Hartford attempts a salsa-spiced rebirth
One of nation's poorest cities taps its booming Latino population to engineer a turnaround.
In 1868, when the moneyed classes of 19th century insurance and manufacturing sauntered along the streets of this old Yankee town, writer Mark Twain called Hartford the "handsomest" city he'd ever seen.Skip to next paragraph
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Precious few would make the same claim today. The self-proclaimed insurance capital of the world - considered the richest city in the country after the Civil War - has since become one of the nation's poorest.
And as it seeks to turn itself around, Hartford is no longer looking to that old Yankee class, but to its modern residents, largely minority and increasingly Latino. Along a dozen blocks near downtown, a new economic pulse runs through mercados that sell yucca and boiled plantains. Stores throb to the beat of salsa and merengue, and neighbors banter in their mother tongue, Spanish.
Indeed, with 40 percent of its residents from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Central or South America, Hartford has become the most Latino city, per capita, of any place north of Miami and east of the Mississippi River - making the region better known for pava hats than contingency plans.
"You can't talk about Hartford without talking about Latinos," says Julio Morales, a professor emeritus in social work at the University of Connecticut.
Now, with support from Mayor Eddie Perez, the first Puerto Rican mayor of a US capital city, the community is trying to turn its main thoroughfare - once infested with drugs and prostitution - into the Latino hub of New England. The challenges are formidable, but like other groups spawning initiatives across the city, they have been driven by a shared sense that there was little left to lose.
"Hartford starts with one of the toughest hands of any city.... You have to throw out the rule book," says Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "Using immigrants as your strength, as a branding opportunity, is a very smart strategy," he says. "A lot of people don't go there. They are looking to a convention center, or stadium, to save them."
Of course, Hartford is looking at conventional measures, too, with $2.75 billion invested in a new convention center, renovated hotels, an enhanced arts district, luxury apartments, and a new science museum, among other initiatives. Today the city is obstructed by scaffolding and punctuated by the clamor of jackhammers and bulldozers, as city planners desperately seek to turn a sleepy downtown into a 24/7 center.
But no one argues that downtown development alone is the answer to Hartford's survival. As longtime resident Edna Negron, who became a school principal and state legislator, puts it: "You can have all the glitzy development downtown, but you need it to be connected to life somewhere."
Street life bustles on Park, the main thoroughfare of the Latino community, a place once so blighted and overrun that few dared set foot there, says Ms. Negron, whose family relocated from Puerto Rico in the 1950s so that her father could minister to migrant workers seeking jobs in the outlying tobacco fields.
The efforts of the Spanish American Merchants Association (SAMA) have been critical in ushering change along Park Street: Their $6 million streetscape program includes new brick sidewalks, lampposts, garbage cans, and 175 new trees. "We want people to enjoy our culture," says Julio Mendoza, the executive director of SAMA. He hopes to buy a trolley to shuttle would-be conventioneers to what he sees as the Calle Ocho of New England. "We are [a] one-stop ... Latino experience."