic Center, which in recent years has become an eyesore. The horribly complicated legal jungle apparently has been cleared. Let's hope that the developer wastes no time building an apartment/retail complex.
The Columbus Boulevard pedestrian bridge is open, making it possible to walk easily from downtown to East Hartford. A riverfront stage and canopy was dedicated during the Taste of Hartford celebration. Riverfront Recapture has turned this slice of the riverfront into a playground. We look forward to ramping up events at Charter Oak Landing Park and Riverside Park in Hartford and Great River Park in East Hartford.
Coming soon is the Jaycees Community Boathouse.
And wouldn't a nicely done coffee shop near the riverfront, open daily, bring flavor and aroma to the swath of walkways and park benches from downtown to the riverfront?
The Six Pillars of Progress are rising, albeit slower than the wishes of those who have longed for a forest of cranes and scaffolds to appear.
Digging has begun at the convention center site and the idea of a science museum has germinated. It's now necessary for developers to begin delivering on their plan for the hotel, retail and housing components of Adriaen's Landing.
On downtown's periphery, the Learning Corridor alongside Trinity College is a testament to public-private collaboration. Students from throughout the region are enrolled in the corridor's schools. Still to be opened, however, are the shops facing Washington Street. Surely operators of the corridor will find creative ways to enliven this streetscape.
In another part of the city, the University of Hartford Magnet School opened in September with 263 enrollees from Hartford, West Hartford, Wethersfield, Simsbury, Avon and Farmington. The site of Thomas Cadillac is approved for conversion to a city-university performing arts center.
Improvements at police headquarters under Chief Bruce P. Marquis are evident, although the department remains on the ground floor of reform. Overtime, sick leave and pension policies are extravagant. Work rules are chaotic, thanks to former city council members and city managers giving away the store. Community policing has to be taken more seriously.
The incidence of most categories of crime continues to decrease. Yet the perception that Hartford is unsafe undermines the city's image and discourages prospective employers and residents from considering Hartford. It cannot be said often enough that a vast majority of those who live in or visit the city will not see shootings, muggings and thefts.
This is the year to begin another image-building campaign, which should be backed up with substance, of course.
The police force must continue to be beefed up; recruits should be top-notch. Officers should be more encouraged than ever to work with youths.
Hartford should seek state and federal help to install a computer system so that all police cruisers in the region may share the same database on their laptops.
The police union can better protect the good reputation of most officers by refusing to reflexively stand up for the few corrupt colleagues simply because they pay dues.
Crime, poverty and lack of education are inseparable. People without jobs, and hope, have no stake in their communities.
Hartford, which used to make national news for its imploding school system, can now show an improved report card. Superintendent Anthony Amato and the state-appointed trustees he reports to continue to make progress.
Test scores have reversed their downward spiral and the dropout rate has changed course. Schools are slowly earning back their accreditation. Sufficient attention is being given to basic repairs, such as painting walls. Supplies are no longer scarce.
Let 2002 be the year to renovate at least five of the school buildings that for too long have been stuck on the to-do list. A new Hartford Public High School is needed. Get going. Otherwise, another generation of city students will be stuck with a substandard school.
Miracle of miracles, labor-management relations have improved; a new teachers contract was approved earlier this month without the fireworks that were characteristic in previous years.
More needs to be done before Hartford can earn full bragging rights as the nation's education comeback kid. Student discipline must improve. Recruitment of minority teachers must gain speed. Test scores are no longer at the bottom, but the goal should be to bring them to at least the statewide average in the next few years and above average in the next decade.
Toward that end, Mr. Amato, deserves strong support in his drive for after-school programs and for arming each student with a personal computer to keep children and families engaged.
Rarely has Hartford's municipal government been riper for improved performance. Voters cleaned house by electing a new city council and a mayor. Eddie Perez's first moves as Hartford's policy leader are welcome. The underperforming city manager is gone. Those council members who refused to break away from the spoils system have been cast off from the majority.
Mr. Perez's commitment to increase home ownership is laudable. What would help considerably is a more service-oriented city hall dedicated to improving the quality of life for residents and to attracting job-producing businesses.
The charter is due for revisions. Four-year elected terms ensure more stability than two-year terms. The council's planning and zoning powers should be turned over to a commission, similar to what works for many other municipalities. But let's not delude ourselves into believing that subdividing the city into wards would improve representation. On the contrary, it could increase seamy horse-trading.
A strong-mayor system is worth trying, although it's too easy to blame city hall's shortcomings on systemic shortcomings. In reality, the flaws are primarily rooted in people.
