Sebastian Ciarcia's family has been baking cakes, pastries and other goodies on Franklin Avenue for three decades. He's proud to say he has never had to report a crime there.
He concedes, however, his reluctance to leave the South End Bakery for even a quick break, especially if it means that his mother or wife will be left alone. Too many young guys are running around the streets looking as if they have nothing better to do.
For that reason, the bakery also closes at 5 p.m. sharp, two or three hours earlier than Ciarcia's suburban counterparts.
Mayor Eddie Perez announced this week that crime in the city is at its lowest in 30 years. On the streets, the achievement was met with a collective yawn.
The caveat to the capital city's crime downturn is that there was a 33 percent spike in homicides, from 24 in 2006 to 32 last year. This is like the sex education teacher telling parents: Hey, good news gang, more of the kids are abstaining, but teen pregnancy is on the rise.
You can reduce other crimes to zero, but if there's a hike in homicides, no need to guess what will generate headlines.
Any reported violent act inflames fears, bolsters bad perceptions and complicates plans to develop downtown as a destination.
I feel for the Blue on this one. The HPD clearly is making strides — from a statistical standpoint, anyway — in reducing crime. On the psychological front, well, let's just say they have a ways to go.
"If I were in the suburbs, I'd probably stay open to 7 p.m. or 8 o'clock," Ciarcia said. "And maybe if the cops would walk the beat a little more [here], we'd stay open later. You'd feel a little safer. Back in the 1980s, we used to see more cops up and down, walking the beat."
Ciarcia, 28, was born and reared in the city, and now lives in Newington. The things that bother this South Hartford merchant are the same ones that trouble a North Hartford mother I ran into Friday at the Save-A-Lot grocery on Main Street.
"It's the young boys, 21 and down. They're the ones causing the trouble," said Flora Hunter, whose mother, sister and daughters all live on Love Lane, a hot-button area. On Love Lane, Charlotte Street or Eastford Street, "we hear shootings almost every night," Hunter said.
Hartford-bred Chief Daryl Roberts is in his second year on the job. His force is in major transition. Eighty new officers are expected to join the ranks this year; more than 150 new cops have been hired in the last three years, and in 2010 a new $77 million public safety complex will open downtown.
Excluding homicides, every major crime tallied in Hartford in 2007 was below the five-year average. Still, in this case, the reality is the perception — that this city is unsafe.
"I don't think it's down," Hunter said of the crime numbers. "And I think there's going to be more. There needs to be more [police] presence."
Hartford encompasses 18 square miles. It's a small city that should be eminently manageable with a 400-cop department, particularly because most of the crimes occur in the neighborhoods and not downtown.
"I think downtown Hartford is safe," said Vilpesh Patel, owner of the Masala Indian Bar & Restaurant on the corner of Main Street and Capitol Avenue. "With my customers, there's no issue of safety. People walk up from the Bushnell here. I've never heard one concern from a customer about safety."
The challenge for Roberts is to direct his small army to those neighborhood pockets that serve as drug and shooting galleries.
When the neighborhoods become as safe as downtown, the citizens will take notice.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at