It was only fitting that I spend my last few months in Hartford arguing with Sgt. Emory Hightower.
Hell, we argued the first time we met 13 years ago outside a Park Street homeless shelter. What, was I there to stick up for the homeless drunks again? he poked. How about giving the same thought to the residents whose lives they disrupt?
Nice to meet you too, I thought.
And so it's been ever since, with the outspoken Hartford police sergeant making sure to let me know every time my columns displeased him - which was often:
"Off! Way off!" he once shouted into my voice mail.
Hightower says you're wrong. That critique matter-of-factly delivered by a colleague.
And then there was the gem he offered when I told him I was going to California for a year-long fellowship at Stanford University:
"You're running away."
Running away? As if that's even possible. Hartford has a way of sinking its teeth into you so that even when you want to let it go, you really can't. You root for it, you wish it would get out of its own way, refuse to settle, maybe - just once - stop setting its dreams on politicians who promise to do what the ones before didn't.
And when it doesn't, you can't help but take it personal.
Which is why, later, I wondered if maybe Hightower was right. Maybe I was running away.
And, maybe, I had good reason to.
Here I was, more than a dozen years after I started, talking to different people but hearing the same stories.
What more is there to say - except maybe that there's nothing left to say?
Weren't things in Hartford supposed to change after 14-year-old Aquan Salmon was shot in the back by a police officer in 1999?
Certainly after 7-year-old Takira Gaston's face was shattered by a drug dealer's stray bullet on July 4, 2001, right?
And don't even get me started on the election of Eddie Perez and how the change to a strong mayor was supposed to end decades of inefficiency and cronyism at city hall. Two parting words to El Jefe: parking lots.
Sure, from the outside Hartford has transformed itself. We've got a brand new convention center. Towering luxury apartments. The metal skeleton of the new Science Center is just beginning to climb above the river.
But a new skyline doesn't change the essence of a city. And it's more than a little frustrating to see how little has changed in Hartford over the years: The same poverty, the same desperation. And always, the same underlying violence that too many in this city have come to wear as comfortably as those ubiquitous RIP T-shirts.
Violence, Hightower argued when I shared all this with him, was not a fair measure of any city.
Maybe not. But that's exactly how Hartford is judged, and hardly a day goes by when my suburban readers don't share as much. One from the archives: Cordon off the cesspool and let them kill each other.
By now, it really shouldn't surprise me that people outside Hartford think that what happens just few miles from their homes doesn't affect them. But what does surprise me is the increasing, overwhelming numbness in the city.
When I first got here, there was no shortage of powerhouse community groups, relentless activists who held city officials accountable, who expected more. No, demanded more.
Now, even when a grandmother is shot dead in the middle of the day, about the only person to register any outrage is the Rev. Henry Brown. And his protests usually attract a grand total of one.
"What do you expect?" Hightower yelled on a day we traveled the city together. People have dropped out, he said. They don't vote. They don't get involved. And they definitely don't have faith in the system because the people in charge have let them down.
Look, I told him, I never miss a chance to hold our bumbling city officials accountable. But come on: If the people who live here don't care, why should anyone else?
You're wrong, Hightower insisted. People do care. And he'd prove it, he said. How many people did I want to talk to? 10, 20, 50?
We settled on two.
Henry Bradshaw Jr., who lives on Granby Street, and Denise Best on Deerfield, don't have to live in Hartford. They choose to. And in the few hours I spent with each, it was clear they not only care about the city, they're fiercely protective of it.
But it was a story that Best told that really stuck with me. When Best moved into her Deerfield Avenue neighborhood 25 years ago, the statue of the deer at the end of the street had been vandalized. There it stood, headless and beaten down, until a neighborhood group fixed it. But almost as soon as they repaired it, its head was knocked off again.
It took some time, but last year another was erected. This time, Best said with a triumphant smile, in bronze, so that it wasn't so easily destroyed.
What more does a city need?, I thought. With that sort of determination and resilience, surely there's plenty of reason to keep believing.
But then, the truth is that Hartford has never lacked for good people, or even good ideas. I'm just not sure if all these efforts - however hopeful and well-intentioned - actually add up to anything.
As much as Hartford has a way of growing on you, it can also break you down and burn you out. And before you know it, you join the long line of people who grow tired of the excuses, the unrealized potential, the empty promises that change, real change, is just around the corner.
I've lost count of the people I've heard from over the years who've called or written to say that they tried - really tried - to invest in Hartford. They believed in it, they could see what it could become. But they finally walked away.
Some for good. Some for a little while.
When I first found out I was leaving, I worried about how different everything might be when I came back. But the more I think about it, what worries me even more is that everything will be exactly the same.
Won't happen, Hightower tells me. Big surprise. Hightower telling me I'm wrong - again.
For once, I hope he's right.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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