Linda Osten had a vision of Hartford that she worked tirelessly to promote. She wanted it to be livable, exciting and fun, and she spent her career as a planner putting her ideas into action — helping make Hartford a more rewarding place to live.
"She was a really smart, really committed activist," said Tom Condon, a Courant editorial page editor and columnist. "Everything she was involved with, where she had a chance to improve things, she did."
Osten grew up in Norwich, where her parents, James and Patricia Osten, ran a popular lunch counter at a 10-pin bowling alley. As she and the other six Osten children entered high school, they began working full time in the restaurant, learning multi-tasking at an early age. "It was kind of a requirement in the family," said Cathy Osten, an older sister who is first selectwoman of Sprague, a lieutenant in the Correction Department and president of her union.
As father to six girls, James Osten was a de-facto feminist who encouraged all his daughters to be smart. "It was always accepted that we could do whatever needed to be done," said Cathy Osten.
Dinnertime at the Ostens meant discussions about politics. A grandfather had been a state representative, Patricia Osten was Roman Catholic and a Democrat, while James Osten was Protestant and a Republican. They argued and debated politics incessantly. "She was able to hold her own in any family discussion," said Cathy Osten. "She was always very active on social-justice issues and wanted to have people well treated."
Linda Osten was smart, loved reading and excelled at school, but after graduating from high school in 1975, she took off for California with a sister and a friend. There, she worked at several jobs — managing a convenience store and running a restaurant. She was also briefly married. She became interested in feminism and became active in the National Organization for Women and ran for national office. "She had a sense of fairness and feminist insights," said Lynn Ferrari, her domestic partner.
"She clearly liked to stand up for people [and] didn't like to see people wronged," said Cathy Osten.
When Linda Osten was 27, she began taking classes at a community college, and graduated at the top of her class. She won a scholarship to a Smith College program in Northampton, Mass., for older students and graduated with a degree in economics while commuting home to help at the lunch counter. (After her dad's death, her mother opened Patti O's Restaurant, and Osten continued working there.)
Osten gravitated toward community planning and completed the University of Rhode Island's degree program while continuing to work in the family business. After working several years in Providence, Osten took a job in Hartford in 1988 as a planner with the Capitol Region Conference of Governments, where she was an advocate for "smart growth," an approach to city planning that emphasizes compact building design, walkable neighborhoods, mixed land use, preservation of open space and a variety of transportation modes and job opportunities.
"She saw great possibilities in Hartford," said Philip Chester, a town planner who worked with Osten in Suffield.
When cars started hitting the historic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Hartford, for example, others proposed closing the street. Instead, Osten proposed redesigning the road to protect the historic Civil War monument. "Linda was one of the few people who said, 'Let's think about the bigger picture,'" said Matt Fleury, who worked for Capital City Economic Development Authority at the time. "What was accomplished was the development of a thoughtful, balanced solution to a knotty problem."
One proposal for Hartford's Adriaen's Landing redevelopment project included the substantial expansion of Columbus Boulevard to six lanes. That would have prevented residents from crossing easily, and Osten pressed for a center divider, pull-off spots for cars, and crosswalks, arguing that people and cars needed to co-exist. She was persistent, and her ideas were eventually adopted.
In 2007, after she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, she became chief operating officer of the Mutual Housing Association, a nonprofit developer of low-income housing.
After Osten began working in Hartford, she became intrigued by the historic houses on Charter Oak Place in the southern fringe of downtown and went door-to-door asking if there were any vacancies.
She stumbled upon a Victorian house that had been turned into condominiums and had a vacancy. "She signed a lease, sight unseen," said Ferrari, one of the owners, and a past president of Hartford Preservation Alliance. The two women became partners and had a civil union in 2005.
Osten played a role in many projects aimed at enhancing Hartford's livability. She helped set up the Connecticut Creative Store in Colt Park, which showcases Connecticut products. She worked with the Hartford Botanical Garden on a plan to grow plants once cultivated by Col. Samuel Colt and his wife, Elizabeth, in Colt Park. When Hartford wanted to rebuild the Dutch Point housing project, Osten lobbied successfully for higher-density housing rather than suburban style single-family houses. She also helped promote a New Britain-to-Hartford bus line that is expected to be completed in 2011.
Osten was creative, upbeat and a problem solver. "She was always a can-do person, and she cared about things passionately," said Karen O'Maxfield, a photographer and creator of a Hartford website. "People responded not only to her good nature but to her 'we can do this' attitude."
"She had a very sophisticated balance of the ideal and the practical," said Fleury. "She was very effective in thinking in a practical way about how to achieve ideals, [and] also in communicating how to do that.
"She was quietly charismatic, and people responded to that."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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