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Critical Mass: City Itself Can Be Catalyst For Revival

Tom Condon

March 27, 2011

the 19th and early 20th centuries, a bunch of very smart craftsmen, machinists, inventors, entrepreneurs and others were drawn to Hartford. They learned from each other, competed with each other, fed off each other. The result was what author Henry James called "the richest little city in the country."

To revive the city we must somehow assemble another coterie of the best and brightest, convene the 21st-century Colts, Pratts, Whitneys, Popes, etc. "To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively."

That is the message from Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's new and much-discussed book, "The Triumph of the City How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier." "The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization's success and the primary reason why cities exist," he writes. Ideas pass from person to person, occasionally creating "miracles of human creativity," from Shakespeare's London to the Silicon Valley.

Glaeser is speaking in Hartford on Thursday and much in his book resonates with Hartford's distant and recent past. Indeed, the city had a gathering of genius a century ago, and prospered through the mid-20th century. Then it was beset by the loss of manufacturing, and the loss of much of its middle class to the suburbs.

Like many cities, Hartford tried to build its way out of decline, with a host of projects from Constitution Plaza in the 1950s and '60s to the Adriaen's Landing buildings in recent years. But "If you build it they will come" doesn't always work in the real world. Successful cities build because there is a demand for space. Construction is a result of success, not a cause of it, Glaeser writes. Though some building is necessary, downtown Hartford's 30 percent office vacancy rate suggests that more demand should precede more construction.

Hartford also has built a lot of low-income housing over the years. Whether this was wise is a nuanced question. "Declining cities have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies," Glaeser observes.

Of course, the housing provided shelter for persons with limited resources. But it also created high concentrations of poor people. One of the unintended consequences of ending racial segregation was that skilled, middle-class minorities moved out of cities, leaving the poor behind.

Cities don't create poor people, they attract poor people with the hope of finding jobs and bettering their lives. But if these folks aren't connected to the economic mainstream and able to take jobs in the area, cities can't work their magic. "The sad fact is that too many segregated cities have changed from being places of upward mobility to places of perpetual poverty."

For environmental and policy reasons that have become obvious, this ought to be a period of rebirth for cities such as Hartford. Cities use much less energy and allow much less driving than sprawling suburbs. Because of their natural advantages, cities don't need a handout, they need an even break.

Cities need to be safer and their residents better educated, but the federal government has made the problems worse by investing heavily in buildings and transportation (read: highways) instead of safety and education.

Feds have stacked the deck against cities in others ways; one of Glaser's targets is the home mortgage deduction, which generally favors wealthy suburbanites at the expense of cities such as Hartford with a lot of rental housing. "The home mortgage interest deduction is a sacred cow in need of a good stockyard." He also thinks the gas tax should cover the total cost of driving and that the federal government should pay for social services, not struggling city taxpayers..

On the economic front, struggling cities should return to their roots of small-scale entrepreneurship and commerce. Government should invest in education and core services, with moderate taxes and regulations, and not expect miracles. Perhaps the collaboration between the state, New Haven and Yale to create the Science Park incubator space is a model to consider.

Reading the book, I kept thinking Greater Hartford ought to be hitting on more cylinders than it is. We have a good quality of life, a (mostly) temperate climate, a good location and a well-educated population, "human capital," in economics jargon. But, as University of Hartford business professor Susan Coleman recently observed, perhaps the smart people aren't connecting with one another to the degree they might.

The region's fragmented pollities probably don't help. Business groups do what they can. But connecting people is a role the city should play, and is a main reason to bring it back again.

Edward Glaesar will speak Thursday at 8:30 a.m. at Lyceum at 227 Lawrence St., sponsored by The Partnership for Strong Communities. The event is free, but registration is required. E-mail Laura Bachman at laura@ctpartnershiphousing.com to register.

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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