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Happy To Call Hartford Home

Catherine Blinder

June 13, 2010

As the jury was chosen for the ongoing trial of Mayor Eddie Perez, it was as if Hartford itself had crossed some imagined ethical line and the city was on trial. People were saying some pretty mean stuff.

One after another, the potential jurors made it clear that they were not to be mistaken for peers. They were different they didn't live in the city and they were either afraid of or disinterested in visiting.

The city is dangerous. The city is boring. The city has nothing to offer. It produces grand and petty crime, from the street to city hall.

I'm coming out.

I love my neighborhood. I love living in Hartford. I make no excuses. I have no desire to live in the suburbs or anywhere else.

I have been in Hartford for 25 years, the last 23 in the south side of the West End. I didn't expect to stay here, but as I say to people who ask why I do if you want to have an impact, it's a perfect place to be. If you care, your voice will be heard.

I have no patience when people say Hartford has no culture. Hartford's grand history is woven through the city's center and neighborhoods, from its river trading roots, to the literary and musical giants who made it home, to the titans of industry who kept it healthy and thriving for generations.

The city is full of distinct and proud neighborhoods, each bordered by the paths of immigrants and the lovely embedded detritus of cultures long gone. The Italians, the Irish, the Portuguese, the Southeast Asians, the Russians, the Croations, the Southern blacks, the West Indians, the French, and the Central and South Americans brought us brilliant food, festivals and language, customs and buildings.

A couple of years ago, I lost my marriage and my job. I was broke and terrified I'd lose my house, and consequently, my friends, my community, my identity and my connection. And while I fought through that, someone plowed my driveway and never asked for money, someone else fixed my boiler, removed and cut up the tree that fell on my garage and then patched the punctured roof. They made sure I was OK.

On my street, there are nearly as many dogs as children, so we are neighborhood of walkers early morning and late at night we see each other, and we talk.

My side of the West End is racially, economically and age mixed; it's gay, straight, single and married. It's not a rich neighborhood; neither is it poor. Children must now enter the school lottery system, which may address the challenges of integration, but has stolen what we all grew up with the neighborhood school.

I live in a special place, but it is not just luck and opportunity we work at making our neighborhood safe and welcoming. I wouldn't live anywhere else.

I choose to stay in a deeply troubled city because I believe that not only do people respond to their environment, their environment responds to how they live in it.

City hall is beset with immoral, penny-ante crime, riddled with small-town greed and ineffective old-style ward politics that rewards bullying friends and family members. The hard-working, bright, committed, effective and principled people who serve in city government fight willful ignorance at the top.

I miss "Mayor Mike" Peters. He made it OK to love the city. He was the loudest cheerleader; he was the smiling face urging the suburbs to "come on down." He was a nervy working-class guy who never tried to be anyone else. He supported the arts, all the while proclaiming that he "didn't get it". He knew a parade might not really fix anything, but it sure could bring different people together to celebrate the city and help open an opportunity to trust.

Hartford needs a lot of attention. Its governance needs a dramatic overhaul and it needs a reawakening of the cultural creative spirit that saw it so brilliantly through three decades from the 1970s. It needs corporate heads to live in the city as a necessary part of the community. It needs authentic opportunity for a generation of young people of color who have lost hope and see no one in power who seems to care.

Hartford needs a reason to trust that things will get better. This is not a time for quiet resignation, nor is it a time for quivering and insulating self-protection. Small kindnesses and courage can change a city, one neighborhood at a time. And it's worth remembering that the city is not the one on trial.

Catherine Blinder of Hartford is a writer and the communications director for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

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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