When scholar and author Xiangming Chen came to Trinity College several years ago to found the school's Center for Urban and Global Studies, he discovered that not much had been written about Hartford and other mid-sized cities in New England.
He and graduate student Nick Bacon recruited a dozen writers, most but not all academics (I contributed a chapter) and produced a book about Hartford, referencing some other of New England's second-tier cities. "Confronting Urban Legacy — Rediscovering Hartford and New England's Forgotten Cities" (Lexington Books) is just out. If you would like to become better versed about the place where you live, this would be a place to start.
The book covers commerce, education, immigration and sprawl (bad!), among other things. I'll focus on two recurring themes in the city's rise and fall: its manufacturing base and its size.
Hartford was the first major inland settlement in the colonial U.S. and comprised about 87 square miles including what today are the towns of West Hartford, East Hartford and Manchester. Trinity historian Andrew Walsh notes — in a really first-rate chapter — that "just about every significant event or trend in the nation's history has left its mark here."
Not least among them was the U.S. Industrial Revolution. Hartford became an industrial powerhouse. Its factories, along with its banks and insurance companies, made it one of richest cities on the continent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The city we see today, minus the unfortunate highway incursions, "was largely built from 1870 to 1930 as a manufacturing city where factory workers lived in tight-packed neighborhoods within walking distance of their jobs."
In 1950, there were still 30,000 manufacturing jobs within the city limits. But the rapid erosion of manufacturing jobs over the next 30 years would spell doom. As the factories emptied, the surrounding neighborhoods "slipped further and further into poverty," a problem the city had to deal with largely by itself.
And yet, white-collar jobs increased, though most of those workers were moving out of the city. So in the late 20th century, Walsh writes, Hartford presented a double face to the world — an increasingly poor core city in a fundamentally prosperous metropolitan region."
It's hard to know what might have prevented this; typewriter factories, once a Hartford staple, were going to close whether they were in Hartford, Boston or San Francisco.
For all of its remarkable achievement in the last two centuries, Hartford missed a step that might have made a huge difference — it never had the power to annex adjoining land. The colonial city of 87 square miles became a city of 18 square miles as surrounding communities broke off and incorporated as separate towns.
In 1950, as Jason Rojas and Lyle Wray observe, Hartford was comparable in size to Nashville, Tenn., (22 square miles) and Raleigh, N.C., (11 square miles). By 2000, Nashville was 69 square miles and Raleigh had grown to 473 square miles. Hartford's boundaries hadn't budged and now define the smallest core city in any major metropolitan area in the country, Bacon reports.
The New York architect and planner John Carrere, who authored Hartford's 1912 city plan, assumed Hartford would expand to include the new growth outside its boundaries. A golden opportunity presented itself when the Metropolitan District Commission was created in 1929. The legislature granted the MDC a charter enabling it to perform planning and zoning functions as well as providing water and sewer services.
But the planning part never took hold because of opposition from suburban towns. No one counted on the intense localism, perhaps reflective of the region's Puritan founders, in Connecticut towns.
So Greater Hartford, Rojas and Wray conclude, is a "combination of its core city's extreme smallness and the anarchic subdivision of the rest of the of the region into an absurdly large number of tiny, but politically separate, municipalities."
Many urban problems are inherently regional. Greater Hartford is not structured to deal with much of anything beyond water and sewer on a regional basis. That's a problem. Rojas and Wray offer a bold yet sensible solution, which I will discuss in a future column.
Tom Condon can be reached at email@example.com.