Meghan Freed knew things were changing when an out-of-town visitor asked her where to get a newspaper and a good cup of coffee on a weekend morning in downtown Hartford - and she had more than one suggestion.
"It used to feel empty. It doesn't feel like that anymore," said Freed, a lawyer at Hartford Steam Boiler who owns a condo in the Linden Building on Main Street.
Granted, the bar is pretty low. But something organic is happening in downtown Hartford. It's not so much about big buildings, a hockey team or a branding campaign. It's people doing things.
A voter registration drive is capturing hundreds of new voters. A vibrant Facebook page - Dwelling in Downtown; Hartford - is a traffic jam of comments, complaints, advice and neighborly chatter. This week, a business group reported to Mayor Pedro Segarra that among the downtown's half-dozen or so signature properties, occupancy is nearly 100 percent.
"To say people are flocking downtown would not be appropriate," said Michael Zaleski, executive director of the Hartford Business Improvement District, which produced the new report. "But it's something that's been building for the last couple of years."
"The story is that there's demand for apartments in downtown," said Zaleski. "There is demand for one-bedroom apartments. It's not just young people and college students."
That big new building above the XL Center, Hartford 21, is nearly full, as are The Lofts at Main and Temple, Trumbull on the Park and 915 Main Street. Two others, 55 on the Park and 266 Pearl Street are fully leased up. A Long Island developer hopes to turn the long-vacant Clarion Hotel into 193 apartments.
"The insurance companies have been huge," said Jennifer Cady, leasing consultant for 55 on the Park and 915 Main Street. "We are getting a lot of their new hires. They want to live in downtown because they've heard good things."
In a city that has never run short of over-the-top ideas, a key difference is people in a place where previously there weren't so many. Not so long ago, declaring your love for living downtown might have inspired an "Are you nuts?" response.
No longer. Dog walkers are spotted on weekends and evenings. An intriguing new website, socialhartford.com, aggregates activities and events taking place in town, aiming to dispel "the dead city myth." Tuesday evening, for example, the Laughter Club, a yoga group, held an open invitation happy hour and potluck dinner at the Artspace residence on Asylum. Later this month, LiveHartford, a business-backed group, will hold an evening walking tour of rental properties.
Emily Cahill, a Manchester resident, has been hunting for a reasonable apartment downtown because she thinks there's lots to do and see.
"It's kind of sad when people are living here and go elsewhere or are unwilling to reside in Hartford because of whatever stigma they have attached to it," said Cahill, a restaurant blogger and recent graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. "I've been hanging out downtown more the last couple of years."
The goal now must be to create more studio apartments that are a little more affordable, say in the $700 to $800 range, said Marty Kenny, a developer of the 88-unit Trumbull on the Park.
"The real good news is that even though we lost jobs downtown, the apartment inventory of 700 to 1,000 units is now full. It's bringing a different group of people."
Online and with each other, new residents are quick to speak up about crime, stores that aren't open on the weekends and where to get a haircut.
"People will come up to you on the street and say, 'Oh, I recognize you from [the Facebook page] 'Downtown Dwellers,' " said Suzanne McAvoy Hopgood when I asked her what was different these days. "There is a very different feeling downtown."
A longtime downtown resident and corporate consultant, Hopgood told me she listened to the Bushnell Park jazz concert Monday night - by opening the windows at her place at 266 Pearl. She predicted her voter registration drive will net hundreds of new voters, a sizable bloc in a city where candidates can win or lose by a handful of votes.
"This is the most energy that I have seen," said Hopgood, a resident of downtown since 1988, the days of the Whalers and new skyscrapers. "It's become a much more interesting city to be in."
To be sure, Hartford remains beset with poverty, struggling schools and vacant commercial property. It takes substantial private and public investment to create all these apartments. But downtown residents are proud of the little victories that could be changing an old stereotype and pushing the city to new places.
Meghan Freed will gladly tell you there are now four, maybe five, places to grab a paper and a decent cup of joe on Saturday morning. It's not Boston, New York or even Providence, but in Hartford, something is happening.
What people on the Facebook page Dwelling in Downtown; Hartford had to say about the city:
"We have it all to meet everyone's interests and get them invested with pride and ownership. We just need to let them know it is here!"
"I love Hartford because I love the diversity of everything you can name and the ability to be always learning ... and I could go on and on and on. ... I love that Downtowners will get together for a party/gathering in a SECOND!"
Suzanne McAvoy Hopgood
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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