December 19, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
It was not until this year that Trinity College senior Bridget Reilly, a Hispanic studies major, set foot on Park Street, the lively thoroughfare of Hispanic food markets, restaurants and shops a short walk from campus.
Reilly spent her junior year in Spain, but knew little about the mostly Puerto Rican neighborhoods surrounding the private college in Hartford.
All of that changed when she took a new course requiring students to immerse themselves in the city's Hispanic culture by exploring neighborhoods, meeting business owners and talking with residents.
"I had been to the Bushnell, the Atheneum, the typical things in Hartford, but I never made it to Park Street," said Reilly, 21, of Fair Haven, N.J., who is completing a photography project about life along the street.
The "Hispanic Hartford" course, a requirement for students majoring in Hispanic studies, is another part of the effort by Trinity to build an identity as an urban liberal arts college by establishing closer ties with the surrounding community. The course, taught in Spanish, was offered for the first time last spring.
For homework, modern languages Professor Anne Lambright assigned weekly essays about the community, asking students to walk down Park Street, interview a Latino employee at Trinity, eat in a Latino restaurant, talk to the owner of a Hispanic business and work in a class at the largely Hispanic Moylan Elementary School.
With Hispanics making up 40 percent of its population, "Hartford is the most Hispanic city east of the Mississippi and north of Florida," Lambright said. It is also the nation's only state capital headed by a Hispanic mayor, Eddie A. Perez.
The idea for the class arose two years ago, Lambright said, after two colleagues took some graduating seniors to lunch at a neighborhood restaurant.
The seniors "had been to Spain, had been to Chile, but had never been to Park Street," she said. "They were absolutely shocked to see this vibrant Hispanic community next door."
For many Trinity students, Park Street and the neighborhoods around the campus have been associated with warnings about crime.
"A lot of people have this negative stigma about the street," said Reilly, who has made several visits to Park Street for her photography project. "The stereotypes are not always true. ... There is so much humanity [there] ... normal, interesting people who live and work on that street."
Lambright has asked students to visit neighborhoods on their own instead of as a group. "I wanted students ... to meet people, talk to people. I didn't want it to be this kind of tour bus experience," she said.
What they have found is a mix of cultures. Although mostly Puerto Rican, the neighborhood also includes people of Peruvian, Chilean, Honduran, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican and Colombian backgrounds.
"My goal in the class has been to show them that Park Street can only exist in Hartford," Lambright said. "It doesn't exist in Spain, it doesn't exist in Puerto Rico, it doesn't exist in Santiago, Chile.
"You notice there is a mix of Spanish and English," she said, along with a blend of cultures - restaurants owned by Ecuadorians but serving Mexican food, for example.
Although Trinity has enjoyed some success building its urban identity over the past decade, including aggressive outreach efforts under former President Evan S. Dobelle, some of Lambright's students said the course was eye-opening.
"Trinity's perspective on Park Street is you drive across it and don't stop," said Paloma Gutierrez, a senior from Pound Ridge, N.Y.
Gutierrez, who worked last year as an intern with the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said, "I came into the class with the cavalier attitude I knew everything about this ... [but] what we have in Hartford - there is so much that no one ever realizes."
Julia Hoppock, 21, a senior from Chevy Chase, Md., studied in Barcelona last year and used her knowledge of Spanish as she met merchants along Park Street.
"All these different cultures represented on one street," Hoppock said. "There are Mexican restaurants, Peruvian restaurants ... a Cuban bakery, a lot of different markets, stores that advertise Puerto Rican American clothing." Hoppock is writing a senior thesis on Peruvian immigrants in Hartford.
"One woman in a nail salon was really surprised," Hoppock added. "She said they never get Trinity students."
At Brothers Barber Shop near the east end of Park Street, some of the photos from Reilly's project hang on the wall. "She did a good job," said shop owner Polino Rodriguez, who asked a customer to translate his words from Spanish. The Trinity students, he added, "learn about this street, the good and the bad."
The students' exposure to the neighborhood helps break down misconceptions, said Luis Edgardo Cotto, co-owner of La Paloma Sabanera, a book shop and coffee house at Capitol Avenue and Babcock Street where some of Lambright's students have attended poetry readings.
"You have students here until 7, 8, 9 in the evening. You see the neighborhood through our windows," he said. "By the end of the evening you realize you've had a wonderful time in a supposedly bad section of town, and nothing has happened to you. ...
"The more time you spend on Park Street, Broad Street, Babcock Street, the more you realize it's really a little American neighborhood."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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