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Leaders Discuss What Makes a Strong Community?

By Kerri Provost

January 31, 2013

On an evening when many were hunkered down during a bout of freezing rain, the top floor of 30 Arbor Street was abuzz. The former factory space hosted a pop-up marketplace, with vendors offering everything from vintage clothing at thrift store prices, to designer jeans at $200 a pair, to Valentine’s Day cards declaring that the lovebirds go together like pills and vodka. The music was loud and the vegan cupcakes were copious. This was on a Monday.

Those seeking to compare apples and oranges — New York City with a population in the millions to Hartford with about 125,000 residents — will be indulged this time. A pop-up marketplace near NYU, double in size, attracted fewer shoppers at a given time on the weekend before Christmas. That hipster mini-mall lacked live music, a temporary restaurant, and a bar.

The vibrancy of this event came to mind while listening to Kaid Benfield and the panelists that followed at a forum created by the Partnership for Strong Communities.

Howard Rifkin, the Executive Director of PSC, joked that such discussions on building strong(er) communities can seem like that movie Groundhog Day, where one is trapped in a loop. Though Rifkin waxed optimistic about how the older generations can continue to benefit from having this ongoing conversation, it must be asked if these leaders and this angle is the way to approach it, here, in Hartford.

Asking how Hartford can strengthen itself usually is an exercise in naming what people see as missing. This forum at the Lyceum was not that.

Kaid Benfield compared what he was calling a “people habitat” to that of a natural habitat, explaining the indicator species in this case are children and elderly. We can tell something about a community, he said, by observing whether or not children walk to school, or if seniors are having conversations with each other on the sidewalks.

It may not be true citywide, but in Frog Hollow, where the iForum was held, there absolutely is a thriving people habitat, if we measure it the same as Benfield, Director of the NRDC’s Sustainable Communities, Energy & Transportation Program. He said that in 1973, 60% of children walked to school, while only 13% do now. Frog Hollow likely drives this percentage up.

For those skeptical of why revitalization matters, the keynote speaker gave four reasons: centralization reduces pollution, impacts health and protects land; meanwhile, the housing market — comprised mostly of Baby Boomers and Millennials — has shifted in what it demands.

“If you want to appeal to that market [of Millennials] you need to create spaces that are walkable,” Benfield said. Within that age group, bicycling is up 24%, walking up 16%, and 45% want to replace driving with any other form of transportation. Two-thirds of this demographic seek to live in a walkable area. Other demands include attached and small lot housing, of which it is said there is a low supply. The dream of a house with a big yard has fizzled.

Hartford has apartments, townhouses, and postage stamp-sized lots, if only one is willing to look beyond the neighborhoods deemed safe and desirable.

Benfield gave seven examples of specific communities that improved, either pulling themselves out of the post-industrial, disinvestment slump, or reinventing themselves by converting a snoozeville into a place young people would want to go.

The redesign plan of Rockford, Illinois seems like Hartford’s One City, One Plan but with a boost. Codman Square in Boston, a neighborhood, Benfield said, with a “significant amount of divestment,” has community gardens and a faith-based drop-in center. We have gardens. We have community spots, secular and faith-based.

As the presentation increasingly served as a checklist of the things our city has, Benfield added, “Hartford is growing,” just not at the national average.

Is all this worry about attracting and keeping young people much anxiety about nothing?

For all the ways Hartford is already strong as a community, there is room for improvement. Benfield’s examples emphasized the need for the respect and involvement of those already living here.

The Mariposa neighborhood in Denver emerged from what Benfield called “dilapidated public housing.” During this process the people were engaged through 140 community meetings along with a “cultural audit,” which often meant one-on-one meetings about what residents liked best about where they lived and what they wished could change. There were no displacements. While the upwards of 450 mixed use, mixed income homes were developed, no demolition occurred until new housing was in place.

In Hartford, holding off on demolition until alternatives are produced is viable if one follows Benfield’s advice to “focus on the vacant properties” and do revitalization there first.

It is validating to see Hartford doing so many of the right things, and hopeful that improvements can take place without much more than political will.

But how strong is a community when too many of its residents don’t have a seat at the table for these conversations?

What was missing from the iForum conversation is what is always missing from such events: greater diversity, in all ways. There are inherent limits to who can attend a morning-long event on a weekday — retirees, students, and those whose employers will pay for them to attend. The unemployed and those working odd shifts can also take part, but are they informed about these opportunities?

These types of forums, the numerous City charrettes, and various other meetings regarding revitalization are not widely advertised. There are never flyers at bus stops or in coffee shops. While talk routinely turns to busting out of “silos,” we are still waiting for leaders to come to where the people are.

As the conversation among panelists turned to how to engage the disengaged, there was no moment of looking around the room at who was not participating in the forum. Andrea Pereira, the Executive Director of LISC’s Connecticut Program said, “you really have to have engagement as the conscious goal.”

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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