A rash of violence, intemperate online comments, and outspoken critiques sharply divide a city grappling with crime and its own public image
By Adam Bulger
July 03, 2008
What's wrong with Hartford? Well, "Larry the Cable Guy" thinks "Hartford, 'the falling star' is a turd hole ... they should just put up a wall around it and call it a prison camp." "Erik" thinks "Hartford should be encouraging gun ownership among those who want to take back their neighborhoods" and encourages "all peaceful residents of Hartford to obtain a pistol permit and a home defense shotgun." The "Iron Sheik," reflecting on the city's shifting demographics, said "I'll tell you what changes [sic], things got darker if you know what I mean."
Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez evidently believes that a priority for the city is preventing people like Mr. Cable, Erik and the Sheik from making those sort of remarks, which were found in the online comments section of the Hartford Courant's story about the attack on Hartford activist Nick Carbone.
Late on the humid afternoon of Friday, June 20, Perez protested outside the Hartford Courant's Broad Street offices. Joined by more than 20 Hartford officials and city employees, Perez voiced his outrage over reader-submitted comments on Courant stories on the paper's Web site, Courant.com, which he described in a statement as a "platform for racist hate speech."
Perez prefaced his remarks by saying the event had nothing to do with free speech, but instead was about "asking the corporate citizen in our community" to stop enabling racists and haters.
What Perez left unsaid was how much the event had to do with perceptions of Hartford, which can sometimes be harsh. He also didn't address his ongoing legal issues or the city's struggles with crime. No online comment, after all, no matter how strongly worded or racially charged, has ever physically hurt someone or made people feel unsafe in their own homes. It doesn't require a huge leap to imagine Perez' rally as an attempt to distract people from the city's (and the mayor's) more pressing problems.
But perhaps the online comments and the city's problems are more connected than they initially seem. State Senator John Fonfara, who represents Hartford and Wethersfield, co-signed Perez's letter to the Courant and spoke at the rally. He said the comments exacerbate an existing tension between Hartford and the suburbs.
"The Hartford Courant, or any other organization that reports on what's happening in our community and has such a wide reach and influence, shouldn't allow that kind of material to divide our community," Fonfara told the Advocate.
Fonfara argued that the comments reflect and strengthen Hartford's negative image. He said that because the forums—which don't require registration—allow readers to voice their comments anonymously, they're free to express ignorance and fear they'd suppress if their names were attached. The Courant's name and prestige, he said, reinforces the comments' power. "I guarantee you that if people had to put their names on that, the comments would go away," Fonfara said.
As noted, the rally didn't exist in a vacuum. The same week Perez wrote his letter to the Courant, the paper reported the city has paid just under $100,000 in legal bills for city hall staff relating to the state's ongoing criminal investigation of the mayor. Perez is under investigation for a no-bid parking contract in 2007, and last year was served with a warrant relating to $20,000 in construction performed by a city contractor.
And maybe it escaped Perez's attention, but the corporate citizen he was upbraiding has got other distractions. The Courant announced the Wednesday before the rally that due to rising expenses and dipping circulation, the paper (which also owns the Advocate) will need to lose about 60 news staffers and 25 daily pages by the end of July.
At the same time, June was one of the most trying months in the city's recent history. After security camera footage was released of seemingly uncaring bystanders looking on as 78-year-old Hartford resident Angel Arce Torres was hit by a speeding car on Park Street, the city was caught in the glare of national media. Overnight, Park Street, fairly or not, became a symbol of heartlessness (it later came to light that several 911 calls were placed after the accident).
If that wasn't enough, 71-year-old former deputy mayor Nick Carbone was grievously assaulted just after 9 a.m. on June 2, close to the state Capitol. That a respected member of the community could be assaulted in broad daylight—in a part of town usually thought of as safe—shook many in the Hartford area.
The mayor's objection to the Courant's Web site is connected to those incidents. Mayoral spokesperson Sarah Barr said the mayor first took note of the comment boards after reading a letter to the editor in the Courant. Written by Donna Taglianetti, executive director of the Hartford non-profit group Co-Opportunity, the letter contrasted the responsible letters in the print version of the Courant with the rude and racist comments Taglianetti read online.
According to Taglianetti, "[T]he tenor of those letters was completely different than what was on their [W]eb page."
The comment boards can certainly be nasty. In a comment referenced in Perez's letter to the Courant, a reader compared the city to Beirut. Another respondent argued that Hartford residents needed to be sterilized, and another characterized the city's population as "humanimals, wild sows and exponential breeders."
