A few weeks ago, a Web survey placed Hartford on a list of 10 "dead cities," with Albany, New Orleans, Buffalo and others.
How Hartford does on such lists, as Trinity College scholar Andrew Walsh and others have pointed out, is usually a function of whether the object of comparison is a tiny 18-square-mile city or the much larger region. If it's just the city, we can count on making someone's bad list.
For example, in 2002, Hartford was named the second poorest city in the country in a New York Times article, gaining the usual dollop of bad publicity. The metric was the percentage of people below the poverty line. I did a comparison with Jacksonville, Fla., a comparable metro of about 1.1 million people. According to the last census, Hartford had 35,741 people living below the poverty line. Jacksonville had more than twice that many poor folks, 87,691.
So then, why was Hartford poorer than Jacksonville? In 1968, Jacksonville merged with surrounding Duval County, creating an 841-square-mile city that in 2000 had almost 800,000 people. Hartford's 18-square miles contained about 120,000 people. With such a larger base to measure against, Jacksonville's poor made up 12.2 percent of its population, while Hartford's were 30.6 percent. It wasn't an apples-to-apples comparison, it was more grapes-to-watermelons, and this happens all the time. The most recent "dead city" survey gigged Hartford for losing a company, MetLife, that moved to Bloomfield. In Jacksonville, that wouldn't have been an issue because a move of that distance would have left the company in the same city.
After the "dead city" designation, Bob Hetzel of Manchester wrote me with an idea that was kicked around a bit in the 1980s; to wit, make Hartford smaller. His concept is to create a "Capital District" on the Washington, D.C., model by drawing a line bounded by the river, Hartford Hospital, Mark Twain House and the North Meadows, and transfering the rest of the city's land to the abutting towns. He suggested this might change perceptions about the city, make it easier to govern and encourage development.
Hartford has been pushing the rock up the hill for decades. There have been changes, but not fundamental changes. The city and region cannot afford to dismiss any plausible ideas until they've been thoroughly examined.
Also, town boundaries are not inviolable; they have been changed in the past. Hartford once included East Hartford and, until 1854, West Hartford. There are 20 "daughter towns" that, in whole or in part, were once part of Windsor. If there was some advantage to changing boundaries, our forebears were willing to do it.
Is there today?
When I've thought about this, I've come down on the side of making Hartford bigger, not smaller. Intuitively, at least, it seems that merging all these local fire departments, police departments, building departments, etc., into single metro departments would save a fair amount of money.
Perhaps more important, it's very hard to implement big ideas on a town-by-town basis. As a result, Greater Hartford hasn't had many big ideas in recent decades, and those we can point to, such as Blue Back Square, have been isolated and not part of a regional strategy. The Brookings Institution, in a three-year project called Blueprint for American Prosperity, has argued that innovation and prosperity best occur today on the scale of the metropolitan region. What happens in Greater Hartford, for the most part, is that towns pursue their local agendas without much thought given to regional advancement.
It is interesting to speculate that creating a single city out of the eight members of the Metropolitan District Commission would produce a population of nearly 375,000, competitive with the likes of Miami, St. Louis, Cincinnatti, Raleigh and Minneapolis. That's not the league we play in now. Perhaps we could get a big-league sports team, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars.
On the other hand, Hetzel might have a point. Hartford may have benefitted, at least in some respects, by staying small. There's now a movement to shrink some Rust Belt cities — "smart shrinkage" — because these cities have lost so much population and have swaths of empty land. Detroit, according to Mayor Dave Bing, has more than 40 square miles of abandoned land. Hartford doesn't have that problem.
I'd like to see someone study the boundary question, weighing pros and cons of a Capital District or a more cohesive metro region. The problem here is that there might be no one in the state able to do the study.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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