CHRIS POWELL: Changing Hartford's sad image will require changing its reality

Published on Friday, 7 May 2021 23:57

Amid dissension and turnover at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum, an art museum of international standing, Hartford Business Journal Editor Greg Bordonaro wrote the other day that the city has an "image problem," especially when compared to West Hartford, about which The New York Times recently published a report lauding, among other things, the suburb's great restaurants. (The Times seldom cares much about anything in Connecticut unless it's edible.)

But while the Times was merely patronizing, Bordonaro was profoundly mistaken. For the dissension at the art museum has no bearing on Hartford's image, and the city doesn't have an image problem but a reality problem. [Editor’s note: The May 3, 2021 HBJ article referred to cites a Hartford Courant story where a former board chair of the Atheneum assailed the institution.]

Dissension at the art museum is nothing compared to the other recent widely publicized troubles of the city.

For starters, Hartford has a "shot spotter" system that is often in the news as it monitors all the gunplay in the city. While it is a small city, Hartford has murders every month, some especially depraved, like April's murders of 3- and 17-year-old boys.

Even so, Hartford also has a cadre of political activists who want to "defund the police" and who last summer bullied Mayor Luke Bronin into cutting the police budget just before a spate of murders caused him to ask Governor Lamont to send in state troopers.

Some elected officials in West Hartford embody political correctness, but at least the town has a respectable school system, which Hartford doesn't. Even as the city's schools kept deteriorating a few years ago, Hartford put itself on the verge of bankruptcy by contracting to build a minor-league baseball stadium it couldn't afford, leading to a bailout by state government –the assumption of more than $500 million of the city's long-term debt.

Downtown West Hartford long ago superseded downtown Hartford as the hub of central Connecticut not because of the lovely restaurants lauded by the Times but because the suburb still has large middle and upper classes residing near its downtown, while misguided urban renewal in the 1960s turned downtown Hartford into an office district without a neighborhood.

Most of all West Hartford is desirable residentially because many of its children have two parents at home, while most children in Hartford are lucky if they have even one parent and so tend to live in financial, educational, and emotional poverty.

Art museums are nice but with or without them middle-class places can take care of themselves. Impoverished places can't.

Now Hartford city government is considering paying a special stipend to single mothers in the hope that it will help them climb toward self-sufficiency. Such projects in other cities have not produced impressive results even as they risk inducing more women to adopt the single-parent lifestyle when they can't even support themselves.

But Hartford can't be blamed too much, for the city's poverty is largely the consequence of state government policy – the failure of state welfare and education policy. Hartford and Connecticut's other cities are what happens when welfare policy makes fathers seem unnecessary, relieves them of responsibility for their children, and aborts family formation, and when social promotion in school tells students they needn't learn.

Of course social promotion is also policy in West Hartford and suburbs throughout the state, but those towns have parents who compel their kids to take education more seriously.

To achieve racial and economic class integration and to reduce housing prices generally, Connecticut urgently needs to build much more inexpensive housing in the suburbs and should outlaw the worst of their exclusive zoning. But the state has an even more urgent need to stop manufacturing the poverty that has been dragging the cities down for decades.

When the cities themselves are less poor, when more of their children have fathers at home and come to school ready to learn, when their home and school environments motivate rather than demoralize them, more people will want to live in Hartford just as people now want to live in West Hartford – and the management of the art museum won't mean any more than it means now.

To change Hartford's image – and Bridgeport's and New Haven's – state government has to change their reality.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Friday, 7 May 2021 23:57. Updated: Friday, 7 May 2021 23:59.