I was born in Hartford, and spent part of my childhood there. The city was home in some essential sense, one that has never quite been replaced in my experience. It defined the word city for me, as my grandparent's house in the Berkshires defined country. Now that I am poised to leave Hartford and all of New England behind, I want to say goodbye.
Growing up, Hartford was Connecticut to me. Other parts of the state seemed remote and alien. New Haven belonged to a country called Academia; Greenwich was (and is) a borough of New York City — everybody knew that.
I grew up in the '60s and early '70s, though childhood kept me insulated from the things for which the decade is famous. I was aware of the war in Vietnam, the moon landings, the baleful presence of Richard Nixon — these were TV shows that never seemed to end. Hartford was the center, where we lived and where we went to shop. I have very clear memories of the great open spaces of G. Fox, and jostling amid the crowd at E.J. Korvette's going-out-of-business sale. Yes, I'm old enough to remember when Hartford had retail.
In time, my vision of Hartford became jaundiced. Its insidious suburbs, its quirky and disreputable politics and long years, when familiarity bred contempt like rabbits, all worked against it. The annual recap of the circus fire began to feel ghoulish. Hartford became the center of the nightly TV news murder reports squawked by Al Terzi and even Bill O'Reilly. It became known for its lack of parking space: Why was this never an issue before?
My family moved out of the city. I learned the flavors of other places: New York, London, Rome — Willimantic.
Each era in Hartford's history, however small, has names, people whose comings and goings are news. I am not such a one, but I have shared Hartford with them. Mark Twain, Sol LeWitt, George Athanson, Ella Grasso, Mark Lamos. Still they come and go. Godspeed, Michael Wilson of the Hartford Stage — you'll always receive a standing ovation here.
Au revoir, Betsy Kornhauser! I was moved to volunteer at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in part because of a note you wrote me. Later, when I worked there, I saw you, its chief curator, swimming against the treacherous currents that have hauled the museum this way and that in recent years. Trading a view of Bushnell Park for one of Central Park and a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a triumph for you.
A year ago, I sat on a bench in the Ancient Burying Ground, the rumble and buzz of Main Street in my ears, and looked into the eyes of a woman I hadn't seen in two decades. Now, we are moving to Florida together, drawn by sun and sand and a sense that we have filled Connecticut with memories until there is no more room. Retirement is years ahead, but there is that sense of stepping away, of letting go. Even the ocean feels different there.
Hartford is neither as lovely as its proponents claim, nor as dreary as its critics claim. It is like a chain of islands, dark and cold under the surface, but here and there something beautiful reaches up to catch the light. It is home to many, and has the potential to be that for many others. It will take a lot of dreams, and more hard work, to bring another golden age to our sad city. For me, home is somewhere else now, and I'm going to find that place.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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