HARTFORD, Conn. -- Once the nation's richest city, Hartford slipped into the 21st century as a holding tank for the poor. Riddled with drugs and gang violence, tenements and poverty, it was a place people talked about in the past tense, an echo of the city Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Samuel Colt called home long ago.
This is where a gang of men celebrated the Christmas season a few years ago by dressing in Santa Claus costumes and robbing bystanders outside the Pig's Eye Pub. It's where the state took over the school system, the governor asked for federal agents to deal with a rash of killings and 20 police officers in seven years were indicted on charges ranging from racketeering to sexual assault.
"The way the city is today," John Wardlaw, a city housing official, told the Hartford Courant in 2001, "there won't be no Hartford two years from today. I would not be surprised if Hartford is taken over by the state of Connecticut, lock, stock and barrel."
From the high floors of the downtown Hilton Hotel, next to a former bookstore with a sign that reads, "Everything Must Go," Hartford still looks as though it were designed by a traffic engineer, all parking lots and highways. By dusk, workers have fled to the prosperous suburbs. Trumbull Street is so empty a driver could make a U-turn and not get in anyone's way.
But there are hopeful signs: construction cranes on the skyline, and the emergence of a word scarcely used in recent years -- comeback.
A Puerto Rican-born mayor who once led a gang and a determined corps of urban pioneers are trying to help this 367-year-old city escape its hour of desperation. Downtown is being redesigned and revitalized with a $1.7-billion face-lift intended to turn a 9-to-5 workplace into a 24-7 fun place.
Mayor Eddie Perez was prowling city neighborhoods in his Buick the other day, a street map in his lap. "We're trying to catch blocks that are tipping downward," he said. "One bad property can take down a whole block." His solution: Take back the city house by house, block by block, offering incentives to those who buy homes in targeted areas or make improvements.
Unlike the largely white Hartford once run by clubby Yankee businessmen everyone called the Bishops, Perez's Hartford is a city of minorities, many from Jamaica and Puerto Rico, with the largest percentage of Latinos north of Miami and east of the Mississippi. A way station for suburban-bound immigrants, Hartford has a homeownership rate of less than 25% -- the nation's second-lowest, after Newark, N.J. Thirty-one percent of its 125,000 residents live in poverty. Only Brownsville, Texas, ranks lower.
"Yes, we have poverty, but it's not repeated generational poverty," Perez said. "The only place that happens is the projects and we're tearing them down. To me, Hartford is a place of opportunity. Look at my life. It took me 20 years to get where I am. Not two or three generations."
Perez, 45, said he founded the Hartford Ghetto Brothers in high school. He escaped the clutch of gangs and the temptation of drugs, graduating from Trinity College here and spending years as a community organizer.
Having lost 40% of its population since 1950 and 45% of its property-tax base since 1980, Hartford developed a two-pronged rescue plan: stabilize the neighborhoods and attract urban pioneers from the suburbs; and redefine the downtown landscape, as Baltimore did, with luxury condos, waterfront promenades, trendy cafes and shops, five-star hotels and a convention facility. Public and private funds are being used.
"Just seeing the cranes on the skyline has given residents a tremendous psychological boost," said Matt Fleury, marketing director of the Capital City Economic Development Authority. "Especially since this part of town was really dead."
Past the plaza where he stood, the centerpiece of the development -- Adriaen's Landing -- is emerging on a 30-acre site. Beyond that is the sprawling 117-year-old Colt firearms factory, where construction will start soon to convert the complex into upscale commercial and residential units, under the guidance of the National Historic Trust.
The banks of the Connecticut River have been cleared of trash and weeds and transformed into a long, narrow park. Excavation has begun on a new apartment building, the first to be built downtown in more than a decade. The abandoned G. Fox department store, once the nation's sixth-largest, has reopened as a community college and art deco commercial center.
"You look at Hartford's stats and they're scary," said Robert MacFarlane, corporate relations director of the Colt Gateway redevelopment. "But there were other pretty down-in-the-mouth towns that turned themselves around -- Portland [Maine], Jersey City [N.J.], Providence [R.I.]. When sidewalks become sinister, people leave a city. When they become friendly, people come back. I think that's what you're seeing in Hartford."
In November, at a panel to discuss "Recovering Hartford," Bruce Katz, an urban expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., reminded citizens and officials that glitzy development won't fix a city if the basics -- poverty, crime, homeownership, schools, transportation -- remain in disrepair.
"You're not going to like this one," Katz told the audience. "You have nothing left to lose. That has to be the attitude every day in Hartford.... Be innovators. Be experimenters. Break the mold, break the playbook."
Katz says Hartford represents a class of former manufacturing cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis, Flint, Mich., and Camden, N.J., that have lost their function in a changed economy.
In addition to the loss of manufacturing jobs -- typewriters, bicycles, jet engines and firearms are among the items that have been produced here -- Hartford suffered from mergers and acquisitions in the 1990s that saw homegrown insurance companies swallowed up by distant corporations, leading to massive layoffs. Even the city's only major league sports team, the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League, pulled out in 1997 for Raleigh, N.C.
But Hartford -- the nation's wealthiest city in the latter part of the 19th century -- still has assets to build on, urban experts say: a vibrant arts and cultural community, hospitals, colleges and universities, lovely parks. On top of that, Gov. John G. Rowland has staked his political legacy on revitalizing Connecticut's cities -- among the nation's poorest -- although Connecticut had the highest per capita income of any state in 2001.
And Hartford -- a city that promoters call "The Rising Star of New England" -- has its urban pioneers.
Christine Moses, a sociologist, traded the suburbs for a "neighborhood revitalization zone" when the city cleared Mortson Street of drug dealers and made three-story Victorian homes available at bargain prices. "A block over are drugs and burned-out houses, but this block is a real community," she said. "I'm blessed to have the house."
Ezra Brown, the plant engineer at Trinity College, came back too, eager for a taste of urban life as crime diminished under a new police chief from Houston. "I just got tired of pulling weeds," he said.
On Albany Avenue, gutted by 1968 race riots, Jamaican-born Hortense Ross created such a striking renovation on the small office building she bought that pedestrians walk in just to peer. The space houses the medical employment agency she and her sisters, Precious and Monica, ran for years in their living room.
"I hope this encourages others to take pride in the neighborhood," she said. "On Clean Up Day, everyone was out. We swept the street so clean and neat it radiated. A kid walked by and dropped a Coke can. I yelled, 'Hey, come back and pick that up. Don't you see how nice this street looks?' "