March 8, 2005
By DEBORAH PETERSEN SWIFT And MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writers
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
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