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Hartford Through Visitors' Eyes: So-So

`Tourists' Find People Helpful, Attractions Flat

March 8, 2005

Our first assessment of Hartford, delivered by our taxi driver as we cruised downtown from the airport, was not a hopeful one.

To the likely question of any visitor in town for the Big East Women's Basketball Tournament - "So, what else is there to do in Hartford?" - our driver had a quick answer.

"Hartford is a ghost town," he replied.

Pressed for specifics, he politely told us there was a pretty good art museum on Main Street; Mark Twain's house; and a restaurant with good food and music, Black-Eyed Sally's, within walking distance of our hotel, the refurbished Hilton.

"It's no New York or Washington," the cabby said apologetically.

Less than three months from now, when the $230 million Connecticut Convention Center opens, thousands of first-time visitors will be asking the same first question we asked this weekend. With the Big East tournament occupying the Hartford Civic Center through today, and the Hilton reopening after a $33 million renovation, we pretended to be tourists and gave Hartford a litmus test this weekend.

As it turned out, our cabby's verdict was both wrong and right.

Hartford made us feel wanted. From the Hilton's staff to street-cleaning workers with Hartford Proud & Beautiful written on their jackets, every waiter or waitress, every doorman and business owner we met had something nice to say to us. But downtown Hartford does not always show what it has or what it is going to be with its multi-million-dollar transformation underway.

As we pulled into Hartford, we tried to ignore the boarded-up brick building to the north of the Hilton. The dreary scenery transformed as we headed through the hotel's revolving doors, nearly bowling over Rutgers University head coach C. Vivian Stringer as she stepped off her bus. Lanky Seton Hall players with 1,000-yard stares shuffled past on their way to a Civic Center game.

The Hilton was a college basketball United Nations. Fans from St. John's, Villanova and Rutgers crowded the hotel bar in the red, blue or scarlet colors of their universities, sometimes making catty remarks about the local state university.

"Oh, they've got Gampel filled for a change," one visiting fan said as she watched the University of Connecticut men play Syracuse at Gampel Pavilion on TV from the Hilton bar.

"Would anyone mind if I changed it to golf?" a guy in a St. John's sweat shirt asked.

It was a scene. The modern decor in the Hilton's lobby features everything from books on design from architects such as Richard Meier and Robert A.M. Stern, to metallic-fabric ottomans, sleek Scandinavian-style wood chairs and a plasma wall-mounted television. The view into Massachusetts from our 20th-floor room, with its luxurious king-size bed, was stunning.

We were eager to get out and see Hartford. Diligent tourists, we had done our research on the Internet and arrived with pages of downloaded lists, brochures and maps. We would be guided by that material and what we could learn from cabbies, door attendants, waiters and cops and the tourist pamphlets we picked up along the way.

We spent lunch poring over a "Welcome to Hartford" map provided at the hotel, matching it with suggested itineraries downloaded from the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau website. (We had already given up on one itinerary from the website, after phone calls revealed the Museum of American Political Life was closed for the next two years, and the number listed for the Vintage Radio and Communications Museum was someone's house.)

Another recommended itinerary included the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which is open on weekends and which drew a number of our fellow tourists. But we were looking for something a bit more out of the way.

The Isham-Terry House looked to be a short walk from the hotel. But where was the website's recommended Old North Cemetery, the final resting place of Frederick Law Olmsted and Connecticut's largest concentration of African American veterans of the Civil War?

The hotel clerk looked puzzled and went to his computer when we asked for directions to the cemetery. Nothing. He asked another clerk, and then another. The third knew where the house was and gave us quick, accurate directions. But the cemetery? They were all stumped.

The walk to the Isham-Terry House did not offer the kind of scenery that urban tourists tend to recall with pleasure.

The five-minute trip took us past garbage cans overflowing with rubbish in what a sign calls a park less than 100 yards from the Hilton. We walked past broken bottles on Chapel Street, past dumpsters and a billboard that read: "Colon Polyps: Stop Them Before They Go Bad." When we arrived at the historic house, it was locked. A sign said it would be open Sunday, when we'd be watching Villanova play Boston College in the Civic Center.

So we followed the directions we'd gotten from the Hilton staff and headed down an all-but-deserted Main Street for the Old State House.

The convention and visitors bureau website said there was a historic re-enactment play we might be able to watch there. But as was the case with Isham-Terry, there were no hours listed on the website and when the hotel clerk called for us, she got a recording.

"We don't do re-enactments here," the young man at the entrance to the Old State House explained when we arrived. We handed him the printout from the visitors bureau. It's been at least two years since the state house has done the plays, he said.

