I recall a community meeting on
Albany Avenue back in the 1990s, when the crime was so prevalent
that two gang members rose to complain about it. Well, I was at
another meeting on "the Ave" last
week, and the talk was about parking, streetscape improvement and
group health care. It could have been the Rocky Hill Chamber of
I'm not suggesting that Mayor Eddie Perez don a flight suit and
announce that the mission is accomplished in the neighborhoods
along Albany Avenue. Parts of the area still suffer from society's
inability to deal with the drug problem. Some buildings still need
work. But comparing today with 1990 or even 2000 is to see measurable
and remarkable progress. Despite the damnable drug activity, the
good guys are getting the upper hand.
For the past two years, The Courant's editorial board has followed
the efforts of the city and many nonprofit groups to revive the
North Hartford thoroughfare.
Despite years of negative publicity, the neighborhood has a strong
and growing portfolio of small and medium-sized businesses.
In the past four years, 40 new businesses have opened on the avenue.
This welcome development has been greatly aided by a partnership
between the University of Hartford and Connecticut Main Street,
a program that revives commercial districts through economic development
and historic preservation.
The university is creating a $25 million arts center in a former
car dealership. Also, a marketing professor, Margery Steinberg,
started a program called the Micro Business Incubator, which pairs
business students with the owners of small businesses along Albany
Now starting its fifth year, the program is a huge success. The
students work with neighborhood entrepreneurs on loan applications,
signs, permits, Web access and design, and many other things. The
program started with 10 participating businesses and is up to 35,
representing enough workers to make group health care a viable
The incubator program - run by a very capable young MBA named
Rob Golden - is part of the Upper Albany Main Street program, and
it was a Main Street meeting that I attended last week.
The people working on this have made steady, incremental progress.
Main Street and other groups started with small, achievable projects,
such as banners and holiday lights. Then they helped business owners
find and renovate buildings. Main Street director Marilyn Risi
ticked off the projects now underway:
A former gas station site at Woodland and Albany is being developed
into a restaurant-retail area.
The YMCA is building a facility on the avenue.
The state is about to redesign the avenue itself, to calm traffic
and provide more parking.
The historic Northwest School annex will become an African-American
cultural center named after former University of Hartford Professor
John E. Rogers.
The Christian Activities Council recently completed building and
renovating beautiful homes on Deerfield Avenue.
Risi and others say the community policing effort has helped law
enforcement along the avenue, and building code enforcement has
improved. Also, the street looks better. Albany Avenue for the
past couple of decades has been ankle-deep in litter. But thanks
to an aggressive anti-litter campaign and a new riding street vacuum
(Mac the Vac), the street is 96 percent cleaner. If you don't think
this is important, I'd hate to visit your house.
Obviously, there is still work to do. What I'd love to see in
the next five years is development at the ends of the avenue. On
the western end, the aging Westbrook Village housing project should
be turned into a university-oriented, mixed-use village, which
would give the school a frontage on the avenue and make it more
of a neighborhood presence.
At the east end, the city should
move full speed ahead with plans to expand downtown across the
highway, revamp the Victorian buildings there and create a new "gateway" to
North Hartford. This isn't a pipe dream; restoration work is
beginning on six abandoned Victorian homes on Belden Street,
between Albany and Main, and a developer has just been named
for a city-owned parcel nearby.
If the next five years go as well as the last five have, this
will be quite a story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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