It's a tale of two cities, and they're both called Hartford. One is a Rising Star with a colossal new convention center; the other is a mecca for porn outlets, drugs and the homeless.
Dave D., in his late 50s, is homeless. On good days, he'll tell you he's "camping right now." On bad days, he shakes his head and says he's damn sick of sleeping in the mud. He's friendly with a sardonic wit, and we chat together at a downtown soup kitchen about once a week.
We talk about real estate. I tell him about the 262 apartments in Northland's Hartford 21 tower, about a penthouse apartment with Brazilian granite that goes for $6,000 a month. His response is thoughtful, genteel. "If you ask me, I don't find the building itself to be all that attractive. The boxy structure on top seems out of place." He has to look at it every day, so it seems someone ought to hear his opinion.
Other days we talk money: I have to get my parking stub validated to avoid an $8 fee, while Dave tries to track down U.S. Savings bonds that he's positive were given to him as a child.
Food is another topic we enjoy. I try to figure out what to cook for my finicky kids, and Dave tries to figure out where he'll get his next meal.
In 2005, Mayor Eddie Perez convened the Commission to End Chronic Homelessness, with a plan to eradicate the problem by 2015. It's hard to tell how much progress is being made, but it appears that much of the data is gathered at an annual point-in-time census of the homeless. The last one was a query that asked, "Where did you sleep on the night of Jan. 24, 2006?" The final report, published in September, stated that only nine Hartford people slept outdoors that night.
Nine? The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness reports that shelters turned the homeless away 34,428 times in 2005 due to lack of beds.
Nine? Did the researchers find the man in the dirty sleeping bag under the Bulkeley Bridge? The one wrapped in a tarp in a South End wooded area? Did they count the woman who was too ashamed to admit to being arrested for seeking shelter in a hallway at the Holiday Inn? And were the "no-freeze" shelters open that night, skewing the count?
The coalition's report recommends, in addition to social services, more affordable and supportive housing, and better low-income housing stock. Are these things happening? Mayor Perez and Gov. M. Jodi Rell have poured public funding into the oversized new convention center, Northland's Hartford 21 luxury apartments and developer Bradley Nitkin's 115 market-rate apartments at Front Street. Taxpayers are, in essence, subsidizing wealthy developers while Hartford's poor get poorer.
Soon the Hartford 21 lobby will house Bliss Market, with epicurean prepared foods and fine meats. But on the sidewalk outside will be a guy who counts a manual can opener among his most valuable possessions. He'll use it to open a dented can of Goya garbanzo beans and he'll eat them with the plastic spoon he pocketed from a soup kitchen.
The mayor's latest fret is that a growing erotica and adult entertainment market will blemish the complexion of New England's Rising Star.
But the real ugliness lies in the tale of two cities that grow more disparate by the day, both known by the name of Hartford.
Jennifer Warner Cooper, a free-lance writer from Glastonbury, does a weekly Q&A column, Encounter, for The Courant's business section.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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