Once the residential blocks were rich, in a city noted for its richness. Victorian houses and church spires lined the streets. Prominent people including Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe lived here.
Later the Asylum Hill district would become blighted. It would reflect the all-too-common signs of poverty and disinvestment found in America's inner cities.
Now there are signs of renaissance, with new or rehabbed housing, the newly remodeled Hartford Public High School and the arrival of CPTV on Asylum Avenue. One of the efforts has to do with keeping the older folks in the old neighborhood.
AARP, the group that promotes the interests of older Americans, is conducting a pilot program in Asylum Hill called Livable Communities, one of eight such projects across the country. The goal: to help longtime residents over the age of 50 stay put.
About 125 volunteers from AARP, The Hartford and Rebuilding America are retrofitting 10 one- and two-family homes in the Hill so they are more easily used by older people. Most of the houses are on Ashley and Sargeant streets, near St. Francis Hospital. A $575,000 grant from The Hartford makes up a lion's share of the funding.
The work, which is underway and will continue into September, includes such things as adding grab bars, installing ramps, raising toilets, widening doorways, and other aids to safety, comfort and accessibility. In addition to the physical work, the homeowners will be given information about support services such as meals on wheels, blood pressure screening and nursing assistance. To qualify for the program, the homeowners must be over 50, live in the house and meet income guidelines.
AARP chose Asylum Hill for the demonstration project because it saw that revitalization was already underway, thanks in large part to a nonprofit consortium called Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, which is made up of major companies in the area.
Charles Botts III, a young graduate of Trinity College and a current master's degree student in public policy, heads up the effort. He says it's the "best job I could ever have." He pictures his lovable elderly grandmother, who lives in Boston. "As far as I can remember, she never was sick. But this year she's had a lot of health issues. She was in and out of the hospital."
Botts wants people such as his grandmother to be able to live at home, as most seniors want to do. But without proper tools, he said, "it can be hard for someone to continue in their house."
Among the clients are Betty Jean and Willie Dunn, who've lived in their 115-year-old Queen Anne-style house on Ashley Street for the past 16 years. Now in their mid-70s and sustained by a limited income, they could not keep up the historic dwelling on their own.
"We love our home and we want to stay here," says Betty Jean Dunn. "We're grateful to AARP for helping us make the repairs necessary to remain."
As Elise Thomas, who works with Botts on the project, said of the Dunns and others in the program, "The very fact they've already stayed so long says something about their self-reliance."
Suzan Bibisi, spokeswoman for the Connecticut branch of AARP, said the project has garnered attention.
"We are taking a look at what's happening on Asylum Hill. And we're learning from it," she said. "As more and more baby boomers retire, this all is becoming a critical issue. We should all be concerned about this. It's even gotten me thinking down the road about my own house."
Bibisi and Botts tout the concept of universal design, which means building housing that can be used by anyone including seniors or people with disabilities from the outset. This has been a tough sell with some developers, but as boomers age, the demand will almost assuredly increase.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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