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Hartford, New Haven Can’t Buck Urban Trend

By Laurence D. Cohen

September 05, 2011

The city planners just love New Haven. It is large enough to dress up as a real city; it is small enough to tinker with; and, most important of all, it can pretend to symbolize the return to the city of folks who long ago escaped to the green lawns and driveway basketball hoops of the suburbs.

Of course, no history of “urban renewal” in the good old days fails to dwell a bit on New Haven, which had a clever enough mayor and well-connected redevelopment folks to leverage federal funds and demolish a hideous black neighborhood in favor of downtown office buildings.

At the heart of New Haven’s viability today is, of course, Yale University, which works with city leaders to pretty up the place well enough not be embarrassing — and sustains a restaurant-bar-coffee shop swath of the city.

Needless to say, New Haven, absent Yale and associated biotech and hi-tech hangers on, is just another New England factory town, without any factories. Many of the neighborhoods are still shabby and scary; the schools are mediocre — all the frailties of the urban struggle.

This is not to beat up on poor little New Haven; blessed with Yale as it is, New Haven is probably the city of choice for cool folks in Connecticut, if they are city-inclined and actually have a choice.

New Haven fuels delusion among city-loving cheerleaders, who point to the three or five or 10 blocks around Yale and say, “see, cities are just wonderful and the suburbs will eventually lose out to the magic of congested urban life.”

Even as we speak, New Haven is feeding and watering its “Project Storefronts” experiment to coddle, engage, subsidize and glorify artsy-craftsy types who can be tricked into opening “businesses” in abandoned storefronts. Not quite a Potemkin Village kind of project, but, again, it depends on a certain slice of the population that clusters around Yale — to divert attention from the crime and decay and other urban problems that don’t make it into the tourist literature.

While the Hartfords of this world can be understandably jealous of New Haven and its Yale partner (after all, Yale isn’t packing up and moving to South Carolina or China), Hartford, of course, through accidents of history, geography and occasional good luck, has more than its fair share of United Technologies executives and insurance companies and state government.

Both cities, in their own ways, leverage their strengths to make the feeble case that we “need strong cities to have a strong region.”

It’s not true, of course, although the urban planning mantra will probably never go away, until the last city resident and business has moved to ex-urban paradise.

New Haven has slightly the better case to make as a center of entertainment. But neither city can escape the reality that the city/downtown tradition has become increasingly irrelevant to the way people work and play and live — which is neither good nor bad, but simply the lifestyle and cultural and economic choices that folks have made.

Urban scholar Joel Kotkin had it about right in a Forbes magazine article recently: “Cities may still appeal to the ‘young and restless,’ but they can’t hold the millennials captive forever. Even relatively successful cities have turned into giant college towns and post-graduate havens — temporary way stations before people migrate somewhere else.”

New Haven can fill abandoned storefronts; Hartford can roll out its new marketing campaign — but at the end of the day, the migration trends will overwhelm them.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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