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A Quiet Cultural Revolution

The return of the Hooker Day Parade, a quirky D.I.Y. affair, signals a wider rebirth of Hartford's funky artsy spirit

Adam Bulger

October 23, 2008

On Sunday, Oct. 26, expect downtown Hartford to get weird. As Martha and the Vandellas prophesied so long ago, there'll be music everywhere (in a two- to three-block radius) and swinging and swaying. And it won't matter what you wear (sort of), as long as you are there.

The reason for all this Motown quoting is the return, after a six-year hiatus, of the Hooker Day Parade to downtown Hartford. The do-it-yourself parade has, since its inception, been a casual event aimed at fun. The Hooker Day Parade began in 1991 as a way of shaking up a sleepy town. Started by then soon-to-be Hartford Mayor Mike Peters (whose recent re-admittance to the hospital following a liver transplant sadly made him unavailable for comment for this story), it was an attempt to inject some chaos into what was then viewed as a carefully ordered system.

"We wanted to shake up the buttoned-up insurance professional part of downtown," Hartford City Clerk and Hooker Day Parade co-founder Dan Carey said.

The parade initially covered only a city block; it started and ended on Arch Street. As it developed, it acquired its own traditions. Rock 'n' roll band Duke and the Imperials would lead the festivities performing on a flatbed truck. Behind them trailed humor-driven groups like the residents of Cone Street, who, naturally, marched wearing traffic cones on their heads. Shriners cruised in tiny cars. Community folks wore outlandish costumes.

After a decade, the parade fizzled, not for any particularly insidious reason; the only problem the parade ever had was that more people wanted to march in the parade than watch it.

"It lost a little steam, I think. The people on the (parade-planning) committee wanted to go in different directions. I think the same thing happens with a lot of events," Cary said.

Evidently, though, Hartford residents weren't willing to let it rest.

"People have talked about wanting to start it up again since the second it stopped," says Jordan Polon, the Hartford Business Improvement District's marketing and communications manager. "The other reason is that if you Google 'Hooker Day Parade,' there are three or four Web sites that say we still do it."

The re-birth of the parade, spearheaded by the Business Improvement District and former Hartford Mayor Mike Peters, promises much of the same as the original.

"It's a pretty rag-tag parade," Polon said. "Anyone who wants to march can march. All you need is a goofy costume."

Polon said that there will be continuity between the Hooker Day Parade versions 1.0 and 2.0. The same playful spirit as the original will be on display, and, like in the original parade, the route will be short, covering a couple blocks. But differences will be apparent.

"We're operating under extreme time constraints," Polon said. "We decided to do this a week ago and we're putting it on in a month. So it's going to be very pedestrian-heavy. We only have a couple of vehicles."

But the lack of vehicles isn't going to dampen the fun. Polon said that confirmed participants include Wolf Pack-mascot Sonar, as well as the Bushnell Park Foundation, who will evidently be marching in tree costumes. The party promoters Shag Frenzy plan to don glasses and recreate the Smiths' "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" video, in which a bespectacled, puffy-haired Morrissey rides around on a bike. Other participants will wield a giant phoenix-like bird puppet created by noted puppet-maker Anne Cubberly. Polon said she was looking for men and women willing to march in wedding and other types of gowns to join the ranks of the brides and bridesmaids brigade, and encouraged interested parties to go to hartford.com for more information and an application form.

So expect to see a lot of fanciful costumes and funny sight gags. But don't expect nudity or other adult themes.

"It's definitely going to be a family-friendly parade, but we're going to encourage the adults to stay around and visit some of the local bars later," Polon said.

The parade is a fun, cultural event, a unique one-shot deal. But it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Quietly, Hartford has been going through an artistic and cultural awakening. Arts and culture have become consistent topics of discussion in Hartford.

The TheaterWorks building at 233 Pearl St. formerly referred to as the Art Deco Building by many is wrapping up renovations, and its new name was set to be announced this week.

Since this summer, the TheaterWorks building has been hosting Monday-night gatherings of downtown residents, business professionals and people from the arts community to advance the arts in the city.

