Recasting Hartford: The Transformation of an American City

The Ebb and Flow of Hartford’s Economy, Population and Cultural Life

HARTFORD, CT, November 22, 2011 – Throughout its 400-year history, Hartford is a city whose identity, prosperity and population have been shaped largely by global forces and shifts in the world economy, according to Andrew Walsh, Associate Director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

“This is a place that’s very revealing about life in America,” said Walsh, who first came to Hartford in 1975 as a first-year student at Trinity. “It covers the whole span in American history. Every major event has left its mark here.”

Walsh discussed the evolution of Connecticut’s capital during a November 22 Common Hour lecture entitled “Recasting Hartford: Four Centuries of Global Flows and the Transformation of an American City.” The talk was sponsored by the Center for Urban and Global Studies.

Having lived in the Greater Hartford Region for most of the past 36 years, Walsh has had a bird’s-eye view of the city’s economic stagnation as jobs and residents have fled to the suburbs, many of which have flourished. However, Walsh began his story with Hartford’s founding roughly 400 years ago, when the city wasn’t a city at all but a sparsely populated place whose purpose was to primarily serve as a defense fortification to keep the French “out of the plantation states.”

For nearly 200 years, little changed. The population grew ever so slightly as Hartford hunkered down as “an intensely rural frontier place with a subsistence economy.” The in-migration came to a halt, while local residents bought property, raised cattle and the region was captive to the slave trade.  

After 1763, the situation began to change, prompted by an exodus from the region. “We saw the emptying of Yankee colonial society,” said Walsh. “People packed up and moved to Ohio.”

In the early 1800s, Hartford became a river town, as trade became a major economic driver and the early stages of the Industrial Revolution seemed to bypass the city. That quickly changed, however, with the development of steam power, which fostered new industrial technology.

At the same time that manufacturing was taking hold, the financial services industries – chiefly insurance and banking – started to develop, countering the decline of the agrarian economy.

From the mid-1880s through the early part of the 20th century, Hartford’s economy was fueled by manufacturing and waves of immigrants, beginning with the Irish but also including Italians, French Canadians, Germans, and eastern European Jews. At one point, the Colt manufacturing plant was the largest privately owned factory in the world, Walsh said. 

By the end of the 1800s, Hartford’s manufacturing plants were also producing specialized items such as typewriters, guns and nails. “Hartford was very high tech,” said Walsh. “It could be said that it was the Silicon Valley of the late 19th century.” The riverfront, which had thrived decades earlier, was abandoned and much of the city’s population was impoverished.

“By 1920, Hartford looked like a modern U.S. city,” Walsh said. “It had become the center of national and international insurance and finance.”

Because of the need of many manufacturing concerns to build plants with large footprints, many companies left Hartford for neighboring towns, where land was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Pratt & Whitney’s move to East Hartford and Colt’s move to West Hartford were prime examples, Walsh explained. During World War II, Pratt & Whitney, which began as a machine tool company, employed 25,000 people in the production of airplane engines.

The slow economic decline of Hartford came in the aftermath of World War II, as the city ceased to be the region’s economic center and the generations of Europeans, who had flocked to the city, were replaced by immigrants from the Caribbean, many of whom did not have the language skills and educational proficiency of their predecessors.

Global competition began to erode the regional’s machine tool businesses and “the region entered a long stall as its manufacturing base went away,” Walsh said.

By the 1970s, manufacturing had all but died, the result of global pressures, and the exodus to the suburbs quickened, including African Americans and anyone with the wherewithal to leave. The highway grid, which facilitated the flight to outlying areas, also hastened Hartford’s economic demise. The city was dominated by “a concentration of poverty.”

As for the future, Walsh said Hartford will once again need to adjust to changing global realities. “We’re not dead in the water,” he said, “but we’re also not trying to solve the problems of the region as a region.”