Signs of a comeback for once-'Gilded' Hartford

The city regains control of its schools this week - part of a nascent urban revival for the nation's 'insurance capital.'

By most measures, the pig-tailed, corn-rowed kids in Mrs. Kelliher's second-grade class here don't have much to look forward to.

Their city - once a Gilded-Age insurance capital - has become one of America's most decrepit. If statistics hold true, just 2 of the 20 students in the class will graduate from college. Six will live in poverty, earning no more than $8,860 a year. Drug dealing and prostitution are common careers in the neighborhood.

Yet there are signs that a nascent rebirth is taking hold - from the river front to the city's classrooms:

• Student test scores across the city, while still low, have been rising for three years. The educational system has improved enough that the city will retake control of its 33 public schools this week - after losing control to the state in 1997. • Mayor Eddie Perez, the city's first Latino chief executive, has become one of the city's most admired politicians in decades. Last month, residents approved a plan to give the mayor broad powers in a move that may create a new sense of vitality at city hall.

• A mammoth construction project is underway on the Connecticut River's shore, where the multimillion-dollar Adriaen's Landing will echo other urban waterfront revivals. By 2005, a new convention center, mall-and-condo complex, and $75 million Marriott hotel will rise from the muddy shoreline pits.

With all the activity, Hartford stands as a test case for America's "forgotten" cities - those that even the '90s boom couldn't resurrect. While many rust-belt cities - St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, even Gary, Ind. - made gains, some urban areas in the Northeast didn't. Now, with the economy weak, a revival here would be particularly poignant and symbolic.

"What's going on in Hartford is very impressive," says Bruce Katz, an urban-revival expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Hartford is in a group of cities that "have lost traction in the economy and are burdened by a serious level of hyper-poverty and stress."

Indeed, data for the one-time home of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe is perhaps more worthy of Dickens. Hartford's population declined by 13 percent between 1990 and 2000. Forty-one percent of children live in poverty - a rate second only to Brownsville, Texas. Hartford has the highest percentage of households headed by women - 25 percent - and the second-lowest home-ownership rate, behind Newark, N.J.

The North End, one of Hartford's poorest areas, is home to Kelliher's kids at the Simpson-Waverly elementary school. Every child here gets free breakfast and lunch. Eighty-eight percent of the 328 children are black.

Yet the school's standardized test scores have skyrocketed. Between 1997 and 2001, the number of fourth graders who achieved reading mastery on the statewide test jumped from 13 percent to 56 percent. Several teachers here attribute the test-score jump to their ongoing training: A raft of consultants and specialists provide tips on improving teaching techniques.

In Kelliher's' class, the exuberance is clear. "Do you want to do The Money Game?" she asks knowingly. Suddenly, the kids are wriggling like puppies who've been promised a walk. Four of them wheel an overhead projector into position. Another grabs a bag of plastic coins from Kelliher's desk. One by one, they show off their change-making skills - and then choose the next volunteer. "Pick me, pick me!" the other kids plead, with arms outstretched.

But not everybody is thrilled with Hartford kids' achievement.

Though students have made progress citywide, they still have work to do: Last year, 17 percent of fourth-graders hit the mastery level in reading - compared with 56.9 percent of kids statewide. One group is suing to stop the city from regaining control of schools. And critics say Hartford hasn't done enough to integrate its schools racially - as mandated by a 1996 state Supreme Court decision.

One integration success story is The Learning Corridor, a partnership that includes the city, Trinity University, and several local hospitals. The 16-acre campus has four magnet schools - and a long waiting list of suburban students.

To many, the school is proof that adversity like Hartford's can lead to innovation.

In fact, because conditions in Hartford have gotten so bad, "in a way the city has been liberated," says Mr. Katz of Brookings. "They have nothing left to lose," so they can think beyond the traditional urban fixes. "Cities like Hartford can be the great experimenters."

Down at City Hall, Mr. Perez - a Puerto Rican Democrat with a pinstripe of a mustache - has hardly been bound by tradition. After his election last year, the City Council's Democratic majority tried to dominate him. But Perez surprised nearly everyone by forging a Council majority of Republicans, Democrats, and a Green Party member. His hybrid coalition has ruled ever since.

This fall, voters approved a plan to expand mayoral powers - something observers say is crucial to the city's success. The mayor will hire and fire department heads and appoint most school board members.

Sitting in his high-ceilinged office, Perez talks about why The Learning Corridor - which he helped start - succeeded. Different groups "acted a little bit from self-interest - but also from wanting to do the right thing." And, he says, they all knew their survival was at stake. That survival instinct may continue to be the city's driving ethos.

Part of Hartford's survival may be Adriaen's Landing, which is heavily backed by the state and its Republican governor, John Rowland. When completed in 2005, it will have what boosters call "the biggest convention center between New York and Boston," 200 market-rate residences, and be connected to a network of river front parks.

Such projects rarely revive a city on their own, says Katz, but they can bring a psychological boost. In the end, perhaps the biggest change in Hartford is that by taking control of its schools, empowering its mayor, and building big on the waterfront, it's taking charge of its future.

Sitting in a North End diner, eating grits and pancakes, newly elected school board member Rev. Wayne Carter sums up Hartford's emerging ethos of independence, as the city makes what may be its last big push for revival. "If it's two seconds 'til the buzzer, and it's the last shot," he says, "I want the ball in my hands."

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