Luis Cotto, a city councilman (and I should admit for the sake of disclosure, someone I count as a friend) attended the rally and supported Perez's criticism of the comments. He said the comments add nothing of value to the Courant's news reporting or to the site.
"You are not taking anything away by taking them away," Cotto said. "There's not a huge loss for the readership, there's just a loss of revenue. Even for the trolls [posters who leave controversial or off-topic comments online]. They'll go to the Boston Globe or wherever. There'll always be a place to write stuff on the Internet."
Indeed, the comments aren't unique: the "Rants and Raves" section of Hartford's Craig's list bulletin board Web site features posts as racially charged as the Courant's.
Hartford City Councilman Ken Kennedy, who has often clashed with Perez, suggested an easy fix for the comment board: Don't read them.
"Because it's hidden, and you don't have to show your face, people will say some ugly, nasty stuff. And those people are idiots, and you have to learn to ignore them," Kennedy said.
In a July 29 editorial, Courant Publisher Stephen Carver pledged to "keep it robust but civil online," and said that, along with other measures, the Courant and Topix (the outside company contracted by the Courant to manage reader comments online) will assign more staff to delete inappropriate posts, hold weekly calls with Topix and add the ability to review all a user's posts at one time.
"We are going to work this problem harder," Carver told the Advocate. "We met this week on Topix and I am waiting for some action items to come through from our discussion."
The Courant was also one of the media sponsors of "Hartford Cares," a June 30 Bushnell Park event where a variety of performers, speakers and musicians played in front of hundreds of Hartford-area residents. The two-hour event featured a large poster board "Wall of Commitment," where attendees wrote hopes and suggestions for the city, and culminated in a mass candle-lighting.
But even if the comments are taken down altogether—an option the Courant is not considering—some argue that the negative views of Hartford would remain. Former head of the Hartford Public Access Television station and Republican mayoral candidate J. Stan McCauley is both a long-standing outspoken critic of Perez and a frequenter of the Topix comment boards. He said that while they're not pretty, the comments are unfortunately a reflection of real opinion.
"You can't legislate morality and you can't regulate how people feel," McCauley said. "There's no such thing as hate speech. People may say things you hate. You can legislate their ability to express that hate, but you can't make those feelings go away."
Fonfara, a life-long Hartford resident, said he's heard suburban residents voice negative views about Hartford and its citizens in conversation.
"People say it to me. And I'm a state senator," Fonfara said. "Imagine what they say when I'm not around."
Even those who deride the comments for racism and hate speech note that the problem is not new.
"I was angry about it, but I was also angry about it two years ago," Cotto said." This isn't new. The Courant's been dealing with this for a while."
Some officials questioned why the mayor is getting all worked up about this now.
"We have other pressing issues which the mayor should spend more focus and attention on than this," Kennedy said. "This is a real issue, but there are far more important ones."
McCauley painted the rally as a failed attempt at damage control. City officials, he said, regularly whitewash the harsh realities of the city for fear of driving away potential businesses or other investors.
"Hartford has serious problems. They don't want to talk about them. They believe that talking about them will prevent people from coming into Hartford, will prevent events from coming into Hartford," McCauley said.
Ultimately, McCauley said, the attempt at spinning away the city's troubles will be ineffective.
"But those people, the people who want to invest in Hartford, aren't going to go to the failed public relations team in Hartford," McCauley said. "They do real research. They know what's going on in Hartford. So they'll pick Bloomfield over Hartford. They'll pick Rocky Hill over Hartford."
McCauley's cry for increased candor dovetails with the reaction by Hartford Police Chief Daryl Roberts to the Park Street hit and run. Calling on residents to help identify the driver of the car that struck Torres, Roberts characterized pedestrians' passivity as a sign that the city has lost its "moral compass."
Several Hartford-area community leaders applauded the chief's remarks, including former Councilmen Robert Painter and Steve Harris. However, the chief played down his remarks at a subsequent press conference, chalking up his statement to ill-considered anger. His remarks coincided with statements of such high-profile Hartford residents as Julio Mendoza, the executive director of the Spanish-American Merchants Association, who complained that the city was being unfairly judged by 45 seconds of tape. Several news and commentary Web sites, as well as Courant editorials, noted that residents made several 911 calls during the Park Street hit and run.
"The deck is stacked against us here," Fonfara said. "And then we're compared to every other town as if we were out-of-the-box equal. And we're not. We accept everybody's problems. You lose your home, you look for an apartment in Hartford. If you come out of prison, whether or not you've ever been to Hartford before, you're dumped on the doorstep of a shelter in Hartford. Then when they report the story, it's about how we're so much worse than anyone else."