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Start By Cleaning Hartford's Streets

COMMENTARY by Stan Simpson
July 9, 2005

Under overcast skies, Sgt. Emory Hightower wheeled his police cruiser through some of the hot spots in North Hartford - an area of special concentration in a renewed crackdown on violence.

As the scanner crackled, the Hartford native would invariably point out the sneakers slung over electrical wires and dangling by their laces - a common sight in some city neighborhoods.

I was under the impression that the apparel-display signified the untimely passing of a homeboy. Hightower said no. The kicks are an advertisement that drugs are sold on that block.

If that's the case, Bedford Street, which intersects with Albany Avenue in North Hartford, must be a virtual drug factory. At a corner of the short L-shaped street, at least a dozen sneakers can be seen hanging by their laces on the overhead wires. On the curb sits a huge pile of debris, sofas, old furniture, appliances. It's been there for weeks. Ridiculous.

Bedford Street is in one of the city's most neglected neighborhoods, Clay-Arsenal. There is simply no excuse for a road to be this filthy and overrun with eyesores high and low. When you allow electrical wires to be mistaken for a Foot Locker shelf and you don't pick up unsightly bulky waste, the clear impression is that anything goes - and nobody cares. Make no mistake, those with criminal intent take notice.

The Hartford Police Department's latest plan to make the city safer includes a new 24-member "conditions unit." For the next few weeks, this group, half of whom are rookies or younger officers, will be walking the streets of the Northeast district and identifying eyesores that make a street feel unsafe or intimidating. The officers report to Hightower.

"I always believe that people have a right to quality of life whether they've got $100 million or 100 pennies in their pocket," says Hightower, 43, an 11-year veteran of the force and a former correction officer. "The sneakers on the wires have a certain connotation attached to them. The graffiti is a marking also for drug dealers and gang members. It all brings messages of fear. If someone is driving down the street and they see graffiti and they see sneakers and trash and abandoned cars, they start locking their doors."

Fear - real and imagined - has hamstrung this city, undergoing a billion dollar makeover downtown. While the immediate areas surrounding city hall sparkle, the adjoining neighborhoods are a mess.

It's an indictment of Strong Mayor Eddie Perez. Take a ride around the city and you're overwhelmed. Junk everywhere. Yeah, Welcome to Hartford.

Gotta wonder how much the fear factor contributed to corporate icons like ING, Mass Mutual and WFSB, Channel, 3 deciding to bolt the city when other options were presented.

Hightower is a cop with a conscience, who is working on his college degree in sociology. At heart he's still the kid who grew up in North Hartford. He's chagrined about the attitude that allows rundown neighborhoods to become more the rule than the exception.

So, now we've got the cops doing what everyone should be doing - making calls about quality-of-life nuisances and demanding that they be removed. They will be forwarding their findings to city hall and the Department of Public Works, which is supposed to be removing this stuff.

Hightower has got a stake in what happens in Hartford, even though he no longer resides there. One of the problems with the city is that too many people don't feel vested in it either because they don't live there or because they are chastised for not living there.

Hence, there's no accountability.

OK, enough complaining about the mess. Solution time.

I've maintained that the city should mirror's the HPD's Compstat meetings for crime reduction and apply it to the eyesores on the streets.

There should be regular meetings on the status of these eyesores, zero tolerance for why the stuff hasn't been removed and then some follow-up on the clean-up actions.

Supervisors not getting it done should be bounced.

Let's use Bedford Street as an example. Consider this a formal complaint from a suburban dweller who cares about the city: The sneakers and curbside debris need to be removed. Pronto.

It's no secret that the most notorious streets in the city - Bedford, Vine, Garden, Enfield, Pliny, Mather - are among the most unkempt.

When Bedford is cleaned, move on to the next.

There's a correlation to clean streets, reduced crime and people wanting to patronize the city. You can't reduce crime without making the streets cleaner and less desirable for undesirables. We've got to get real about how the image of the city is stunting its effort for a rebound. Clean up these eyesores.

Time for Hartford to put its foot down.

Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at ssimpson@courant.com

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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