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With Cajun's Closing, Time For A Makeover

Stan Simpson

January 17, 2009

There was no Breakfast Club meeting or lunch buffet Friday at Rajun Cajun.

One of Hartford's landmark diners was closed for business maybe for good.

The establishment a "For Sale" anchored to its Main Street property is going under.

A few weeks ago, the historic downtown Goodwin Hotel closed. Similar story line. In recent years, there wasn't enough consistent business there to warrant keeping it open.

Anyone who ever went to the Cajun, formerly Hal's Diner, knows it was more than a place to get your fix for eggs, grits and coffee, or get your taste of fried alligator, maybe a little red beans, sausage and rice.

This was the place where the North End held court. At breakfast, it was mostly a black male version of TV's popular morning show "The View." You got opinions and plenty of 'em.

If you were an ambitious politician looking to solidify your North Hartford and African American base, popping in at the Cajun and pretending you fit in was at the top of your list.

Chef Thomas Armstrong has run some sort of eatery in the city for the past 14 years. When he took over the vacant Hal's five years ago, the place was a dump. Though Armstrong fixed up the bar and did some cosmetic work in the dining area, the place is still in dire need of major rehab and TLC.

The heating, plumbing and electrical systems are outdated and worn. The roof is not in good shape.

The structure has been in place for more than 60 years. Yes, there's history there. But what's really needed to bring the property back to life is a wrecking ball.

That should be phase one of a more comprehensive redevelopment plan to remake that Terry Square area. The diner is sandwiched between a small clunker-filled used car lot and a small clunker-laden auto body shop. A school bus terminal is across the street.

The area, located off I-91 and Windsor Street, is an eyesore. But its potential should make it a developer's dream. Armstrong has been holding out, hoping that the city would make the redevelopment of Terry Square a high priority. It's been slow going.

"The bottom line is we never did redo the building and fix it up," Armstrong said Friday in the dining room of his Windsor home. "The building is coming apart at the seams."

He said that the city and Mayor Eddie A. Perez didn't provide the kind of financial support he expected when he purchased it with the vision of reviving a dormant North Hartford meeting place.

Perez spokesperson Sarah Barr said that the city assisted Armstrong in many ways, including helping with community development loans and in getting his liquor license. He's behind $15,000 in his taxes, she said in an e-mail, and noted that Hartford has invested $850,000 on improvements to the Terry Square and Windsor gateways, including banners.

Armstrong estimates that it would cost about $500,000 to rehab his establishment. It's not the kind of money a lot of investors are going to want to make in such an aging structure.

Like a lot of local business owners, Armstrong has a lot of sweat equity in his establishment. He's proud that his business represented Black ownership in a city in which African American-owned businesses are scarce.

If the Cajun cannot be sold or salvaged, the chef said he would look to open in another locale. But he's got a soft spot for the current spot. He sees potential and promise where others see junk cars and yellow school buses.

In buying the old Hal's, Armstrong believed he'd be part of a Terry Square resurgence.

Going belly-up is not exactly what he had in mind.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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