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Poised For A Clean Sweep

Commentary by Stan Simpson
June 29, 2005

Maybe the Hartford Police Department can deputize Rodney Ferrell.

As the driver of a new high-tech street cleaner dubbed "Mac the Vac," Ferrell gets an eyeful picking up litter daily along the Upper Albany Avenue stretch that is Mac's domain.

"I see 40-year-old adolescents standing on the corner drinking all day," Ferrell said on a damp Tuesday. "I see prostitutes; drug dealers hiding their drugs in bags. I see kids out on the street corner cursing and swearing. I see it all. It's frustrating to a point, but it's something that's out of my control."

What Ferrell can control is the amount of the strewn trash he can pick up with the green four-wheel sweeper. It has enough hoses and gadgets to pick up rubbish in the tightest of corners that Ferrell never has to leave his seat.

Mac the Vac, which arrived last week, is a popular attraction on The Avenue. More than just a monster vacuum, it's a $31,000 symbol of how merchants and residents along one of Hartford's most troublesome strips finally said `Enough.' Instead of blaming the messenger - guess that would be me - about the trashy eyesore that this key artery had become, they did something about it.

Albany Avenue stakeholders linked up with the city, corporations and fellow merchants and raised money for their own street sweeper. The vac will augment regular city cleanups and the daily sweeps of shop owners.

Last year in a column, I blasted the merchants for being negligent in cleaning up. They were part of the problem in reaffirming the long-held image of Albany Avenue as unclean and unsafe. They weren't sweeping up regularly. The city's maintenance efforts were uneven. And residents and passersby had such disdain for the neighborhood they had no qualms about dropping their garbage out of car windows or while walking the street.

All this was going on while the city was promoting itself as a rising New England star. If that was so, Albany Avenue was the weak link.

The Upper Albany Main Street Inc. group, in response to my scolding, conducted an emergency meeting of stakeholders and got cracking.

While the merchants are now trying to polish a commercial strip that is poised for reinvestment, the police department has to do better in ridding the street of the loiterers, drug dealers, stickup kids and streetwalkers.

There's this sort of funky chemistry on this stretch that bridges the Farmington Valley to Main Street. The merchants, for the most part, are intimidated by the youths who walk the streets and patronize their shops. A well-meaning rebuke about behavior could result in retribution. The merchants are equally leery of the police, not sure they can be trusted with confidential information. The police are frustrated that they can't get inside information from people who know firsthand who the troublemakers are.

"We can no longer just sit and watch what is happening," said merchant Hortense Ross, who turned a dilapidated three-family into a thriving temp agency. "We need to speak up when we see things, and that takes cooperation from not only us as merchants, but also the police department."

The federal government is taking notice.

Upper Albany and the adjoining Clay-Arsenal neighborhood were the only two New England communities recently recognized for priority "Weed and Seed" federal funding to reduce violence and promote revitalization.

The city, meanwhile, is planning sidewalk and road improvements, new development and increased street lighting there. The University of Hartford's plan for a new performance arts center will trigger even more momentum.

Mac the Vac is the latest example of promising changes happening along The Avenue. Can't call them sweeping yet - not until the rash of violence soiling the city can be wiped away.

Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be heard live Saturday on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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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