Hartford, like many other mid-sized American cities, is often misunderstood and neglected by scholars, even though its economic and cultural evolution is highly instructive in terms of the history of American urbanism. That was one of the themes to emerge from a December 5 panel discussion at Hartford Public Library on a new book, Confronting Urban Legacy: Rediscovering Hartford and New England’s Forgotten Cities, at which three contributors spoke.
Xiangming Chen, dean and director of the Center for Urban and Global Studies at Trinity and co-editor of Confronting Urban Legacy, opened the discussion with an overview of the topics covered in the book. Chen also underscored the lessons that can be learned in examining the history, economic fortunes, population trends, ethnic movements and cultural dynamics of Hartford.
“Hartford has been there from the very beginning,” said Chen. “The question for us in thinking about the book was ‘what has the past taught us’?”
Also on the panel were Louise Simmons, professor of social work at the University of Connecticut, who authored a chapter on
“Poverty, Inequality, Politics and Social Activism in Hartford,” and Jack Dougherty, associate professor of educational studies at Trinity, who has worked for several years on the Cities, Suburbs and Schools Project, which comprises a chapter in the anthology.
Co-edited by Nick Bacon ’10, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, the volume, published by Lexington Books, takes a comprehensive look at Hartford’s transformation from a once strong manufacturing-insurance center to an economically challenged and ethnically diverse post-industrial city.
Noting that Hartford was one of the wealthiest cities in the country in the 1800s – “the Silicon Valley of its day” – Chen said that since Hartford’s sharp economic decline in the 1900s, it has become an “outcast,” or one of a host of second-tier New England cities that has been largely understudied.
Hartford, a compact and extremely poor city surrounded by affluent suburbs, also is misunderstood, Chen said, due to some unfortunate stereotypes. And it has been largely excluded from the body of global urban scholarship. Moreover, said Chen, smaller cities such as Hartford “tend to be neglected” by researchers, even though most of the urban growth around the world has occurred in medium-sized cities.
In conclusion, Chen said, scholars “need to start thinking about Hartford more regionally and globally.”
Simmons, who served on the City Council during the 1970s, provided data to demonstrate that Hartford, which has experienced an exodus of jobs and people, is today a largely impoverished city, one suffering from extreme income inequality when compared to other cities and towns in Connecticut.
For example, one-third of Hartford residents have an annual income that puts them below the federal poverty line, while less than 10 percent of the state’s population is considered poor by federal standards. In terms of per capita income, Hartford’s is about $17,000 and the state’s is $37,627, respectively.
“Poverty is a huge problem,” Simmons said, adding that the numbers only tell part of the story. “Human beings are behind the statistics.”
Simmons also talked about the “white flight” that has characterized Hartford’s population decline, in which the number of people living in the city plummeted by 50,000 to 60,000 during the past half-century.
Another problem that has beset Hartford is the changing labor market, Simmons said, and the fact that many Hartford residents are “locked into low-wage jobs,” which is compounded by a “weak safety net” that has failed to provide the assistance that is needed to lift people out of poverty and improve their quality of life.
Dougherty talked about his Cities, Suburbs and Schools project, which he and his Trinity students have been working on for nearly a decade so that they and others can better understand the past and present relationship between public education, zoning and housing in the Greater Hartford region.
Among the questions they’ve explored is: When did the most desirable schools move to the suburbs, and whose interests have been served by voluntary school choice.
Dougherty’s research has shown that families can buy their way into better educational systems by moving to more affluent suburbs where there is a more expensive housing stock.
In a surprising revelation, Dougherty showed that minorities were historically denied the ability to move to the suburbs because of racial covenants, which declared it illegal for minority families to move into certain neighborhoods. The result was “overt forms of housing discrimination.”
Dougherty and his students have created a Web site that allows parents in Hartford and neighboring communities to select from a wide array of schools that they would like their children to attend. The number of schools is daunting, said Dougherty. For example, a parent of a 4th grade student living near Trinity can choose from among 42 schools. The Web site contains other useful information as well, such as test scores, the distance that a student would have to travel from his home and class size.
In addition to Hartford, other cities included in Confronting Urban Legacy are Portland, ME; and Lawrence and Springfield, MA. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the book has contributions from sociologists, anthropologists, historians, political scientists, journalists and community leaders.