If Connecticut is to Improve Life for All Residents, We Need a Resurgent New Britain

Building MaterialMetal and MineralNew Britain Museum of American ArtFrederick Law OlmstedChris Murphy

As New Britain goes, so goes Connecticut. This could probably be said about a number of one-time industrial hubs that fell on hard times, like Meriden (silver), Waterbury (brass) or Danbury (hats). But New Britain, it seems to me, is a unique case. Because it is caught in a nether world between interstate systems (both I-84 and I-91 run near but not near enough to it be sufficiently "convenient" for modern car addicts), New Britain is not a babe magnet.

But — and here's the rub — it could be.

In the last couple of weeks, I've been exploring New Britain and found it to be both an intriguing and a frustrating place. A city with a storied past, it's clear the upper crust were smitten with noblesse oblige — they shared their wealth with their city. You can still see vestiges of this former glory in the restored Victorian houses near Walnut Hill Park. You can see it in the park itself. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Walnut Hill Park is one of the state's nicest urban green spaces, hilly, breezy and filled with promontory vistas. More largesse was bestowed on the New Britain Museum of American Art, one of the most consistently interesting art venues in the state, and the lovely Beaux Arts public library, a cathedral to the printed word.

However, nowhere is the past and present of New Britain more starkly on view than at the post office. The old post office is a solid, stately structure on Walnut Street, the sort of place that reflects a time when America was rightfully proud of public institutions like post offices, train stations and libraries. Now handsomely restored, it's no longer a post office but an office building with architectural firms and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy as tenants.

The new post office, by contrast, is shunted down Chestnut Street alongside a confusing mishmash of cloverleaves and asphalt near Route 9. This post office may be the ugliest, most forbidding public building in the state, a rectangular concrete bunker with all the character of an above-ground bomb shelter. Running the length of its façade is a randomly splotched slab of concrete that suggests the bottom of a school desk after the chewing gum has been scraped off it with an X-Acto knife. Approaching such a place to mail a letter is not a pleasant experience.

So, what happened between the old and new post office eras?

Talking to Joel Gordes, an environmental planner who grew up in New Britain, I learned that the city's decline was largely due to the same thing that destroyed a chunk of New Haven: redevelopment in the 1960s and the resultant force-feeding of highways through the heart of vibrant, culturally rich neighborhoods.

"The interstates split the city in two," says Gordes, a former state legislator. "We had vibrant department stores, large movie theaters … all that you would need was right here. It was a great place to grow up, like that city in the movie A Christmas Story. I grew up in a three-family home. We had the ground floor, aunts and uncles were on the other two floors, and Mother's best friend from childhood lived next door. But it all disappeared under the guise of urban planning. The core connectedness was destroyed, leading to the disintegration of longtime social structures. When I returned from college, I couldn't believe what they'd done to New Britain. I got lost three miles from my home."

If Connecticut is to improve life for all residents, we need a resurgent New Britain back on the geographical grid, not as some nebulous web of asphalt between interstates. If nothing else, it will serve as a symbol. After all, the city founders named it New Britain for a reason.

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