Hartford attempts a salsa-spiced rebirth
One of nation's poorest cities taps its booming Latino population to engineer a turnaround.
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They also spearheaded creation of the city's only special-services district, in which property owners will pay an extra tax to promote the business area. "The city believed we wouldn't do it," says Mr. Mendoza.Skip to next paragraph
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The hope that Mendoza and proud local merchants effuse wasn't always perceptible here. "We were having a hard time before," says Carlos Lopez, standing beside a plastic banana tree in his store, Luis of Hartford. "Before most of the resources were going on downtown. This administration is more pro-neighborhood."
He, like many others in the community, is careful to emphasize that the mayor is the chief executive of the entire city - Italians, West Indians, native New Englanders. But no one disagrees that his win in 2001 was a turning point for Latinos in Hartford. "With the new mayor it's really gone forward in last three years."
Perez, a former gang member and now a social activist, has become for many a personification of the possibilities in Hartford, which still has barriers to overcome. Thirty percent of the city's population lives in poverty. Only 12.4 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree. It has one of the lowest home-ownership rates of any city in the country.
Hartford lost 11 percent of its population from 1990 to 2000, according to the 2000 census. During that time there was a net loss of both blacks and whites; the Latino population grew - by 11 percent.
"[Perez] is a street kid from Hartford who is part of a gang, and through a variety of twists and turns, pulled himself together," says Wilson Faude, the former curator of the Mark Twain House and the Old State House. "And he's been one of the best mayors our city has ever seen."
One of his newest initiatives includes working with foreign countries to set up agreements with ethnic groups in the city. "What I've been playing with for the last year has been international trade, using [the city's] Dominican, West Indian, and Puerto Rican connections," he says, especially to displace the dominance of New York City.
He has participated in trade missions to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He says the Jamaican community recently inquired about creating a version of their own ethnic hub in Hartford. "Those entrepreneurial discussions are happening at a lower level now, but I think they'll continue," Perez says.
Hartford is unlikely to return to its former glory, and has had a tendency, says Mr. Faude, to cling too fiercely to its past. Though some of the revitalization efforts - from Park Street to the waterfront - have given a boost to the public psyche, "there is always that feeling of the 'good old days,' " he says, when "bishops walked the streets and people believed if you touched the hem of their cloaks all of their problems would go away."
He points to the city's many assets, including a vibrant arts scene that boasts the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the oldest public art museum in the country, and its own symphony. In fact, the city's biggest challenge, many say, lies in believing in itself - not unlike the plight of the gloomy donkey Eeyore from Winnie-The-Pooh. Says Faude: "Sometimes I think we have an Eeyore complex."