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.

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."

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.

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."

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