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Hartford's South End Stirring

March 27, 2005

I remember thinking it was a typically dumb Hartford idea, back in 1993, to start promoting the South End as Little Italy. The neighborhood had been largely Italian, but it was changing. A lot of the old-line Italian families were moving to the suburbs. The next few years seemed to confirm my suspicions. Franklin, Maple and Wethersfield avenues, the three major stems in the neighborhood, began to look shabby.

But something happened. A couple of years ago, the downward slide seemed to stop. Now, though there is still plenty of work to do, the signs of life are numerous. There are new and rehabbed homes, new bakeries and new restaurants. The South End was always a good place to eat, but now it may be the best restaurant district in the state.

The great old Italian eateries are still there and going strong. There are also new Italian places along with Spanish, Cajun, Afghan, Brazilian/Portuguese, Indian and Dominican dining spots, and they are wonderful, one better than the next. The original win-win argument is where to go to dinner in the South End.

A number of things are working for the neighborhood. The new and rehabbed housing on Benton Street helped stop the southward movement of blight. Many middle-class black and Latino owners bought in the neighborhood. The influx of hardworking Bosnians and Albanians didn't hurt. Bike lanes calmed the traffic. There's finally some off-street parking. Maybe the Little Italy concept helped, after all.

And at the heart of this revival we find a familiar face, that of former city councilman and state representative Al Marotta. Marotta is now the president of the Franklin Avenue Merchants Association, and he is putting wheels under the group.

Marotta, I should note for the record, could drive you nuts. As a council member he always had deals going, could never say no to anybody and never stepped back to look at the big picture.

But his heart was in the right place. Constituents appreciated his attention to potholes and streetlights. He could be very effective.

As I consider his strengths, they're almost perfect for the head of a neighborhood improvement group. He's attentive to detail, knows who to call in city and state government, and he is relentless. He makes a pit bull look blasé. This is a guy who took nine years to get a college degree. He can wear down a brick wall.

Marotta took the job five months ago under two conditions. He would expand the reach of the organization to include the other major avenues in the South End, and he'd recruit some of the bright young second- and third-generation businessmen, such as Paul Mozzicato and Vin Carbone.

That he needed to do these things speaks to the encrusted state of the Franklin Avenue Merchants Association before he took over.

The organization was in the hands of old-guard Italian business owners who hadn't embraced the other avenues, hadn't reached out to non-Italian business owners and weren't attracting the younger people. Much to his credit, Marotta understood that the organization needs to do all of the above.

There is, imbued in his memory, the picture of what a good neighborhood is like. He grew up in one, the old East Side, the lively and colorful neighborhood that was leveled for Constitution Plaza. His father, an Italian immigrant, sold fruits and vegetables from pushcarts.

Marotta is trying to bring back the street life characteristic of the East Side or any good neighborhood. He's been instrumental in getting police foot patrols back on the avenue. He's published restaurant brochures that are given to visitors to the city. He's pushing for more outdoor dining, should winter ever end. He's working with others to get rid of the practice of driving across the sidewalk to park in front of buildings, an unfortunate characteristic of the neighborhood that detracts from the esthetic and pedestrian environment.

On Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day, Marotta's group had strolling musicians visit the restaurants, which was hugely popular.

There's more to do, and Marotta is on the case. He's trying to get a circulator bus to run to the South End from downtown. He knows the litter problem needs attention, and is working on it. He's trying get rid of those metal boxes of fliers that are mostly litter machines. The street could use more flowers; he's working on that as well.

Marotta is a 69-year-old with the energy of a teenager. He's got files in the back seat of his car as he shoots from meeting to meeting. He told me he'd helped organize a new nonprofit group, the South Hartford Community Alliance, to promote business and residential development. When I groaned and asked whether Hartford needed another nonprofit, he said it did. It brings the whole neighborhood together, he said, and "we can go after grants we can't go after now." Same old Al.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at condon@courant.com.

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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