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Students' Photos Record Change
December 28, 2004
By SUSAN KANIA, Special to the Courant

University of Hartford students Adore Ramans and Mary Beth D'Onofrio don't usually spend time in Hartford's North End, but recently they've been out on Albany Avenue, meeting and photographing merchants.

Ramans, 30, of Manchester, and D'Onofrio, 23, of Winsted, are two of the 14 senior photography majors from the university who are helping to create an exhibit called "Now and Then: Albany Avenue."

Together with historical photos, videos and oral histories from the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, the students' photos will show the transition of Albany Avenue as a neighborhood of predominantly Jewish immigrants and businesses in the early 20th century, to today's community of African American, West Indian and Hispanic residents and businesses.

The exhibit will run between February and August at the George J. Sherman and Lottie K. Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization, in the university's Mortensen Library. It is presented through a collaboration of the Jewish community of Greater Hartford, Upper Albany Main Street, and the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford.

"Albany Avenue has a rich history, and the businesses are participating so they can become a piece of that history," said Marilyn Risi, director of Upper Albany Main Street. "This project fits in with the reconstruction of Route 44, and the new University of Hartford Performing Arts Center, that will bring positive attention to the avenue, and open people's eyes to what's here."

The project also complements the "micro business incubator" program, in which University of Hartford business students go to Albany Avenue to assist business owners, organizers said.

Professor Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center, said "Now and Then" explores the "unique synergy" of Albany Avenue, a thriving center of the Hartford's Jewish community until 1960 that is now being re-developed by a new group of immigrants and residents.

"It brings these people together, and allows them to see that they are all involved in the same process of pursuing the American Dream ... that people from this community faced the same challenges, overcame them and became extremely successful," Freund said.

Ramans photographed Precious Ross-Ellis and her sisters Hortense and Monica Ross, who immigrated to Hartford from Jamaica in 1976, and started Medical Temp Force, now located at 541 Albany Ave.

"I love the idea of what they've done, revitalizing a historic building on Albany Avenue and running a business together," said Ramans. "They're three sisters who had a dream, and they're sticking with it."

Ross-Ellis said they now employ eight nurses and 50 certified nursing assistants, who work at nursing homes in Greater Hartford. They will be expanding their business soon to include home health care. In September, they added a new retail section on their first floor called Uniforms & Stuff, where they sell uniforms for health-care workers and First Communion outfits for children.

They've depended on word of mouth and handing out fliers for advertising, so they hope that being part of the "Now and Then" project will help them attract new customers.

"Many people in our community face challenges, so we've always thought that we were given this business to help them," said Hortense Ross.

The sisters said they've seen the West Indian community grow and open several new businesses on Albany Avenue since the 1970s. They can now shop for everything they want from home: jerk pork and chicken, red snapper and the special herbs and spices that give their island cooking its distinctive flavors.

Other Upper Albany sites that students have photographed for the project include Unity Barber Parlor Evay Day Spa, Love's Shoe Room, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Albany Grocery, the Artists Collective, and the Northwest School building that was rescued from demolition.

D'Onofrio took photos of the Liberty Christian Center International, which was formerly the Horace Bushnell Congregational Church. She also went to Hartford Element Appliance Service Co., located at 1500 Albany Ave. since 1978, where owners Harry Berry and Wally Gitberg say they know everyone in the neighborhood. They are now repairing appliances for the children and grandchildren of customers.

"It was remarkable to learn that their business was once an ice cream factory," said D'Onofrio, who ventured back into the recesses of Hartford Element, with its racks of appliance parts and an interesting old cash register to photograph.

Harry Berry, 67, who grew up on Albany Avenue, said he recalls walking to his neighborhood synagogue and the old Vine Street School, skating at Keney Park, riding the trolley cars that used to run on the avenue and going to stores such as the Albany five-and-dime.

"Thirty and 40 years ago, people came from all over to shop at the kosher meat markets, bakeries and delis," Gitberg said. "Now they tend to go to the malls, Bishops Corner or the big Wal-Marts. ... It's tough for small businessmen to stay in business nowadays."

But Berry said they're hopeful that the university's projects in the neighborhood will help revive Albany Avenue.

The "Now and Then: Albany Avenue" exhibit, which is free and open to the public, runs from Feb. 6 to Aug. 15. For information or reservations for docent-led tours for groups of up to 20 people, call 860-768-4963 or email lemcoff@hartford.edu.

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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