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Hartford's Heaven: City Must Be Safe For Alternative Culture


July 12, 2013

As Hartford continues down the path toward revitalization, the city's leadership is hitting all the right notes. The University of Connecticut's new downtown campus, Front Street development and new quality of life initiatives all seek to strengthen the city and its neighborhoods. Yet the city's administration struck a bad chord in its recent announcement regarding extensive renovation of New Ross, County Wexford Park, a destination for skateboarders who flock there from around the region.

Known as "Heaven" by the skateboarders, the park is located on a platform over the I-84 tunnel in the shadow of the Stilts Building. The renovation plan is welcome news, and the city should be applauded for the decision. In response to business and police complaints, however, the city is considering painting over much of the graffiti on walls and other spaces in the park, and restricting any future art to two designated walls. To do so would be a mistake.

It must be understood that the city's method of making the park "friendly" and "safe" is not universally accepted, and not everyone agrees on what those terms mean. In the case of Heaven, being business-friendly means being antagonistic to genuine, spontaneous self-expression.

When people ask if Hartford is safe, they are not just sharing an overblown concern about their personal security. They are also implicitly asking, "Is it familiar? Do the people look, sound, act and think like me? Is cultural exchange commodified as ethnic restaurants, clothing and annual festivals? Does the city meet my middle-class, suburban expectations for lifestyles and presentation? Are my assumptions and beliefs going to be challenged in any way?"

These are the questions that lie at the heart of the debate over Heaven. This is what is meant by code words such as safe and friendly: Does it look like what we want it to?

In the language of urban business interests and authority figures, making a space attractive generally means making it acceptable to visitors by scrubbing away the local cultural flavors and idiosyncrasies. The removal of these elements almost always targets already marginalized populations as being threatening, unclean or undesirable, replacing them with an all-too-familiar facade of bland sameness.

What some in Hartford seem to want is to turn the downtown area into a version of West Hartford Center: a vanilla consumerist fantasy devoid of culture and personal expression save for a sanitized, corporate vision of Americana that can be readily sold.

Public space has different meanings for different people, and too often we concede the definition of good use to business entities. To be sure, businesses in downtown have a vested interest in bringing in customers from outside Hartford. Yet there is more to growing Hartford than expanding the consumer base.

The city must be an authentic place for those who reside in it, and that means a continual contest between various ideas, visions and ways of life. Heaven is one of those visions, and it has carved out its own space at the mouth of the downtown area as a welcome to a place of ideas.

Heaven skate park is a place where interested passersby and enthusiasts, city dwellers and out-of-towners, can share their passion and the culture that surrounds it. Yes, this culture includes graffiti. It is one of the artistic components of skate culture, in the same vein as calligraphy, dance, poetry and countless other forms of expression in cultures the world over. In the name of a particular vision of the city though, the art at Heaven is now in danger.

Hartford's greatest strength is its diversity, and we must encourage and support it, not just for the benefit of the various cultures that make up the city, but also for the city itself. There are already dozens of locations across Greater Hartford that have the appearance some would like to impose here. Instead, as former city councilman Luis Cotto has suggested, let us play up the uniqueness and artistry of the disparate voices in Hartford. The graffiti in Heaven, and the artists who have created it, are treasures for the city and should be treated as such.

Jamil Ragland lives in Hartford.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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