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Signs Of Hartford's Good Times Going Up

Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL

January 06, 2008

If you're still casting about for a New Year's resolution, how about a promise to take a year off from bad-mouthing Hartford?

Oh, I know. What will you do with the extra time? Don't worry. Taking a vow like that doesn't mean you stop examining the capital's oh-so-obvious problems. Nor does it mean you run out and buy pompoms and blindly cheer bone-headed initiatives that are shiny but not much more. (Besides, what color would those pompoms be? The blue and white of Hartford Public High? Bright red, like Travelers' iconic umbrella?)

It does mean if we stick to this resolution that we don't take cheap shots at Connecticut's troubled capital. Cheap shots are for the unimaginative, and the faint of heart, and frankly, we don't need any more naysayers than we already have.

Instead, following our new resolution means that every once in a while, we look at the positive.

Not long ago, some people in the arts and heritage worlds realized that they would be more effective in attracting patrons and dollars if they worked together. The latest child from that union is a series of street signs that will start to go up around Hartford, courtesy of Greater Hartford Arts Council, among other organizations, to mark events and people, both ridiculous and sublime.

Organizers know that though the city's history is fraught with interesting stories, what's so often missing is a public nod to the past. It's what some people like Hartford Public High School archivist R.J. Luke Williams, with his painstakingly researched on-campus library and museum are trying to correct. The street signs will help, too.

The signs are blue and gold, and are similar to those found in London, or Dublin or the wonderful sidewalk-level signs in another Connecticut city, New London.

It's the kind of simple-but-smart thing that might mean something to a troubled city. Kenneth Kahn, arts council executive director, has chosen 100 sites with the help of historian and author Wilson Faude, who among his other careers once ran the Old State House.

A 12-year-old Hartford company, AdamsAhern Sign Solutions, is making the signs. So far, there are 25, and the wording on them is short and sweet.

"We wanted to tell the story in today's terms, in two sentences," said Faude.

One says; "Katharine Hepburn, 1907-2003, Oscar Winning Actress Born in a House Near This Site, May 12, 1907." That will go up near Hartford Hospital, but as much as Connecticut likes to claim and reclaim the award-winning actress, the state and the city are so much more.

Included is the site of Maria C. Sanchez's newsstand on Albany Avenue. Born in Puerto Rico, Sanchez served on the city's school board, as well as in the state legislature. She died at age 63 in 1989.

One sign will mark the country's first pay phone at the corner of Main and Central Row, and another will mark the site of the old Bill Savitt's jewelry store (which was, at 35 Asylum, "just 35 seconds from Main," according to the savvy Savitt's advertising). Generations of Connecticut residents know the store offered P.O.M.G. "Peace of Mind Guaranteed." Savitt, known as much for his philanthropy as for his slogans, died in 1995.

Other signs will mark the Clark Street homesite of John E. Rogers, a pioneering African American historian and post office superintendent, and the former Front Street (now part of Travelers' loading dock) diner and boarding house run by the father of entertainer/red hot mama Sophie Tucker.

The point is to mark as many interesting spots as possible, and to remind people that Hartford had it going on once, and it could again. And just in case they're missing anything, the council is inviting nominations for future signs at Hartford Heritage Plaque Project, P.O. Box 231436, Hartford, CT 06123.

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.
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