Hartford has no street culture. I'm not talking about the type that consists
of knuckleheads and sociopaths wreaking havoc on the lives of decent folk
as they head to work or school, feed their children or gas up their cars.
I'm referring to a city's river of life - the kind of street culture that
energizes and establishes an ongoing relationship with residents, attracts
visitors and magnetizes all feet on the street.
What makes for a street culture? Why is it a key component of Hartford's
rise from the ashes? What's the strategy for creating it?
Pedestrians are a significant part of
successful street culture. Pick a successful city anywhere on the globe
and I guarantee that people - residents and visitors alike - walk that
city. People on the street signal that "something
is happening here." What's happening? Often, nothing more than other
people. But people-watching is a favored pastime of humans, and
it's also a window onto a culture.
Want to know about Paris? Skip the Louvre.
Sit at a sidewalk cafe, order a demitasse and observe what makes Paris
as it promenades before you down the streets of St.-Germain-des-Pres.
Want to know about Hartford? Sit at a sidewalk cafe. What do you see?
A smattering of people, except during rush hour and in a handful of high-energy
blocks scattered throughout the city. That's part of Hartford's image
problem of "nothing to do." For
new arrivals and visitors who see nothing on the street but buildings
and cars, what other assumption could they make? The fact that Hartford
has few restaurants with sidewalk seating is a huge clue to lack of street
life. Why build the theater if there's no show?
For years, I didn't make the connection
between the dearth of taxis on Hartford's streets and the fact that the
capital city has no pedestrian culture. In my early Hartford years, I
would walk around town and crane my neck on the rare occasions I saw cabs
roar by. Fascinated, I wondered, "How
do you get one?" Sounds silly, I know, but I hail from a place where
people don't call for cabs, they just jump from the sidewalk to
the street and flag them down. Then one day, the epiphany emerged: Of course
there are no empty taxicabs on Hartford's streets. Who would they pick up?
People attract other people, but something must attract the first set of
people. And that something is what Hartford lacks.
The solution is an amalgam of:
Pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, such as sidewalks that don't suddenly
disappear, crosswalk signals that last longer than 10 seconds, and traffic-calming
measures, especially at intersections that are starting gates for highways.
Performance art that comfortably stirs people out of auto-pilot mode and
commands their attention, such as the funky rhythms of the pail-bottom bongo
players in New York's subways or the mimes and jugglers that claim the streets
Street-level novelty shops that call to pedestrians from display windows.
Hearty, inexpensive food-to-go such as falafel, noodle shops and rib joints
- precisely the kind of food that whispers sweet nothings to the palates
and pockets of college students and young professionals. The lines spilling
out the door onto the street will attract the rest of us.
Structured community use of the city's many lovely parks.
Tall buildings with many levels to baby-sit cars.
Widespread police presence as a comforting show of force to residents and
visitors, and a message to knuckleheads and sociopaths.
Gina Greenlee edits an internal publication for a financial services company
in Hartford and writes a twice-monthly column for The Courant. To leave
her a comment, please e-mail her at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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