How will we know in five or 10 years whether downtown Hartford is on the upswing?
Here's a possible indicator: the Arch Street Tavern. If it is open and thriving, then there are likely more people living downtown, businesses in the now-vacant space on Front Street, more meetings and conventions in the convention center. It may mean that development is spreading south toward the Colt complex; or that there is more development and recreation along the river.
It will also be a testament to resilience. The tavern has been surrounded by construction or weathering recession for more than a dozen years, yet is still there, and catching on again as a music venue.
The red brick and wooden beam structure, a block east of city hall, is one of the great spaces in Hartford. It was built as a carriage factory in the 1890s, and was empty when Jerry Collins, then 27, spotted it in 1977. He added some nice Hartford photos and memorabilia and opened the tavern the following year.
It became one of the most popular watering holes in the city, where could be found politicians, business leaders, city workers and the occasional journalist. The late Mayor Mike Peters, who was a year ahead of Collins at South Catholic High School, was a familiar and popular presence.
Echoing a familiar story in postwar America, everything was good until an urban renewal project was announced. Arch Street is a stone's throw from the Adriaen's Landing redevelopment project. When the first pipe went down the street in 1998, Collins sensed it would be a long haul. He badly underestimated.
First, the project took many of his customers. In 2001, Connecticut Natural Gas moved from adjacent Columbus Boulevard to East Hartford, then the city workforce left the former Hartford Times Building and Travelers closed a building and a parking lot across the street.
Then access became an issue. In 2004 there were "Road Closed" signs at both ends of the street. In addition, much of the sidewalk on Arch Street was closed, the two closest highway exists were closed and the 120 on- and off-road parking spaces had dwindled to eight.
Lt. Gov. M. Jodi Rell once clambered over a mound of dirt to get to the tavern and said, "My, that was an experience. How do people get here?"
"They don't," Collins replied. Business was way off. The Capital City Economic Development Authority, which was running the development project, gave Collins a grant and some other help to keep him in business.
One of the goals of the Adriaen's Landing project was to bolster downtown. To do so, it needed to be connected to Main Street. Arthur Anderson, the first head of the development authority, saw Arch Street as a principal link, and envisioned a lively, low-rise series of buildings like the tavern, something like Beale Street or West Hartford Center, along Arch Street.
That isn't quite the way its' turned out. What is directly across the street from the tavern is a large garage door, part of a parking garage. Until the garage went up in late 2009 it was possible to see the tavern from several vantage points in the area. No mas, and out of sight, out of mind.
But things aren't all bad. Collins has a parking lot again, which he leases from the development authority. When I was there for lunch the other day there were families with small children who'd been visiting the Connecticut Science Center. People drop in from the Megabus stop up the street. But what is driving new business is music.
Collins invested in a new stage and sound system, and hooked up with two young West Hartford expat music promoters from Nectar's in Burlington Vt., Chris Walsh and Noel Donnellan, to book bands, and hired former Webster Theater manager Rick Bober to run the music part of the operation. So now the Arch Street is developing a reputation for original music of all genres (The Hartford Jazz Orchestra plays on Monday nights). So far, so good, again.
Collins, a genial and gracious publican, still thinks his part of the city will fill in and thrive. "I just hope it's in my lifetime."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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