Sunday, May 29, 2005

Silver Bullets

Hartford Convention Center to Open Tuesday

During the 1950s, Hartford seemed to be a city in decline. Businesses had fled for the suburbs, the city was bleeding population and wealth, traffic on the antiquated streets was terrible and, worst of all, the core of the city was a poor, somewhat blighted neighborhood centered on Front Street.

By the mid 1960s, all this had changed. Front Street had gone, to be replaced by massive new superhighways and a massive urban renewal project called Constitution Plaza. Businesses, such as WTIC, returned, lured by prime office space in a high-profile complex. Money started to trickle back in.

Hartford was saved. Right?

Now, 41 years after Constitution Plaza opened in May of 1964, far removed from the heady optimism and large-scale thinking of the 1960s, it is clear that Hartford not only failed to be saved, but perhaps was critically damaged by that project. A neighborhood was replaced by an impersonal concrete sea far above street level, and the superhighways that were supposed to bring wealth into Hartford have instead strangled it, cutting off downtown from the rest of the city and the city from the river. The city forgot about the people, and built on a scale that dwarfed humans. The result was a city that no one wanted to live or work in.

Now, 41 years later, we prepare to open another urban renewal project (or at least part of one), which once again is supposed to bring Hartford back from the dead. Once again, the scale of the project is enormous, dwarfing even the superhighway it crouches beside, and, yet again, the purpose of the project is to draw all those who left Hartford back into the city.

Yes, this new convention center is somewhat better in conception and design than Constitution Plaza was, and the shopping component of the “new” Front Street will, once completed, hopefully add some human scale to it.

Still, we need to be asking ourselves: is this the right way to “fix” a city?

The, er, “conventional” wisdom tells us that conventions and convention centers are hot, that they bring people downtown, that they help revitalize long-dead urban cores, that they bring money and wealth into a region. They’re silver bullets, just like big stadiums, urban shopping malls, six-lane superhighways and concrete nightmares like Constitution Plaza once were.

Grand as all these things are in conception, they never seem to deliver once they take shape in concrete, glass and steel. This is because the fundamental problems of the city aren’t addressed by extra lanes and off-ramps, high-rise office towers, convention floor space or a Filene’s in the Civic Center. Poverty, drugs, crime and urban blight existed before the convention center and will continue to exist after Thursday’s opening.

The flaw is in the thinking of urban planners. The problem, they theorize, is that the middle and upper classes have abandoned the city for the suburbs and exurbs—if only they could be lured back within Hartford’s borders, all would be well. Somehow.

But a fundamental shift in American society ensures that the middle and upper classes will never return to small cities like Hartford, simply because life in the suburbs is more attractive, safer, and far more convenient. Hartford can't simply offset its drawbacks with trendy clubs, a few upscale stores and an art scene. The convention center isn't deisigned to attract people to the city to stay, of course, but only to entice them there for a few hours and drop their money before they leave. It may be successful at that, for a time, but, like Constitution Plaza and the Civic Center Mall, it can't and won't fix the disparity between city and suburbs.

Hartford needs to capitalize on what it has already rather than quixotically constructing new and different attractions to try and lure rich white people downtown. The successful Learning Corridor next to Trinity College is a great example of what can be done when existing space and resources are used creatively.

Laying aside silver bullet projects in favor of small-scale neighborhood redevelopment will require the abandonment of the idea that Hartford is just as good as, say, Boston or New York. Doubtless, the convention center will be good for the region in some way, but it won't catapult Hartford on to the national scene or really fix the desperate problems faced by so many city residents. To move forward from here, we're going to have to get over our inferiority complex, swallow our pride, and deal with the city that we have, instead of the city we'd rather be.

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