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A Newcomer Regards Hartford

Sociologist Sees It As A Diamond In The Rough With Jagged Edges

January 28, 2006
Commentary by Stan Simpson

Funny thing about talking to newcomers. Ask them their impressions of the capital city and they'll usually mention amenities you've taken for granted, or make observations that simply never registered before.

Calvin Moore regularly made the bus trip from Boston to New York to see friends, catch a play or visit an art museum. The interlude at Union Station in downtown Hartford always made an impression on him - sort of.

"I don't want to offend the people that run the bus terminal, but I would have thought that somebody or a city leader would have already thought that we need to spruce up anything that we expose to a large population of outsiders," Moore said this week over lunch.

"Every time I go to that bus station I say, you know, this could really change the image of Hartford if it made a statement - something that says `WE'RE HARTFORD!' instead of `we're hartford.'"

He's right. It gets the job done, but the station is drab, dreary, nondescript. There aren't any marketing materials inside - none I saw, anyway - that even tell you where you are, much less promote Hartford.

Despite the lousy welcome, when Moore secured a sociology professorship at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic 17 months ago, the first place he decided to look for a home was - Hartford. He wanted to be in an urban environment and chose the Sheldon/Charter Oak area.

Now the man who thought Hartford would be pure hell to visit describes his new home city as "heavenly."

You heard me.

"It's a great location for someone who wants to claim the metropolitan New York-Boston area as a playground," said Moore, 46. "And I love being in walking distance of one of New England's great art museums," the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

"Price-wise and location-wise, [Hartford] has one of the better housing markets in New England," he said.

What's intriguing about Moore is that he doesn't represent the conventional profile of the new faces moving to the city. He's not a retired and well-heeled suburbanite, or a 30-something young professional.

Moore, who is African American, is a bachelor. He has a doctorate in sociology from Boston College and is a Harvard-trained lawyer who once worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C. He has lived in big cites and worked in rural posts in Maine and upstate New York. Golf and art museums are among his interests. Instead of driving the streets, Moore prefers to walk them.

"If you're a single male, you don't want to be in the suburbs in a big house by yourself, surrounded by people pushing baby carriages," he said with a laugh.

Bemused by the hand-wringing about how to improve Hartford, Moore believes the city just has to embrace and promote what it is - a midpoint between two major cities with an eclectic mix of cultures, arts attractions and parks. Hartford may not have the bright lights of the Big Apple, but neither are the rents and housing prices as exorbitant.

As a sociologist, Moore's forte is studying people, particularly the interaction of those from different economic classes. Naturally, he finds Hartford - the poorest city in one of the richest states - a fascinating case study.

The downtown housing boom could trigger a culture clash at some point, Moore predicts, if development spreads into the neighborhoods and the working class is shunned.

"The city's going to have to be sensitive not only to the displacement of people but the impact of gentrification on the well-being of the people," he said, adding that Hartford's central role has been as an enclave for the working class.

On the political scene, Moore is curious about the lack of substantive political involvement among the Latinos and blacks who make up the city's majority. At some point, he says, someone is going to see the `'political vacuum" and seize the opportunity.

Our conversation ends with Moore talking about the need for a stronger presence of college students downtown. That young energy and adventurous nature is what adds to a city's identity and gives it a vibe like Boston's and New Haven's.

For someone so new to the area - he hasn't hit most of the good restaurants yet and I winced when he pronounced the state's newspaper of record as the "Kur-aunt" - Moore is an unabashed booster of Hartford.

Considering his first impression, that's saying something.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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