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December 14, 2004

In 1991, I bought a gorgeous three-story townhouse in a Baltimore neighborhood called Federal Hill. A few blocks' walking distance to downtown, it was close to the hubbub of commerce, yet had quiet, old-world elegance reminiscent of the brownstones in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

Federal Hill was a patchy up-and-comer at the time. Some streets were heavily moneyed and manicured, especially those on the neighborhood's north perimeter overlooking the Inner Harbor, the city's bustling waterfront. Others were mean. And between these two ends were streets like mine: safe, well maintained, lovely and affordable, inhabited by regular folk. Some were old-school Baltimore, having weathered the city's economic cycles. Others were newbies like me, watching Charm City's ascendance and riding the front end of what we intuited would be a lucrative curve. I sold the house in 1998. Today, it's worth $60,000 more than my sale price. When I meet people who live anywhere between Delaware and West Virginia and mention that I once
was a Federal Hill homeowner, they say, ``Ooh, nice neighborhood.''

I have a knack for spotting up-and-coming urban real estate. My formula is simple: two parts vigilance and one part residency, available to anyone living anywhere who is paying attention to his or her surroundings,
behavioral trends and casual conversation.

In my native Manhattan, I watched Harlem transform from pariah ('70s) to pearl ('90s) in the island's real estate caste system. The first signs came in the mid-'80s when I noticed greater diversity on Harlem's sidewalks and an increasingly robust tourist trade. Across the Hudson River, I saw New Jersey's commutable Hoboken go from ``heck, no'' to ``hello!'' Columbia University business school graduates began to establish their enclaves across the waterway, college loans and modest-paying entry-level positions having priced them off the island altogether. They also edged out artists
who had pioneered Brooklyn's once dicey, now pricey Park Slope.

My formula applies to Hartford, too. Whatever else this city needs -- better schools and mass transit, neighborhood entrepreneurs, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and enhanced police presence -- when it comes to real estate, I subscribe to the investment advice of a friend's grandfather: ``Buy dirt. They're not making it anymore.'' Wait long enough and real estate values
swing from hard times to heyday.

So far, I've lived in four of Hartford's 17 neighborhoods -- Sheldon-Charter
Oak, Asylum Hill, West End and now Southwest. If I had the money, I'd buy 11
more houses in Southwest (I own one) and 12 in Asylum Hill -- my picks for
the capital city's fast up-and-comers.

Want a pulse on Asylum Hill? Check out Huntington Street. Formerly a dope
dealer's paradise, the strip between Asylum and Collins is a model of
Hartford's revitalization. Public and private money, imagination and good
old-fashioned nerve made it so. How do I know? I lived on that block for two

Before I arrived, the police swooped in and private landlords bought
apartment complexes, in some cases personally fending off the hard elements.
While there, I watched Greater Hartford Habitat for Humanity build homes for
families sponsored by The Hartford and Asylum Hill Congregational Church --
residents committed to the health of the neighborhood.

There, homes sell without listing; eye-catching architecture set on short
blocks creates community without claustrophobia; residents are diverse and
back streets are zippy shortcuts to downtown and Upper Albany.

Southwest is pretty. Houses are unique, with strong curb appeal. And the
``ooh'' factor -- as in ``ooh, nice neighborhood'' -- is high among
Connecticut residents and out-of-towners alike. When I toured the city this
past spring to narrow my home-buying search, I consistently noted in
Southwest neat, walkable streets and a diverse community of residents
tending lovingly to their homes.

Asylum Hill, Southwest and the West End are the preferred neighborhoods I
hear mentioned most often among suburbanites returning to the city to live
or Hartford renters looking to buy. Even with its transitional blocks, the
West End is already on the hip list. It's the No. 2 status of Asylum Hill
and Southwest that makes them up-and-comers, the next neighborhoods of

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.

| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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