What is it that makes Hartford such a troubled place? My seeming to pick on Connecticut’s capital could seem a bit hypocritical given how I feel about those who express similar feelings about Springfield, but I don’t mean it as a condemnation or as a call to flee the city, I intend it as an inquiry to better understand what is taking place in my own hometown.
In so many ways I am as completely ignorant about Springfield as I am about Hartford. I avoid contact with the people whose struggles give rise to the behaviors which are daily catalogued by local news outlets and so understand very little about their circumstances. While I do not think that their dysfunction places me in appreciably greater danger vis a vis criminal violence, I know that it has an impact on my quality of life. Homicides are an excellent example of this. While nearly all of the victims of homicide, spanning years of analysis, are engaged in particularly dangerous behaviors; whether that be drug dealing, gang membership, or being in a relationship with an unstable person, it still is the case then that I share community with people more likely to engage in those behaviors.
Enter Hartford. While Springfield has yet to see its first homicide of 2017, Hartford, a city with just over 2/3 of Springfield’s population, has had 7. A heart-wrenching story in today’s Courant tells the story of a city whose school aged population has plummeted while Springfield’s sits at or near an all time high. In Hartford, for the time being at least, concerns swell over the potential departure of major employers and the most recent attempt at a magic bullet for spin-off economic development has become a saga of delays, lawsuits, and cost overruns, while Springfield believes itself to be primed for a downtown Renaissance. There is talk of austerity regarding Springfield’s budget, but Hartford’s financial situation looks to be that of a city requiring a bailout.
Keep in mind, I don’t buy all of this. Hartford is ahead of Springfield in someways, bringing market rate housing downtown for example, and certainly Hartford can command more in the way of its state and regional resources. But what interests me is precisely why it is that a state capital with an instantly recognizable name and which is also a recognized leader in the FIRE sector of the economy is struggling even more than the City of Homes?
There is one teeny tiny nugget of demographic information which jumped out at me years ago in the (now) Springfield Republican’s comparison of Springfield, Hartford, and Worcester of which I was recently reminded, and that is that Springfield has the highest rate of owner occupied housing of any city its size in western New England(see demographics);much higher than that of Hartford. I’m a fan of multi-unit dwellings, I’ve spent 2/3 of my adult life in them, but I wonder if it is the abundance of owner occupied homes in the City of Homes which gives us our relative stability?
If so, would a potential future redensification of American living mean trouble for the city, or would our mostly densely packed homes retain value even in an age of expensive energy? It would certainly be determined on very fine margins of functionality relative to public transit, walkable access to daily needs, and domestic energy demands. Apart from those issues and despite Springfield’s eternally modest home values, will a future general collapse in home prices leave owners in a worse position than renters even in a humble market like Springfield?
I suppose it’s the question of whether future realities will simply flip flop the desirability and livability of places, or if certain locations will always remain preferable. The latter does seem more likely, but that does not mean that Springfield will be among those places. What would improve many of Springfield’s more heavily owner occupied areas in the future will be their ability to function as traditional, walkable, neighborhoods. Springfield has retained, at some cost but perhaps with great accidental foresight, a strong core of neighborhood schools, neighborhood libraries, neighborhood parks, and neighborhood retail centers. A few places, like Forest Park, still have entertainment venues and cultural centers, and Indian Orchard, of course, has its own re-energizable Main Street; only Sixteen Acres lacks almost completely in walkability, but it’s very bike-able and could be connected at a few nodes to public transit somewhat cohesively.
Downtown just might be poised on the edge of a remarkable Renaissance; if it turns out to be not just a chimera, its most important legacy will need to be the ability to stabilize or resurrect the city’s other neighborhoods.