“Why In God’s Name Did You Move to Hartford?”

An explanation to my fellow Connecticut residents.

This story was published in “State of the Capitol,” a former weekly blog about urban life and culture from my year living in Hartford, Connecticut.

~~~

Over Thanksgiving I paid a visit to an old friend’s parents to field their annual questions on the state of my life. Sipping wine in the kitchen, they smiled proudly while they listened to all of my latest news—quitting my job, ending a relationship, and supporting my writing on savings and credit—until his father asked, “Now remind me, Jamie, where are you living now?”

My answer brought a look of concern to his face, and he leaned in to put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re living in Hartford?” he said. “Oh. Oh, dear.”

These kinds of reactions to the word “Hartford” are pretty universal. Since I moved here last June, friends and coworkers have rarely been shy about telling me that I live in a bad city. (One woman at my office went so far as to offer her husband’s legal services, “so you can maybe get out of that lease you signed.”) The thing is, they’re not entirely wrong. In 2014, the FBI ranked Hartford the 45th most dangerous small city in the country, safer than only 7% of all other cities nationwide. According to the latest census, it’s also the poorest place in the state, and the scarcity of taxable income has caused a budget crisis so severe that the city’s only way out is probably bankruptcy. These and other embarrassments—let’s not leave out the Yard Goats fiasco—have solidified Hartford’s reputation as a generally awful place to live. So when people find out that I have nonetheless decided to live there, most are eager for an explanation.

Often, at first, people will attempt one themselves, offering cheerful statements like, “Oh, for grad school?” or, from another good friend, “Why, for work?” In fact, I’d moved to Hartford just as my ties to the area were falling away—grad school had been off the table for years, and I already knew I’d be leaving my job within a few months from the start of my lease. I could realistically have moved anywhere from Stamford to Seattle. So why Hartford?

Many reasons—and some of them true. Since most of these questions come up during small talk, the full and somewhat lengthy explanation that I’ve come here to write (and will get to in a minute) never feels appropriate. At first, my strategy was to dismiss the question, or else laugh it off—“haha come on, Hartford’s not bad”—but that didn’t work either. Eventually, though, repeated questionings helped me come up with a few go-to responses. They go something like this:

  1. “There’s actually a lot to do in Hartford that I didn’t know about before I moved here. [Cites the Bushnell Center, the Wadsworth, RealArtWays, Hog River Brewing Co., etc.]”
  2. “It has a lot of fascinating history. There was Mark Twain, but did you know Wallace Stevens lived there too?”
  3. “Stamford and New Haven were too far from the mountains. I can be in Vermont in under an hour.”
  4. “It’s cheap, but still nice.”
  5. “I can bike to West Hartford Center in ten minutes.”

While these replies never completely ease the fears of friends and loved ones, they’re effective for bringing the topic to a close, or at least moving it to something more pleasant. Ultimately, though, my decision to move to Hartford had very little to do with money, location, or any of the reasons above. It had much more to do with the question itself—“Why Hartford?”—and, even more importantly, with the sense of privilege, elitism, and racism that the question conveyed whenever it was asked. I recognized the attitudes behind it because I’d encountered it long before I moved to Hartford. In some ways, I’ve been answering the question my entire life.

I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, which culturally and economically is about as far from a city like Hartford as it’s possible to get. Mostly white, outrageously affluent, and virtually free of crime, it’s nearly identical in character and lifestyle to the ultra-rich suburbs around Hartford, and it even has a Hartford of its own. Bridgeport, just next door to Fairfield, is the largest city in the state and, by that same FBI report, its third “most dangerous” after Hartford and New Haven. Its reputation, however, is arguably much worse: Family Guy once listed it “among the world leaders in abandoned buildings [and] shattered glass,” and it was dubbed “the true lower intestine of North America” by no less than David Foster Wallace. Most elementary school kids in Fairfield called it “the ghetto.”

To my best friend during those years, however, Bridgeport was “home.” Between the ages of ten and seventeen—first with his dad, a Bridgeport native and community activist, and later by ourselves—my friend and I spent countless weekends in old Bridgeport haunts like Wood’s End Deli and the S. S. Norden Club; saw local bands at the Acoustic, and Arlo Guthrie at the Klein; spelunked the abandoned Majestic Theater downtown, whose name is an understatement; and spent possibly hundreds of dollars on 3am burrito runs at a West Side Sunoco station. At no point, despite my classmates’ predictions, did I “get shot,” although I did notice the toll that their remarks sometimes took on my closest friend. He rarely failed to point out, when we crossed the town line, that the Bridgeport side had the nicer houses.

I found the same stereotypes directed towards Connecticut’s other cities as I got older. In college, I’d barhopped in New Haven and Willimantic, interned in New London, and (long story) eaten countless pizzas at the Greyhound station in downtown Waterbury; in each one I found friendly people, incredible food, gorgeous architecture, and a pride of places that defied decades of urban decay, deindustrialization, and neglect. These were beautiful, interesting cities, but they were treated like war zones. Words like “dangerous,” “gang-infested,” “shithole,” and of course “ghetto” flew out of the mouths of otherwise intelligent and kind people like a reflex at the very mention of those places, often followed by the proud claim that “I never go there.”

Hartford, when I arrived in the area for work, was the only city in the state I hadn’t gone to. I knew little about Hartford except that my coworkers avoided it, citing all the same reasons I’d once been told to avoid Bridgeport and Waterbury and New Haven. That, to me, was as good a reason as any to check it out. So I moved here.

In the seven months since then, I’ve found an even better reason: I love this city. I wake up on Sunday mornings and walk two blocks to Mo’s Midtown, where for six bucks I eat the best breakfast platter I’ve ever had. I meet friends for Thursday trivia at City Steam Brewery downtown, and again at my neighborhood pub on weekends. This past summer, I spent most afternoons in Elizabeth park, playing soccer, reading a book, or taking first dates to the rose garden; in the fall, I watched the colors change on shady sidewalks lined with beautiful Victorians. Sometimes I find it hard to understand how anyone could see Hartford as bad—the same lazy kind of thinking, but in reverse, as those who believe it’s all bad. I admit that from my West End balcony, the city’s heavier troubles on the North End can seem distant to the point of abstraction. But they’re also no longer damning. The real Hartford, after all, is neither good nor bad. It’s simply a place, and worth getting to know.

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