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An Elegant Renewal

By Tom Condon
March 20, 2005

I've done this so often I'm thinking of marketing it as a computer game, titled: "If This House." I spot a magnificent old house in a depressed Hartford neighborhood. I turn to whomever I'm with and say: "If this house were in West Hartford, it would be worth a half-million. If it were in Avon ... " and so forth.

Deerfield Avenue, a one-block street that runs north from Albany Avenue toward Keney Park, is a whole street full of such homes. The large, stately Queen Anne-style houses were built in the first decade of the last century. Some have remarkable details such as stone porches, sculpted trim and stained glass. If these homes were in any suburb, especially with a park at the end of the street, they would command a king's ransom.

But they're in the North End of Hartford, in the Upper Albany neighborhood. Despite the efforts of some property owners, the street was decaying. Three years ago, there were four wrecked and abandoned homes, one of which was being used in furtherance of the crack trade, and three empty lots. The statue of a deer with its head cut off, on a pedestal at the Albany Avenue intersection, sent an unfortunately accurate message about the street.

This fall, the decapitated deer will be replaced with a new bronze deer with all its body parts. That will symbolize the remarkable revitalization of the street. The four abandoned houses have been beautifully restored and sold to new owners. New homes that look just like the older ones on the street - this is so important - have been built on two of the empty lots, with a third house coming in the fall.

The project is the work of the Christian Activities Council, a 154-year-old social service organization that is headquartered in the neighborhood. That was one of the factors that went into selecting Deerfield Avenue, said the Rev. Don Steinle, executive director of the council.

In 2001, the council's directors approved a long-term plan to concentrate housing development and other efforts in a 15-block area of Upper Albany. Deerfield Avenue was its first target because there was so much to save. Along with the quality of the architecture, there were still a fair number of homeowners hanging on.

The project started in 2002, and the results are remarkable. The new and rehabbed homes were all sold before construction was finished, or in some cases before it started. As they were sold, the prices crept up, from $130,000 to $220,000 for the new homes. The houses are big enough to include a first-floor rental apartment, a big help in paying the mortgage.

As the work went on, other owners spruced up their properties. The council set up a loan fund for home improvements, and the street has gotten some city money for being named one of the mayor's "Pride Blocks."

As is the case in most urban areas, the houses cost more to build or renovate than they will bring on the market, so they are subsidized for about $100,000 each from a variety of programs. If reviving the city is the goal, it's well worth it. (If you deduct mortgage interest, your house is subsidized as well.) As Mayor Eddie Perez has stressed, the city won't move ahead until more people than the current 24 percent own their homes. This is much-needed affordable housing, so the income limit is 80 percent of the HUD area median income ($56,500 for a family of four).

The North End has seen some nice housing go bad, swallowed by the blight around it, so the trick is to spread the revival to other parts of the neighborhood. The timing is propitious. Upper Albany Main Street, the University of Hartford and a dozen other groups are bringing back the Albany Avenue commercial strip. Dozens of small businesses have opened and a new performing arts center is in the works. The avenue itself is being redesigned into a more pedestrian-friendly boulevard. Neighborhood cooperation with police has greatly improved, as the good guys try to get the drug dealers out.

"I've been sticking it out for years, and I'm finally seeing a positive change, and I'm very happy," said Denise Best, director of special academic programs at Trinity College and a Deerfield Avenue homeowner since 1981.

As Best said, the problem on Deerfield Avenue was absentee landlords who didn't keep up their properties. She's happy to have neighbors who own their homes.

When it completes the last house, the Christian Activities Council will focus on new homes on Vine and Irving streets.

Upper Albany was once a thriving middle-class neighborhood. It lost much of its middle class to suburban flight and riots in the 1950s and '60s. It tipped, as they used to say. If it tips back, as it is fighting to do, we will witness a most remarkable achievement.

An open house and dedication of the two new homes at 38-40 and 42-44 Deerfield Avenue will take place Tuesday at the homes from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at condon@courant.com.

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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