PLACE

Knowing History Makes People Feel At Home Here

Despite a surge of initiatives from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the state's economy continues to suffer. So let me throw out another economic development idea — how about if we require the teaching of Connecticut history in our schools?

I've heard a number of people suggest teaching state history in recent years; including State Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams and historian Bill Hosley. I think they are on to something.

The big reason to do it — as some states do — is that it would encourage civic attachment. To take an obvious example, if you are driving down Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford and know the story of the Charter Oak, you tend to feel more connected to the place. If you turn the corner and see the Colt complex, and are aware of the singular genius that built it, you are humbled by the history around you. Perhaps you want to be part of it.

Economic development requires investment and talented individuals. Gov. Malloy is pushing hard on fiscal incentives, with some notable successes. So let's look at the human side of the equation. Connecticut, as has been heavily reported, is a huge exporter of its talented young people. If they knew more about their state, and were thus more connected to it, they might be more inclined to stay.

But everyone, not just young college graduates, needs to feel more attached to Connecticut. Knowing it's marvelous history is one way to connect. There are others, all somewhat related.

In 2010, the stellar urban affairs columnist Neal Peirce reported on three years of polling on this subject. He observed that the usual suspects — jobs, the economy, public safety — don't register as the top drivers of attachment. Rather, the Gallup surveys indicated that loyalty and passion for cities is more powerfully formed by "soft" factors.

These include:

• Social settings — places where people can meet and mix, ranging from community events to vibrant nightlife.

• Openness — meaning that most residents feeling their communities are good places for older people, young singles, families with young children or racial and ethnic minorities.

• Aesthetics — attractive parks and attractive watersides, tree-lined streets, playgrounds and trails all contribute to feelings of attachment.

• Education — especially having colleges and universities in town, is growing as part of the sense of attachment.

It turns out that communities that score well on these factors have a higher economic rates of growth than jurisdictions which offer fewer quality of life assets and presumably stick with strategies like direct subsidies to business.

Why do "soft" factors improve the economy?

Economic development is a contact sport, someone once said. Creating attractive places with functional public spaces brings people together. If they are bright and creative people who are inspired by the great entrepreneurs in Connecticut history, they decide to open businesses. Some sharp private or public leaders create some or incubator or shared working space, and provide some seed money.

Some of these businesses fail but some succeed, and hire more people. They buy houses and cars, and go to restaurants. Things improve. People feel good about the place. The Whalers come back …, OK, that may be a stretch.

Bringing people together almost always means reviving city and town centers, using historic preservation, transit, bike paths and good community planning. Downtown New Haven is seeing this kind of revival. Hartford's iQuilt plan can trigger this kind of activity. West Hartford Center is a destination.

To digress slightly, someone asked me how we will know when downtown Hartford is back. My answer: When someone builds a building on the old Parkview Hilton Hotel site. This has been a surface parking lot for many years. It's right on Bushnell Park with a splendid view of the Capitol ( two historic sites) — and it's a parking lot?

Gov. Malloy has to play the fiscal incentive, beggar-thy-neighbor game to lure or retain some major employers, because other states do. But building the kind of place where people want to live and work is ultimately more important, though the results won't be seen in the first quarter.

Teaching Connecticut history in schools, perhaps in conjunction with our fine historical museums, is one way to increase the sense of attachment and thus, economic development.

Tom Condon can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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