Taking Hartford's Simmering Pots To A Boil
By MICHAEL J. CROSBIE | PLACE
Hartford needs to nurture small entrepreneurial businesses for a bustling futureHartford's many simmering businesses and ideas must be encouraged
Architects and planners like grand schemes. "Make no little plans," counseled Chicago architect Daniel Burnham just over a century ago. But maybe today we need to think differently about a city like Hartford, whose future might lie in thousands of little things — creative and synergistic ideas —happening, connecting, collaborating, sharing, shaping, building.
That impression emerged from a lively panel discussion last week on imagining a new Hartford, part of a series of exhibits and events at the Hartford Public Library and the Connecticut Historical Society. The Courant's Tom Condon asked the panel of four folks involved with creative, innovative organizations working to change the city what Hartford will look like in 25 years.
Cities are shaped by people and projects that can simmer for years until reaching a boiling point, and the impression is that Hartford has an encouraging number of pots on the stove. One is MakeHartford, headed by Steve Yanicke, who describes the enterprise as a "gym for geeks" who like to make stuff. MakeHartford is at 30 Arbor Street, in a space that offers folks access to digital toys and tools like 3D printers (you can "print" objects). Yanicke spoke about the allure of incubator space where people can meet, learn to use new technologies and share knowledge. It's something of a free-form collaborative, "connecting people who are doing things with other people who are doing things," he explained.
Yanicke's vision of the city is a place where new businesses, with very low starting costs, attract other entrepreneurs just because innovative types feed off each other. For Yanicke, one of Hartford's greatest assets is the empty buildings that can become hotbeds of creative collaboration, leading to new businesses, housing and communities. Yanicke noted that housing in downtown Hartford always seems to grow in the wrong direction. Instead of more towers, Yanicke sees a downtown thriving with more three- and four-story, mixed-use residential and retail structures, where people live close to work, walk and actually meet their neighbors.
Gina Muslim, director of the Hartford Community Partnership, Community Solutions, sees the former Swift gold-plating factory in Hartford's North End as similar to Yanicke's idea of flexible incubator space. Rather than devoting Swift to one use, Muslim imagines a place that combines work, living, health care and food shopping within its 65,000 square feet. The idea is to create enough synergy in one place to offer residents and the surrounding neighborhood a one-stop community resource focused on job creation. The key, notes Muslim, is getting the right mix of uses and anchor businesses, and then studying what worked and what doesn't work so it can be replicated in other neighborhoods.
Food is the critical component to successful revitalization. Cary Wheaton, executive director of Billings Forge Community Works in Frog Hollow, sees new restaurants and farmers markets, along with good housing, luring folks to city neighborhoods. "Food and housing are the drivers" for community building, says Wheaton, who noted that Billings has created about 100 jobs over the past six years.
Echoing the others on the panel, Wheaton cautioned against high-powered, multimillion-dollar solutions. Sometimes a new idea is in plain sight. Like closing cafeterias! Wheaton speculated on what would happen to the urban life on Hartford's streets overnight if the city's major employers closed their cafeterias and people had to leave work to have lunch. The economic driver for new lunch places and busy streets is right there. "Small things connect with other things, and that is sustainable community building," says Wheaton.
Kristina Newman-Scott, director of marketing, events and cultural affairs for the city, thinks that Hartford's biggest problem is an inferiority complex. "We need pride in the city," and to start taking advantage of the incredible creative resources here. She pointed out that within its 18 square miles Hartford has more than 300 arts and cultural institutions. "The challenge is to connect these creative communities," says Newman-Scott, who also sees incubator space and short-term, low-cost leases as a way to hot-wire new retail. "Creative businesses grow out of a more do-it-yourself culture, with the city serving as a platform," she believes.
So, what will Hartford look like?
Michael J. Crosbie is an architect in Essex and chairman of the University of Hartford's Department of Architecture.