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Sharing A Timeless Love For Hartford's Past, Future

May 27, 2007
Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

How are you going to love a city like Hartford?

Then again, how are you not?

Hartford is nowhere near the city of wealth it once was, but it still has too much - too much poverty, too many kids falling by the wayside, too many powerful people taking advantage. Suburbanites flood the highways to come to Hartford to make money and then take their cash to spend it elsewhere. Geography and decades of poor public policy have dug a deep moat around the capital city, and cut it off from the rest of the state.

And yet, amid the broken glass that glitters on abandoned lots, amid the sense of abandonment and hopelessness, there beats the heart of an ancient city that refuses to die.

And we're still here.

At its heart, "House of Good Hope: A Promise for a Broken City" (just out from University of Nebraska Press) is a lavish love letter to Connecticut's capital city, written by a native who moved away. The non-fiction book follows five young Hartford High ("You can't rock the Pub!") graduates who are joined together by sports, a love of their city and a boyhood promise they make among themselves: They'll go to college, then come home and make Hartford better.

They do this in the middle of drugs, gangs and childhood buddies left dead on the street. The book doesn't shy away from any of it, but the tone is strangely hopeful. While Hartford has its share of the ills of any other tired New England city, it also has teachers and coaches who give their all, young people determined to make it, and fathers and mothers who walk them to school to make sure that they do. It has neighbors who reach out and shopkeepers who know your name.

Woven through the story is the tortured relationship the author, former Courant sports writer Michael Downs, has with the city of his birth. Born here and reared out west, Downs' true north remains Hartford. His parents grew up here, and his grandparents were still here when he was hired by The Courant in 1989 to write about Hartford high school sports. The move felt like he was coming home, and Downs enthusiastically threw himself into his new job.

He concentrated on daily deadlines, parking his bike (you see the city better that way) where he could find it, and his budding relationship with another Courant journalist, Sheri Venema, whom he later married. The book came later, after Downs and Venema moved west to teach journalism at the University of Montana.

"I wanted to try to figure out my own relationship with Hartford a little better," said Downs, "and I wanted to know more about what I'd done in leaving. I knew it wasn't the kind of question that had an answer, and I started thinking of these guys."

These guys are Joshua Hall, Hiram Harrington, Harvey Kendall, Eric Shorter and Derrick Walker, who still, in their own ways, struggle to keep their promise to Hartford, as has Downs since he left the city in '92.

This summer, Downs moves to Maryland to teach at Towson University. The nearest big city is Baltimore, another city with issues.

"My favorite town is Butte, {lcub}Montana{rcub}, which has a superfund site with its own gift shop," said Downs. "Sheri used to say I am attracted to cities with burdens."

The West is nice, but the West is not the East, he said.

"I like that sense of decades spiraling out behind me," he said. "I also like the faster pace, and the sincere kindness that exists behind what people from outside the region see as a brashness. I know that behind that is actually wonderful caring. I appreciate that contradiction.

"What's remarkable in the midst of all of that is there are amazing human beings making big differences, and days when parts of Hartford just shimmer. People still love each other. I don't mean to sound corny. People in Hartford still have faith in the city, and that's one of the things that made me fall in love with it."

That caring and loving is so frequently tested in Hartford. Hartford is hard. Loving her is harder. But then again, how can you not?

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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