Author Michael Downs left Hartford at 3 years old, and Connecticut at 9 years old, but the city of his birth was never far from his thoughts, and inspired his recent book
By Daniel D'Ambrosio
May 08, 2008
Writer and journalist Michael Downs has always loved cities with burdens, says his wife and fellow journalist Sheri Venema, and that goes a long way toward explaining his lifelong love affair with Hartford, his hometown.
In the book House of Good Hope, which borrows its title from one of the early names given to Hartford by the founding Dutch, Downs attempts to come to terms with his abandonment and his love of the city.
The book follows the lives of five young black men Downs came to know during a stint covering sports for the Hartford Courant from 1989 to 1992 — Eric Shorter, Hiram Harrington, Joshua Hall, Harvey Kendall and Derrick Walker. For Downs, 43, working at the Courant was a homecoming of sorts.
He was born in 1964 in Hartford Hospital, but left the city at just 3 years old when his parents moved to rural Glastonbury. His grandparents, Walter and Helen Petry, still lived in their blue bungalow on Maple Avenue, however, and Downs visited them often before his family left Connecticut for good when he was 9.
"Hartford remained for me the home that should have been home, a place I knew hardly at all, a place made more mysterious, more necessary by its distance," writes Downs in his book.
Eventually ending up in idyllic Missoula, Mont., where he taught journalism at the University of Montana, Downs couldn't shake the memories or the magnetic pull of Hartford.
"I found that even though I moved to beautiful, gorgeous Missoula I missed Hartford tremendously," said Downs in a recent interview with the Advocate. "I felt great regret in leaving my grandparents and those kids and the city that struggled so mightily."
Downs saw Hartford as a metaphor for his grandparents: old and wonderful with only the remnants of the glory days remaining, in need of a tremendous amount of help. Meanwhile, Sheri had fallen in love with Missoula, further complicating Downs' struggle to make sense of where Hartford fit in their lives.
"I kept asking myself what responsibility I had to the city and my grandparents and my wife, who didn't necessarily want to live in Hartford," Downs said.
Downs dealt with his dilemma as most writers do: He wrote about it. In the five years from 2000 to 2005, he traveled to Hartford three or four times, reacquainting himself with the city, his grandparents and the young men he covered as a sportswriter.
Downs received a small grant to cover some of his expenses, but mostly paid with his own dime.
"I knew this wasn't going to be a big-selling book," said Downs. "I know I spent more money on the book than I ever earned from it, but you want to tell a story you got to tell a story."
The book was rejected by a series of publishers, but caught the eye of the editors of River Teeth, a literary journal at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. Downs' book was awarded the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, and part of the deal was to have the book published by the University of Nebraska Press.
On one level, House of Good Hope is an engaging story of the five young men Downs befriended in Hartford, who made a pact among themselves to stay true to their hometown and work to make it better. They've all fulfilled at least the spirit of that promise, leading good, productive lives, if not necessarily staying in Hartford.
Downs, who has an MFA in creative writing, achieves a remarkable level of empathy with the five boys, getting inside their heads to reveal their dreams and fears. How did he do it?
"First I did have to spend a lot of time with them; I had to ask them a lot of questions about what they were thinking and feeling," Downs said. "I learned a lot of that when I studied creative writing, how to imagine being another person."
Finally, said Downs, he violated the "journalism dictum" of not letting your subjects see what you have written about them ahead of time.
"I gave [the story] to them and said 'Read this. If I got anything wrong, you tell me.'" Downs said. "I would not have felt comfortable with that level of empathic imagination if I hadn't given them a chance to correct me."
There were no corrections.
On another level, House of Good Hope is an analysis of the economic and racial challenges Hartford faced then and now, and on that score Downs is equally insightful.
"By the time Eric and his friends entered high school, Hartford's wealth had, for the most part, moved into surrounding suburbs with names hearkening back to the English colonists' roots, names such as Avon, Simsbury, and Farmington, names that over time have come to mean 'wealth' to those who live in Greater Hartford," he writes.
"When I go back I'm sometimes heartened by the things I see, but what I'm convinced of is that Hartford's success does not so much lie downtown as it does in the neighborhoods," he said. "When the neighborhoods are safe, clean and rich — they're already rich with cultural life — that's what's going to help make Hartford work."