Hartford has the institutions to qualify for inclusion on a list of prominent urban centers - with one exception. The city's major thoroughfares border on being threadbare. There are too many boarded-up buildings and too few pedestrians on the streets.
Park Street is on the march, and if the city, state and lending institutions agree with the dreamers and urban planners, it could again become an economic dynamo and a model for citywide renewal.
In an ongoing series beginning with this Commentary section, The Courant's editorial page will examine Park Street. We will articulate a vision designed not only to improve its position as the commercial and entertainment center of its mostly Latin American neighborhood but to cement and embellish Park Street's regional reputation and make it an inviting destination for all who live in or visit the city.
Residents, merchants, politicians, academicians, politicians, clergy and representatives of nonprofit institutions will be invited to contribute to the conversation on the future of Park Street. They will share their ideas on The Courant's op-ed pages.
From Main To Park Terrace
Although Park Street in the Parkville neighborhood is a thriving, multicultural part of the urban landscape, The Courant's initial focus will be on the stretch between Park Terrace and Main Street because of the work already underway by merchants, developers and nonprofit institutions.
Once called Malt Lane west of Washington Street - possibly because of a malt house on settler John Barnard's property - the artery that long ago served factory workers in Frog Hollow and adjacent neighborhoods still shows traces of its 19th-century charm. It is probably the city's busiest street from dawn to dark. Downtown throbs with life during the noon hour and right after work; Park Street pulses all day.
It is in many ways the most interesting, livable urban passageway in Hartford, with echoes of other great streets - Magazine Street in New Orleans, Argyle Street and Devon Avenue in Chicago - in its manageable width, pedestrian activity, density and low-rise, multiuse brick buildings. Park Street has not been ruined by widening and by as much demolition as some other thoroughfares.
Park Street also is arguably the city's most cosmopolitan strip. Spend a few minutes there and you will see why it is called "New England's Hispanic Main Street." It is the lifeline for a stew of Latin American immigrants from Havana to Lima, Bogota and Santo Domingo. But the neighborhood's residents are predominantly Puerto Rican, supplanting the Europeans and French Canadians of yesteryear.
Latinos looking for native fruits, vegetables, coffees, condiments and other merchandise can find a greater variety on Park Street than at any other place on the mainland north of New York City. A familiar language and culturally sensitive storekeepers and service providers are part of the draw.
Miracle On Park Street
Long-time residents have seen Park Street rejuvenation plans come and go. They've weathered flight to the suburbs, the spread of blight and gang wars. For years, Park Street has been a miracle waiting to happen. But something new is in the air.
Business and property owners are better organized than before - principally through the Spanish American Merchants Association. Good leadership is on hand, including SAMA Executive Director Julio Mendoza and business owners Carlos Lopez and Angel Sierra to name just a few. State Sen. John Fonfara and Mayor Eddie Perez have been boosters of Park Street.
Through the good graces of the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, comprising Hartford Hospital, the Institute for Living, Connecticut Children's Medical Center, Trinity College and CPTV, a blueprint called the Park Street Revitalization Strategy was prepared in 2000. Already, two key recommendations from the study by renowned city planner Kenneth Greenberg's Urban Strategies Inc. have been implemented.
In June, Park Street property owners wisely voted to form Hartford's first special services district and will tax themselves to pay for such things as marketing, organizing street festivals, private security, street-sweeping and snow removal to augment city services. Business leaders even speak of using some of the tax proceeds to buy a trolley on wheels for free rides from Park Terrace to Main and to fetch noontime diners from downtown.
Further, SINA made available federal transportation money - with a 20 percent city match - to finance $6 million in streetscape improvement advocated by Urban Strategies. Later this year, work will begin on dressing up Park with ornamental street lights, trees, signs, benches, new sidewalks, decorative paving and "traffic calming" devices that will make the street easier and safer for pedestrians.
Improvements wrought by the special district and the streetscape project should provide momentum. So will other plans underway to build housing and shops.