Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood is a marvelous example of the logic and efficiency of the 19th-century, pre-automobile urban village. Houses were organized around factories, with churches, schools and stores, even a movie theater, interspersed.
The factories were world-renowned. Workers in this part of the city made Columbian bicycles, Royal and Underwood typewriters, Sharps rifles, Weed sewing machines, Billings & Spencer drop-forged tools. It was here in the 1920s that Frederick Rentschler brought his idea for an air-cooled aircraft engine to the Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool Co., and revolutionized aviation history.
It all worked marvelously well until the factories closed or moved away, and then the neighborhood began to decline, getting poorer as the 20th century wore on. In the 1970s, the former Billings factory, known as Billings Forge, was renovated into a low-income housing development. A neighborhood of low-income housing surrounded by more low-income housing isn't a vibrant or sustainable model; it pretty much describes what happened when the large public housing projects failed.
So Frog Hollow struggled along, with some steps forward, to be sure, but always battling crime and disinvestment. It posed the challenge of how a post-industrial urban neighborhood could sustain itself and thrive. In the early part of the last decade came a possible answer.
Officials of the Melville Charitable Trust, which focuses on issues around homelessness and affordable housing, decided in 2003 to buy the Lyceum, a lovely 1890s brick structure that started life as a Catholic community center and has been a bunch of other things, including the Lit Club, briefly famous as a punk rock venue in the 1980s.
Melville bought the building, spent $3.5 million renovating it and reopened it as a center for housing policy and community development. The third floor auditorium is regularly used for forums on all kinds of policy issues. The Reaching Home and the HOMEConnecticut programs, stellar anti-homelessness and affordable housing programs, have been quarterbacked from the Lyceum by the nonprofit Partnership for Strong Communities, which has its offices there.
With this foothold, Melville officials decided to up its bet on the neighborhood and bought the decaying, partly vacant Billings Forge complex in 2005. They completely renovated the 98 apartments and offered them at both market and below-market rates, and are doing six smaller buildings in the neighborhood. "Once the Lyceum got up and going, became obvious that the old factory (Billings Forge) had potential to be a lot more than what it was. It wasn't realizing its potential," said Bob Hohler, Melville's executive director.
But what was that potential? Hohler and his board didn't know, but decided to try some things. The first was to buy a failing and forgettable restaurant in one of the buildings, renovate and expand, and reopen as a good restaurant. Restrauteur/activist Cary Wheaton was brought down from Boston. She and her staff opened The Firebox in 2007. It's been justly successful from Day One, very good food in a fabulous space. Connecticut Magazine named it Hartford's top restaurant in 2009.
There followed a number of food-related initiatives — a farmers market (summer and winter); gardens, a cafe; a training kitchen; a catering business. People in the neighborhood are being trained for jobs in the kitchen and cafe, and some work in the catering business or the restaurant (and live in Billings Forge).
There's also a community center, with homework programs for kids; and the Studio at Billings Forge, which has all kinds of arts, entertainment and classes. It, like the restaurant, has become a destination.
Frog Hollow is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state, and Wheaton, who now directs the community programming, is keenly aware of the need for jobs. She and her staff are thinking about more culinary ventures, possibly food trucks, kiosks in large buildings or even a bakery.
There are no guarantees in this game; the country is littered with failed urban renewal efforts. The Melville people understand they are trying things that might not work, and so approach it with energy and imagination but also a certain humility. They also understand, as generations of would-be saviors of Hartford did not, that neighborhood revitalization is a long, incremental process, not a single, big-bang project.
And some things favor their effort. Cities across the country are regaining their mojo with younger people and empty nesters, among others. If gas hits $5 a gallon, as it well may, living within walking distance of Aetna, the Hartford, Hartford Hospital or the state office buildings might look like a good option. Also, for all the problems Frog Hollow has had, not that many buildings were torn down. That now seems to be working in the neighborhood's favor.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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