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Hartford's Ongoing Disaster



February 22, 2009

I recently ordered a book called "What Is a City? Rethinking the Urban After Hurricane Katrina," a collection of a dozen essays related to New Orleans. Someone asked me what about contemporary New Orleans interests me. I said the flood has already arrived here in Hartford — more than 30 homicides per year.

A city is what we say it is. We can re-envision the city and then remake it. The New England poet Charles Olson said, "polis / is eyes." Is there anything we can see in New Orleans' social policy after the flood that might be applicable to Hartford? Let's look with urgency and alarm.

Former President George W. Bush omitted New Orleans from his 2007 State of the Union address and in 2009, Gov. M. Jodi Rell made no mention of Hartford's 30-plus homicides in her State of the State address. Though the governor's mansion sits on Prospect Avenue hill in the west end of the capital city, Rell either ignores or does not see what occurs in the city she calls home.

Rell spoke of retirement plans, 401ks, savings accounts and college tuition — all worthy of discussion, but only a part of Connecticut's story. She stated: "Our citizens will need our help for basic necessities," oblivious to the fact that many have needed and do need, and that a downturn on Wall Street might mean less to some than gunshots out the front door.

Phil Steinberg, one of the editors for this collection of essays, notes in his introductory chapter that "New Orleans faces problems typical of most, if not all, cities" and "during the Katrina disaster it experienced these problems in a particularly intense and hence potentially instructive way."

Steinberg says: "To some extent, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina can be attributed to government," and that "government officials forgot about a large number of their citizens."

Isn't this the case in Hartford? From former Gov. John Rowland's Six Pillars to Mayor Eddie Perez's pursuit of a new sports arena and hockey team, the lives of people have been ignored, and because they have been ignored they have also been lessened. Perez says an ice hockey team is "a quality of life issue" and Gov. Rell boasts "our quality of life is second to none," but whom are they talking about?

In his New Orleans essay, Daina Cheyenne Harvey observes, "That which society deems relevant is framed, and that which is not relevant is pushed to the margins (or even out) of the frame."

The central questions (and ones that do not get asked) for New Orleans or Hartford are, as Steinberg puts them, "Who has the power to construct the city, who has the power to move, who has the power to remember?" For the sake of a science center or a sports arena, the people of Hartford must be rendered invisible. In his essay, Hugh Bartling notes: "As the city promoted itself as a cultural and tourist destination, there have been few economic benefits for the city's lower-income communities."

Authors discuss mobility — who has the power to move — and they note that the same people who were last to be evacuated are also the last to return, if they do at all. These "expendable" people, these forgotten ones can make room for upscale, homogeneous development.

Think of Route 44 and Avon Mountain. "Mobilities and immobilities," Matthew Tiessen says, "speed and slowness are in play in our cities, producing an uneven fabric of opportunities and impediments." The route out of Hartford and over the mountain became a visible issue and one that received immediate and extensive resources. Yet, government leaders still have not adequately addressed the tragic death of urban youth — that impediment to opportunity.

Another section of this New Orleans book talks about "racial trauma ... among those who experience discrimination or lack of cultural recognition." Tragic death in the Connecticut suburbs elicits "public rituals of healing." Not so in the city (at least not "at the level of collectives").

As one contributor to points out, after the hurricane "Barbara Bush spoke as if the evacuees were people who had pasts that were not worth preserving." Elizabeth Spelman goes on to say that "one can hear in such remarks echoes of nineteenth-century attitudes ... that some people just don't suffer as much as others, are barely susceptible to physical or emotional pain, aren't really affected by the rupture of ties to people or place or things."

Lastly, Jacob Wagner asserts that, "Hurricane Katrina has challenged the nation ... to reckon with deeply ignored problems of poverty, disinvestment in the public sphere, neglect of human rights, and structural racism." Two years in a row, more than 30 homicides and oftentimes young folks killing young folks. Forget ice hockey. In the capitol region, we have still got some reckoning to do. Violent premature death is a quality of life issue.

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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