The Others: A Reaction to #YoungHartford

Horses in Keney Park in Hartford’s North East neighborhood               Photo by Kerri Provost

A recent forum, #YoungHartford, explored a multitude of the struggles facing the city, featuring some of the city’s rising leaders who fall in the twenty-something and thirty-something age range. The conversation highlighted failings unique to Greater Hartford – bifurcated neighborhoods, racial segregation, and the persistence of educational disparity in our post Sheff v. O’Neill region. Other impediments referenced resemble the types of obstacles being debated in cities across the country. You know the buzz-words: sustainable infrastructure, walkable amenities, multi-modal transportation, safe streets, the list goes on.

While the panelists didn’t disagree on the importance of each of these in producing a socially and economically healthy Hartford, their realities and experiences produced very different sets of priorities, and equally contrasting strategies on how to procure those priorities.

Erin Concepcion, West End resident, and TJ Clynch, downtown resident and founder of Civic Mind, Downtown Yoga, and the Hartford HodgePodge, offered perspectives requiring less commitment or action from city leadership, such as investments in basic infrastructure, awareness campaigns to educate visitors of all that downtown has to offer, and an increased sense of ownership among residents.

Jamil Ragland, a resident of the North End, had a different perspective. He expressed concern over stark racial divisions and how that segregation prevents Hartford’s sixteen neighborhoods from maximizing each other’s cultural creativity and creating a real, collective identity for the city as a whole. When asked to comment on how the relocation of UCONN’s West Hartford campus could potentially help to integrate Hartford’s neighborhoods, Jamil responded:

I would love to see UCONN in the North End. I would love to see UCONN in the South End … I’d love to see UCONN anywhere. We need to get past the idea that Hartford is downtown Hartford, that Hartford exists only within the confines between the north side of Capital [Community College] and the end of the library … [and] that beyond that, Hartford doesn’t exist … It is apparent to me that the President of UCONN and the Mayor’s office don’t know what the hell they’re doing in terms of relocating UCONN …. Let’s put those people where they can interact with different kinds of people. You can spend an entire day in Hartford without interacting with someone from a different social economic class. Putting UCONN in a place to facilitate those kinds of conversations would be a great thing… [that any] forward-thinking college would do.

The comments of one life-long resident in the audience also suggested frustration with public outreach around projects that are dedicated to the constant rebirth of downtown, but disconnected from neighborhoods outside of downtown:

What’s the future of downtown going to look like? Who are they asking these questions? I grew up in the North End. I know they don’t ask the single moms in the North End that question. For them, downtown is a bus-stop. But it’s their city.

Maybe a sense of ownership in Hartford isn’t all that absent after all, but as Jamil pointed out in his response:

The focus of ‘Young Hartford’ seems to be twenty to thirty. But we forget that 30% of our population is below the age of eighteen …. ‘Young Hartford’ also means children, and teenagers, and young adults who are going to grow into this city as well. How do we do right by them? How do we do well by them to offer them opportunities? I can tell you what you don’t do. You don’t lose the Pro-Am basketball team that Hartford lost over the summer. You don’t charge the Hartford Hurricanes $12,000 to use Keney Park for practice. These are not things that are conducive towards our young people doing better, to our young people feeling welcome in our city, regardless of race or class.

Hearing this exchange, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed in myself and some of my peers. In a quest to attract and retain its next source of taxable income and economic revenue, Hartford has again resorted to framing the issue around the desires of young professionals, building upon a decades-old discourse that started long before the city zeroed in on Generations X and Y. Hartford – and more broadly, the state of Connecticut – framed the issue and we fell for it.

North Branch of the Park River in Hartford’s West End Photo by Kerri Provost

In our defense, we’re a convenient target audience. We’re easily energized at the opportunity to make a positive difference by improving the quality of the place immediately surrounding us while also developing our leadership skills. We’re a part of the solution. Right? At a minimum, we’re not a part of the problem, of which Hartford – like any urban area – has many.

But if we’re only solving a problem that directly benefits us, doesn’t that just make us self-interested? What about the day-to-day living of the other residents of Hartford whose problems and solutions are entirely separate from ours? If we’re not a part of their solution, are we a part of their problem?

Taking it a step further, if someone’s view or interpretation of a problem doesn’t match our own, our response can either fuel the problem or embrace a more holistic solution. For example, a long-time Hartford resident wrote a feminist critique of what she viewed was misogynistic vernacular in an editorial leading up to #YoungHartford. Her critique focused on the role of language in exposing unchallenged sexist norms more than it attacked the city of Hartford or the residents of any particular neighborhood.

After reading her piece, I immediately made a connection to Jamil’s call to action, urging us to connect downtown’s rebirth to the health and vitality of all of Hartford’s neighborhoods, not just what exists between CCC and the Hartford Public Library. For those readers who work with vulnerable

An intersection with Main Street in Downtown Hartford // Photo by Kerri Provost

populations, you may or may not know that the street-term for Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford is “the Hoe Stroll.” It’s where human trafficking victims are picked up before being taken to the infamous Berlin Turnpike where they’re forced to “turn tricks.” Those girls are usually abducted as minors and are trafficked throughout their twenties and thirties. They’re the Young Hartford that’s fallen prey to misogyny and rape culture, all within our 18 mile radius. How do we apply our leadership and advocacy efforts to address their problems?

Some of my peers, with whom I network on a regular basis, don’t share my big-picture world view. And that’s okay, so long as there’s an understanding that not everyone views life through the same lens as their own. Defensive reactions not only distract our energy away from our passions, but also prevent bigger picture connections to be made and hinder progress on all fronts. At the end of the day, the #YoungHartford discourse and the reactions on the blogosphere beg the question of what we’re doing wrong and why we’re not creating a healthy Hartford across all of the city’s neighborhoods.