On Park Street

Student and CUGS Director Explore the Life of a Distinctly Hartford Street in the Heart of Trinity’s Neighborhood

Park Street, in Trinity College’s neighborhood of Frog Hollow, is a distinctive commercial street. It is where cultural, commercial, and culinary diversity is seen, smelled, felt, and certainly tasted. Here is where globalization and local community come together, where immigrants from different regions of the world work alongside the native born, and the national dishes of foreign cuisines, from pizza to pupusas, become local attractions.

According to Angel Sierra who owns and operates the successful Hispana Vision on Park Street, “the street is the Hispanic hub of the state, where you can find A-Z, food, bakeries, tailors, bodegas, jewelry shops, dentist offices, and pharmacies.” Sierra is one of several business owners Mary Daly ’15 has interviewed for her senior thesis in Urban Studies this semester. Informed by the new book co-edited by Xiangming Chen, Dean and Director of the Center for Urban and Global Studies and Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Global Urban Studies and Sociology, Daly is completing an ethnographic study of Park Street. This essay presents our joint reflections on Park Street as we both try to understand the local shop or shopping street as a micro ecosystem of shop owners, shoppers, and local residents shaped by globalization, immigration, and gentrification in changing cities everywhere.

One can get a sense of how well a shopping street is doing by looking at its commercial vacancy rate. Park Street is in the single digits, compared to downtown’s 42 percent. The street is lively any time of the day and its vibrancy trumps Hartford’s Central Business District. This shopping street is filled with almost all locally owned stores stretching from Park Terrace to Main Street. The area provides a thriving environment for Latino immigrants and other dwellers from nearby and afar to not only buy distinctive Latino products, but also meet their everyday needs. Despite the perception of Park Street as unsafe or unwelcoming, it offers an inclusive community for Latino immigrants locally and regionally. Visitors from the broad region, in conjunction with local shoppers, sustain a pedestrian-friendly small-business economy. They make the shops on Park Street the kind of socio-commercial spaces that reflect the fabric of everyday life in Frog Hollow.

Similar to many local shopping streets or areas, Park Street has experienced ups and downs. The I-84 Interstate development through Hartford was detrimental to small businesses in the area, as those who used to travel through Park Street on their way to the Central Business District now bypass the area by taking the highway. The commercial street can no longer reap the benefits from suburban commuters passing through on their way to downtown Hartford. This only exacerbated the physical deterioration of the area starting in the 1960s, a period also defined by the population shift from the French Canadians to Puerto Ricans in the Frog Hollow neighborhood. Following the influx of Puerto Rican population, some community groups were formed to revive and sustain the area as an important commercial corridor in Hartford.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many revitalization attempts were made by these organizations and proposed to revamp the area. Festivals like the Puerto Rican Parade that went along the street gained some publicity for the area, but many outsiders still felt uneasy about the neighborhood. These conceptions were rooted in the prejudice against the Puerto Rican community and other Latino groups in Hartford and especially on the street, plus gang and drug violence in the area in the early 1990s. To address the perceptions and stereotyping, the dominant Puerto Rican businesses claimed a “moral ownership” of the street by strengthening a community of social bonds. This collective action helped shape Park Street into a leading Latino shopping district in the New England region.

The buildings of no more than four stories along Park Street, coupled with the narrow side streets, create pedestrian walkability and its associated social interactions. The varied facades and dense yet diverse buildings of the shops and other small businesses invite shoppers and local residents to linger and socialize with one another. The lack of easily accessible parking on most blocks around Park Street reinforces pedestrian foot traffic. It allows people to park nearby and walk around. The residents on the contiguous and adjacent streets can easily walk to meet their shopping needs.

A shopping street of this commercial importance and ethnic identity has brought economic and cultural benefits to Hartford. This dense area of commercial activities creates an agglomeration economy whose small businesses generate spillover effects on other businesses due to geographic proximity and Spanish speaking as a lubricant for commercial transactions. The Spanish American Merchants Association (SAMA), whose president is Sierra, assists the small businesses on Park Street in getting loans and collaborating to create potential synergy. Organizations like Mi Casa Community Center have emerged due to the concentrated scale and density of Puerto Rican and other Latino businesses and residents. This collective commercial energy spreads to the surrounding streets as local residents shop for their daily needs by walking up and down the street. At the same time, about half of the client base originates from the New England region as shoppers drive in to purchase specialty goods.

To illustrate Park Street further, we highlight the personal journey of Hispana Vision’s owner. Sierra told Daly, “I was working before at LensCrafters, and everybody that spoke Spanish wanted to see me only, so I had a lot of people waiting for me. I ended up saying wow I should open up my own store.” In 1993, he did just that and started his business in Parkville. In 1999, due to his growing customer base, Sierra purchased an abandoned building located at 86 Park Street. With a loan from the Spanish American Merchants Association and a grant from the city, he renovated the building for his new store.

It was Sierra’s dream to offer the best in eye care to a diverse population. Early preventive treatment of glaucoma and other ocular diseases has been a cornerstone of his commitment to the community he has served for over 20 years. While the product he provides is a simple pair of eyeglasses, the service he delivers is invaluable: the ability to speak in one’s native tongue when talking about something as complicated as a prescription. Today, he employs eight full-time employees, half of whom are from the Frog Hollow area. His business is one of the most successful and busiest inner-city vision-care centers in the state of Connecticut.

Park Street is a vibrant asset to Hartford’s economic landscape and social fabric. Its pedestrian friendly sidewalks, colorful and lively building facades, and cultural diversity contribute to a healthy street-level ecosystem.

The market imperative of local shopping streets is not, and cannot be, the sole and final arbiter of their survival. These streets are social spaces, and also a form of cultural heritage that sustains, and is sustained by, generations of city dwellers, both native and immigrants. Local shopping streets confirm the social and cultural embeddedness of economic activity. Though each store owner of any ethnic background acts individually to meet “market forces,” they also act collectively to create a sense of place and community. They are important social actors, offering a priceless “home” to many different people who pass through, and by, their doors.

Written by Mary Daly ’15 and Xiangming Chen,
Dean and Director of the Center for Urban and Global Studies