Turning North End Factory Into An Engine Of Change
By Tom Condon
April 10, 2012
Can Rosanne Haggerty do it again?
When society was putting people out of institutions four decades ago, it was with the promise that they would have places to live with the services they needed. As soon became clear from walking the streets of any city, the housing and services were in woefully short supply.
Haggerty, a West Hartford native and Amherst College graduate who was working in the housing field in New York, had an idea. She created an organization called Common Ground and began turning once-grand derelict hotels in the city into what is called supportive housing.
I visited the Times Square Hotel, her signature project and the largest supportive housing community in the country, in 2003. Half of the 652 residents were low-income working people, actors and artists, shop workers and street sweepers. The other half were formerly homeless people who were receiving treatment and counseling — and in some cases had jobs — right in the building.
Her innovative approach to the long-standing problem of homelessness won her a MacArthur "genius" grant and two appearances on "60 Minutes," among many other accolades. But in the last few years she has begun thinking about the next step, how buildings can be the engines that revive neighborhoods.
I should add that this coincided with a career-long wish to work in Hartford. Her organization achieved a brilliant restoration of the six-story building at 410 Asylum Street, turning the former office building into affordable and market-rate housing, and has more recently acquired the building at 370 Asylum. But the laboratory for her new thinking will be the former M. Swift & Sons gold-leaf factory in the North End, which the Swift family donated to her group last year.
To do something other than supportive housing, Haggerty formed a second nonprofit, called Community Solutions Inc., and began to study what is variously called social innovation or social entrepreneurship, which are variations on the business incubator concept. Most involve shared space and equipment, an education or training component, a focus on local and sustainable jobs and companies with some kind of public purpose.
For example, the highly regarded Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto has a company, Green Students Fundraising, that helps schools sell such products as energy-efficient light bulbs and dryer balls instead of candy bars for fundraisers. The Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives, a group of worker-owned co-ops, have among other things a green laundry, a water- and energy-efficient business that serves local institutions.
Rosanne has a close eye on the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit industrial developer in New York that has rehabilitated six Brooklyn manufacturing buildings for small manufacturers, artisans and artists. The center owns and manages four of the properties, which are occupied by more than 100 businesses that together employ more than 500 people. Good numbers, there.
Though she hasn't set the new model in stone, Haggerty is moving in the general direction of green jobs and craft-based businesses, and is looking for local people who would benefit from being in such a center. The project has an agricultural component, with both regular and, she hopes, hydroponic growing (she's looking for a hydroponic farmer). Nothing says sustainable quite like fresh food.
Haggerty has tapped into local knowledge, made connections with every agency and institution that works in the neighborhood, and built a database of services, all to inform her use of the site and to see how it can be a catalyst for other projects in the neighborhood.
Her property is adjacent to Keney Park, which she sees as a huge potential asset. All across the world, people like to live and work near parks. Keney is one of the great urban greenswards in the country. With just a little touching up, Keney could be the arboreal equivalent of a magnet school.
What she's trying to do is create a modern version of what worked in the past. The neighborhood worked for generations when it was organized around the Swift factory; there were jobs, good schools and the park. There's no reason that can't happen again.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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