Here's a man-bites-dog news flash:
There was a camera crew in Asylum Hill the other day and it wasn't
filming a crime scene. Instead, the crew from Home & Garden Television was shooting a historic home
called The Victorian Lady for its "Restore America " program.
The Lady is the house that was going to be demolished for a parking
lot on Sigourney Street, but was saved in 2004 and moved to an empty
lot on Ashley Street. It looks fabulous, and has become part of an
effort to restore and rebuild the historic Asylum Hill neighborhood.
A group headed by the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance
is restoring six 19th-century homes on Sargeant, Garden and Ashley
streets. The hope is to sell these and push out to neighboring streets,
strengthening the neighborhood with new homeowners.
This presents a certain sense
of déjà vu. A bunch
of us moved to the Hill in the 1970s - I lived on Willard Street
- in the hope of finding great urban living in cool, historic buildings.
For a time, it worked. It was great. But when the neighborhood stopped
getting better, crime increased and it slowly began to slide.
The trick this time will be to avoid the same mistakes. I walked
the neighborhood the other day with Ken Johnson, executive director
of the alliance. I'm optimistic.
Johnson's office is in Veeder
Place, the former Veeder-Root factory. We walked down to Garden
Street, where a fellow named Lawrence Faust was painting his house.
Faust, a Hartford firefighter, bought the house for $1 from the
city in 1997 and has extensively renovated it. Now he's doing a
dazzling five-color paint job. He and his wife raised two daughters
there; one just graduated from Penn and the other is at North Carolina
The two houses next to Faust's are being rehabbed, one by the Corporation
for Independent Living and the other by the Northside Institutions-led
group, which includes Broad-Park Development and Mercy Housing. These
were blighted. Johnson wonders if staring at this mess was a factor
in Mass Mutual - just up the hill - deciding to leave the neighborhood.
If it was, the view will be much better in about six months.
The Ashley Cafe, a seriously undistinguished gin mill, is still
there, but with some middle-class homeowners coming to the neighborhood,
one can hope for improvement.
The houses the neighborhood alliance is renovating on Ashley Street
are remarkable. The 1870 Italianate building at 18 Ashley St. will
offer 2,867 square feet, three bedrooms, 21/2 baths, a big kitchen,
a sunken living room with a 10-foot ceiling and a large first-floor
The Victorian Lady across the
street is equally spectacular. It's further along, and has a buyer.
Dulcie Giadone, a neighborhood activist in the South End, and her
husband, Valerio, an architect, are buying it and will do the extensive
interior renovations themselves. "It's
gorgeous," said Dulcie, who works as an aide to city Councilman
Fixing the properties on the east end of Ashley Street made sense
because the rest of the street is in good shape; an intact set of
mostly Queen Anne-style homes from the late 1800s. The street managed
to avoid the scourge of drab brick boxes that infested much of Asylum
Hill in the early postwar years. Perhaps because the houses are so
nice, many owners have been there for a long time. The street is
also quite clean - Gloria Robidas, known as the Angel of Ashley Street,
comes out twice a week and picks up the litter.
The key is to keep moving ahead.
Former city Councilman Mike McGarry lived on Ashley Street in the
1970s and '80s. He wrote an outstanding Northeast Magazine article
about it titled "Seduced and Abandoned." He
said the city lured middle-class homebuyers to Asylum Hill, then
stopped paying attention to their needs. The neighborhood became
overloaded with social service agencies and absentee landlords, and
lost its momentum.
Thus far, the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance and the
city aren't making the same mistakes. The focus is on homeownership,
and inquiries are coming from the suburbs as well as the city. The
Victorian Lady is on a lot that used to have a seedy, drug-infested
Johnson is paying attention to the details; more street trees, decorative
lighting. What it looks like on the outside creates the impression
and reputation for the neighborhood. He's also paying attention to
security, as he must.
The advantages to city living are great spaces, interesting people
and proximity - from Ashley Street, it's a short walk to downtown,
The Hartford, Aetna and St. Francis. The downside of being in Asylum
Hill is crime. Though the numbers are coming down, there's still
too much crime in the neighborhood.
The Ashley Street renovation follows the premise of the mayor's
Pride Block program; it builds from strength. It's protected on three
sides by railroad tracks and corporate buildings. If Johnson can
get the neighborhood and the police to work together - which they
are starting to do - it has a chance to be a great urban neighborhood.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at