Exploring The Common Good Where City And Suburb Meet

Park Road Group Promotes Hartford, West Hartford Ties

At a panel discussion recently I listened to downtown business owners complain about how the media portrays Hartford. They know there's more to the city than crime statistics, even if Hartford is safer these days.

There's never a shortage of bad news about Hartford, despite the promising signs of revival in the capital city. It's an old story: shootings, assaults and other crime grab the headlines when the topic of Hartford comes up, these folks said. The lasting impression drives nervous suburban folks away from a city where a lot more is happening.

But a day later at the monthly meeting of the Park Road Association in West Hartford, I found at least part of a solution, and it doesn't involve pretending the bad news isn't out there. In a region divided by rich and poor and white and nonwhite, a small business and citizens group is setting an example by chipping away at problems on the border.

How do you begin to change a city's bad reputation? Start on the edges.

If people living on the border of the town and city feel more comfortable — and safer — maybe that feeling will spread.

At the east-west seam that divides Hartford and West Hartford, where Park Street turns into Park Road, this group emphasizes the one avenue that everyone shares. If residents feel safer, a lot can happen. If people get together regularly to discuss problems, and have access to top leaders from both West Hartford and Hartford, a new spirit can begin to emerge.

"The big difference is working together,'' said Carlos Mouta, who owns the building that includes O'Porto restaurant just over the line in Parkville on the Hartford side. He is also developing the nearby Pope Commons plaza, a project that has transformed an eye-sore and created dozens of jobs.

"I look at that neighborhood as any neighborhood. It doesn't matter that they are in West Hartford,'' Mouta said. "We think they have something to do with it and we have something to do with it. Working together is the key … We shouldn't see the difference when we cross over Prospect Avenue."

The lesson is clear: If business owners and local residents can feel more comfortable along this busy artery between Hartford and West Hartford, more people will come to both parts of town. Suburban residents might start to realize that it's worth crossing Prospect Avenue and venturing into the city.

For years, a special West Hartford police detail has aggressively patrolled the Elmwood neighborhood making drug arrests. The community intervention team, which also works with Hartford police, has brought a sense of calm to both sides of the city line, merchants and resident say, creating an environment where new businesses feel comfortable opening and pedestrians feel safer.

At the meeting I went to at the Prospect Café, a state senator, a police chief and a public works director from West Hartford showed up, joining West Hartford and Hartford merchants.

"We are getting cooperation from the municipalities. When you go to town hall and you get shut down it gets discouraging,'' said Angelo Faenza, co-president of the merchants group and former owner of the Prospect. "It takes time and it takes patience."

What makes a big difference is that while this is a chance to honestly confront officials about potential problems — a suspicious house, a tattoo parlor, a homeless man and a hookah lounge were popular topics at last week's meeting — it's also an opportunity to bring people together.

"We are all part of the same package,'' said Richard Patrissi, who started a well-known nursery in the neighborhood and who serves as co-president of the association, which also sponsors a well-known local parade each fall. "I don't get customers unless they get customers. The neighborhood matters."

"Both of us share similar problems. Both communities are reaching out to each other.''

Changing how people view Hartford starts with showing that things can be different. The Park Road Association is showing how this begins.

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