Hartford is once again under attack, and we, the denizens of Connecticut's capital city, are once again in an awkward position of either defending our turf or joining in the criticism.
This time around, it's a listing of "America's Ten Dead Cities," in which we're No. 3. Hey, at least we didn't make it into the subtitle, "From Detroit to New Orleans."
The bad news is, on the list put out this week by a website called 24/7 Wall St. (247wallst.com), we're worse off than either of those two cities — one stricken by a hurricane and flood exactly five years ago, and the other at the epicenter of a major industrial collapse. Hartford trails only No. 1 Buffalo and No. 2 Flint, Mich., another auto-industry locale made famous by Michael Moore.
It's true that Hartford has lost people, lots of them, since the city's heyday in 1950. That's a main point made by the keepers of this latest list. It's also true that Hartford has lost manufacturers, as has every Northern city over the past generation.
But after that, the list takes a wrong turn. "The city was once 'the insurance capital of the world,' " the writeup says, adding that we've lost some of that luster as firms have left or downsized.
The reality is that in a fractured world where companies can pretty much move anywhere, Hartford's record of keeping insurance jobs is pretty good lately. The city and surrounding towns are still home to well more than 50,000 insurance jobs, and the declines of this recession have been less than what most of us would have predicted.
MetLife is among the firms listed as downsizing, and that company basically moved its staff a few miles down the road from downtown Hartford to Bloomfield, on the CIGNA campus.
And so, looking broadly, we have the old issue of judging Hartford: The city itself is a tiny area, just 18 square miles. The entire city is equivalent to the inner core of most cities. If we're judging our inner core with the inner core of even bigger regional cities — say, St. Louis or Baltimore — we stack up about even: Alarmingly high unemployment and poverty, and a less-than-fully functioning street life.
The Hartford metro area, which is the basic economic unit, is doing much better, and that's what most of us feel and see. That's the region that covers much of three counties, with 1.2 million people — not the 124,000 people who comprise the city itself. The region is, for example, the nation's 12th richest among 366 metro areas, as measured by total income per person, according to recently released federal statistics.
No question, Hartford's situation is grim in some respects, with schools that barely function, a former mayor who could be headed to the slammer, several downtown buildings in foreclosure and one big hotel shuttered, while another just filed for bankruptcy protection. I'm not sugarcoating that reality.
But if we're a dead city, tell that to the 365,000 people who visited the new science center in its first year, and to the thousands who came out to free jazz concerts in Bushnell Park, or to the folks playing Ultimate Frisbee in that park many weekdays at lunchtime, from United Technologies and other strong employers.
The state budget might be in a shambles, but legions of state employees remain gainfully employed here, bringing life to the place — as their counterparts do in Albany, another city that made the dead list.
What's happening is that in the scratch-and-sniff world of Internet news, these lists have great currency, and Hartford has the hallmarks that make for bad rankings. In reality, at least two cities on the list — Detroit and New Orleans, ironically the ones in the subtitle — have been reported in the responsible media as showing signs of resurgence.
There's no simple, "right" answer here. What Hartford needs to do is keep making progress one bit at a time — basically, the theme of Oz Griebel's "quixotic" campaign for governor (his word, not mine).
Soon enough, we might make one of those "Best Places" lists, and a newspaper writer will point out all our flaws — hey, it happened to Bristol.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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