Outside the Old State House, we pondered our next move. We were looking directly at Riverfront Plaza, but from this perspective it looked like an office plaza. The river was out of sight, and we saw not a single sign pointing us in its direction.

But we did see a street sign for Hartford's welcome center, and we followed it. Then there was another sign, pointing in a different direction. From our point of view as pedestrians, it was pointing directly down an alleyway. There was a homeless man, balled up, shivering. This couldn't be the welcome center.

Seeing our confusion, a young guy said: "Hello, welcome to Hartford. Are you looking for something?"

Walking onto Pratt Street to meet us, he handed us a 20-percent-off coupon from his employer, the nearby Trumbull Kitchen restaurant.

"Hey guy!" a Hartford police officer bellowed, so loud it made us all jump. "If you are going to do that, do it on the sidewalk."

Our guide, looking a bit flustered, pointed us to the welcome center halfway down Pratt Street.

"Welcome to Hartford. Enjoy your stay," he called behind us.

The welcome center was filled with lots of pamphlets and booklets, and one of the best little tools of the weekend: a blue flier entitled "Life Beyond Basketball" that listed other things to do in Hartford.

The flier gave us suggestions for things to do besides watch basketball, and there were quite a few - but not many that lend themselves to spontaneity. Both the 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. comedy shows at City Steam restaurant - our first choice - were sold out. We pass on the other offerings: Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks, opera or Trinity College's spring concert. What we would have done for a movie theater, a poetry reading or a coffee shop at which to hang out.

We had a nice dinner at Trumbull Kitchen, which was obviously out to impress: The manager stopped by to give us a free round of drinks because our salads were slow arriving, though we hadn't complained.

The nightclubs were pounding with house music, and plenty of restaurants were still serving late, but having already eaten and not in the mood for dancing, we headed back to our hotel.

Sunday morning, we woke up hungry and headed out to Trumbull Street.

The sign in front of Max Bibo's said it would open at 9:30 a.m., but it was 9:40 a.m. and still locked up. We walked down to Jurgen's Fine Foods deli, which the owner had promised to open at 8:30 a.m. That was closed too.

We eventually discovered the Starbuck's on Trumbull Street was open.

"Yay!" the staff cheered as we pushed the door open.

Starbuck's is usually closed on Sundays, but stayed open for the Big East Tournament. Three workers stood alone in an empty café. Our $8.53 check hardly made their day.

Later, our visit to the Ancient Burying Ground on Main Street illustrated what is best, and worst, about downtown Hartford.

We'd picked up an excellent pamphlet by the Ancient Burying Ground Association, telling us about the historic grave markers and the lives of the people beneath them. The pamphlet said it was closed, but we thought we'd check it out anyway.

There was a way in, although we couldn't tell for sure whether somebody had knocked down a section of the burying ground's iron fence or you were supposed to go in that way.

Two homeless guys were coming out as we went in. "Watch out for the snow," one said, trying to be helpful.

We paid homage to Ebenezer Watson, an early editor of The Courant; wondered over the graveyard of Richard Bernham, "Killed by ye Bloing up of ye School house;" and stood before the grave of Mary Skinner, who bore 12 children, but lost 10 of them as infants. If Hartford is a ghost town, the burying ground association has made the best of it with this pamphlet.

But like so many things in Hartford, including the riverfront parks that we visited next, the Ancient Burying Ground left us with an uneasy feeling: Were we really supposed to be here?

Places were frequently so deserted, or the opening hours were so unclear, that we often felt like kids trespassing on a construction site. Later, we watched four hours of good basketball in the Civic Center. Two strangers sitting next to us shared their pretzels with us. After Villanova had survived B.C. and Rutgers had waxed St. John's, roughly 3,000 fans spilled out onto the streets.

There were two more games to be played, and the crowds did not head home. At last we saw the difference bringing people to Hartford could make: The normally somnolent Sunday afternoon sidewalks were packed with people. Bars and restaurants were jammed.

We did not want to leave. We stopped at an Irish pub to toast Hartford. Then, it was time to go back to the Hilton, collect our things and head back to the airport. There were downtrodden St. John's players waiting for the bus home, and hopeful UConn fans hoping for a win. Then, as we waited for our taxi, our cover was blown.

Len Wolman, who heads the Waterford Group, the firm that bought and renovated the Hilton, recognized us and came over to ask about our experience in his hotel. "Any issues?"

We told him about some glitches, little mishaps to be expected in the hotel's first week.

Wolman listened intently.

"Give us a chance," he said, in words that might apply for all of downtown, "to work out the bugs."

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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