In offering charter proposals, the mayor and the council must avoid a single, take-it-or-leave-it package loaded with the good and bad. They should schedule a referendum during the November 2002 elections, when a higher turnout is likely than for a special election.
City leaders do not have to wait for charter reform, however, to sharpen their sensitivity to economic development and act on their promises to give neighborhoods a helping hand. For businesses looking to move to Hartford or to expand in the city, one-stop shopping must be the rule. That can best be done through an ombudsman.
Yes, the city has a parking authority at long last. Its mission is to clean up crony-infested contracts and the inefficient maze of regulations. But the council must now give the authority essential tools to fulfill this mission.
Also, the recent exponential increase in parking garage rates works against attracting people to come to the city. The rates must be brought down to earth.
Residence requirements for city job applications should be laid to rest. The goal must be to select employees who can best do the work, regardless of where they live.
City hall should no longer tolerate the tearing down of architecturally distinguished buildings, especially those with historic significance. The Sage-Allen landmark, for example, is badly deteriorated and must be saved.
A looming budget shortfall will inevitably play a central role in policy making. The emphasis must be on cost cutting and restructuring, not further raising already too high property taxes.
Two major business institutions, the MetroHartford Chamber of Commerce and the Capital Region Growth Council, are now essentially one. They have a new leader in R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel. His mission is to build on the city's insurance and financial services and small manufacturing base and capitalize on its emerging role as a tourist and entertainment hub. Let Providence be the example.
Other Blocks For Reawakening City
Owners of restaurants should be encouraged to remain open on Sundays. How can we attract visitors to downtown on leisure days if there is no place even to get coffee and to eat?
How much longer do we have to wait before there is a game plan for the architecturally prominent building at 410 Asylum Ave?
Ditto for Renaissance Place. Either give the existing developer what he's looking for or choose another use for this prime plot of downtown real estate.
Let's get moving on Coltsville, which continues to be a missed opportunity.
Fix up the unsightly parcel of land at the corner of Park and Main streets.
Tear down the deteriorated and mostly empty state office building at the corner of Broad Street and Capitol Avenue.
It's time for the Hartford Economic Development Commission to show impressive results. For starters, find a tenant for the empty Cheese `n Stuff building on Farmington Avenue. Insist that the developers of what's left of the Colonial Theater, on the same avenue, begin delivering on their promises.
Hartford needs to take advantage of the higher profile the city should receive after the Ken Burns documentary series on the life of Mark Twain, which airs in January on national public television. The city should put on a scrubbed face, make streets easier to navigate and provide more information about what do after visiting Mr. Twain's home. Wanted: better signs directing people to various city landmarks. For example, visitors cannot easily find the carousel, the skating rink or the Isham-Terry House.
Remember Ken Greenberg's simple but elegant plan to reorganize, beautify and revive downtown? In 1998, he was paid $250,000 for his efforts. More than three years later, the plan is just that. The new council should implement it. Slow-moving politicians do not build great cities.
A downtown transportation system linking key destinations and neighborhoods should not await the completion of the various developments in the city. We're glad that the Hartford-New Britain busway is being built. Another obvious link that should be on the agenda is transportation between downtown and the football stadium in East Hartford.
Capitalize on the city's livable scale and charming architecture. Listen to the Connecticut Humanities Council and the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society when they tout a history trail similar to Boston's Freedom Trail.
Don't lose interest in retail and don't give up on a discount mall, if not in downtown then adjacent to it. Small and medium-sized shops would fit nicely with an arts and entertainment district.
Owners of the former and still vacant Clarion Hotel in downtown should be ashamed of the neglected conditions of their property. The hotel has been empty for seven years. Another year must not pass without a crane next to it.
It still makes sense to offer incentives to artists who move to the city. For example, they should not have to pay taxes on the work they create and sell or the equipment they buy. It has worked for Providence.
A regional or even national kite flying festival at, say, Colt Park should be added to the roster of events that recently have grown to include the nationally recognized bass fishing contest, the revival of the Franklin Avenue Festival, the Fiddle Festival and Caribbean and Puerto Rican heritage days. Reappearance of Oktoberfest would be terrific, as would smaller neighborhood street celebrations.
There is no shortage of ideas to make Hartford what it should be. Hartford's future does not depend merely on building more concrete and steel monuments. It depends on building a can-do spirit.
Solutions to the city's problems lie in improving education, public safety and the responsiveness of city and state governments. Cooperation by Hartford's neighbors also will make a big difference.
Our plea in 2002 is for people blessed with intellectual and material resources and a sense of responsibility to begin making Hartford a fair and industrious city, the jewel on the Connecticut River.