"The official name (of the group of gatherers) is the Pearl Street League or the Unarmed Militia, but most people just call it the Pearl Street League," said Steve Campo, the artistic and executive director of TheaterWorks, who founded the theater in 1985. "We started having these events on Monday evenings back in July, and it's been every Monday since," he said. These weekly informal meetings bring together people in the city who otherwise might not connect.

Campo describes it as one component of a large vision and strategy for the city, as parts of the TheaterWorks space are being leased out to about a half-dozen local nonprofit arts organizations, including the HartBeat Ensemble, the Pearl Street Arts Center, the Hartford Choral and the Connecticut Guitar Society.

"It's a great place to have discussions and circulate ideas that traditionally don't happen in Hartford," said Steve Ginsburg, a member of the HartBeat Ensemble, a radical theater group who've recently started using the building's office space, and is mounting the show Rich Clown, Poor Clown, Beggar Clown, Thief there.

He and the other ensemble members have been featured guests at the Monday night meetings. "Hartford is a very routine place," he said. "People stay in the same place. They stay in the same cubicles. Ideas don't cross-pollinate and things don't move ahead. There's no critical mass for anything to happen."

Each week, a different person or group is featured in a short, less-than-five-minute presentation. But the main goal of the weekly meetings is to get people drinking (downtown wine-bar Bin 228 supplies complimentary cheese and wine) and talking about art. (The "Pearl Street League" meets Mondays at 5:30 p.m.)

Ginsburg said he was excited about the partnership and hopes it would bring more attention to locally produced arts, which he says are often overlooked.

"People take things for granted that things happen here, but there's not a sense of pride that we should support it," Ginsburg said. "Again and again, I've been so impressed by things in Hartford."

Also encouraging for the Hartford arts scene is an attempt by the city government to bulk up cultural offerings. The long-dormant city Office of Cultural Affairs it hasn't had a director since Yvonne Harris retired in the early 2000s was revived this year.

Hartford City Councilor Luis Cotto was instrumental in the reformation of the office. He said that the city lost interest in having an office dedicated to culture as the Greater Hartford Arts Council grew to prominence.

"When the Greater Hartford Arts Council got bigger and bigger, people asked if we needed the office," Cotto said. "It seems to fulfill the role of what the Office of Cultural Affairs does."

Cotto said that as the name of the organization shows, the mission of the Greater Hartford Arts Council is promoting arts in the Hartford area, not just the city. While Cotto respects their work, he believed that an organization focused solely on arts within the city was necessary.

"The growing arts council was a convenient excuse," Cotto said. "It wasn't done consciously, but that's what has happened."

The office was taken over by Andres Chaparro, who sees the mission of the office as bringing arts to the people of Hartford, and bringing the people of Hartford to the arts. So far, among other projects, his office has programmed the successful Pork Pie Hat Jazz series, which has had three concerts so far this year and have attracted hundreds of people.

"We're really committed to exposing our residents, citizens of Hartford, to the arts," Chaparro said. "We recognize that a lot of art events, for whatever reason, aren't accessible to them. Either it's a transportation issue or it doesn't interest them or relate to them culturally. Especially young people. We've taken measures to bridge that gap. Our motto is that they won't come to the arts until the arts come to them."

The city has allotted the office a $50,000 budget. Despite the funding, money for putting on events remains a constant concern.

"When we're talking about presenting anything, the bottom line is the bottom line," Chaparro said. "We're going to have to have the dollars. These are hard times for everyone."

Chaparro and Cotto believe the office provides a vital service to the city.

"Research has established that in urban areas, arts and culture are an outlet for expression," Chaparro said "In cities that are in depressive conditions and Hartford is, it's one of the poorest cities around the presence of arts and culture is even more important. We have to foster creativity and introduce children to art. Studies show that youth engaged in the arts are more likely to stay in school and attend college."

Cotto said fostering the arts is a long-term project with far-reaching implications.

"I think that in a day and age of everyone trying to come up with quick fixes to societal issues, there are some not-quick fixes," Cotto said, pointing to block parties as events that foster new connections among people. "You had families coming to these things, and families meeting. You have people creating a community. What happens when you create a community? You get people who are more inclined to watch their neighbor's yard if you see something suspicious."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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