For a brief moment this past week, people from suburbs took a sudden and serious interest in downtown Harford. The reason? The NHL is back, and so were the rumors about Hartford’s possible future in the league.
This time the rumor mill chewed on a piece from the Jan. 6 edition of the New York Post about Gov. Dannel P. Malloy forming a group to study the possibility of bringing a team back. Predictably, Twitter, Facebook, and other dark corners of the Internet filled with Whalers die-hards — many of whom don’t live in the city — went nuts. They should have known better. Malloy quickly threw cold water on the rumors, which isn’t much of a surprise as the governor has never shown much enthusiasm for a quixotic NHL quest, and interest in Hartford dried up again.
This is part of why big-league hockey won’t come back here any time soon; suburbanites ignore and deride the city that makes our whole region possible. Hartford is the heart of the region, and yet for a lot of people who live in the rings of suburbs, Hartford is nothing but a workplace or something to drive through on the way to somewhere else. It’s deeply ingrained in white suburban culture that Hartford is dangerous, something to be avoided. When I was growing up in Newington, I rode my bike all over central Connecticut, but I was told in no uncertain terms to stay out of the city. I went anyway, of course, and found a place that was different and fascinating while also being much the same as home. I once drove my mother to D&D Market in the South End, and she shook her head as she watched cosmopolitan, international Franklin Avenue go by. “I had no idea this was here,” she said. “No idea.” We’d lived in the area for 30 years. That’s how it is.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra summed up the problem in a speech to business leaders at the Rising Star breakfast on Tuesday: “The residents of our neighboring towns, guess where a lot of them work? . . . They work here and because of that they enjoy a quality of life they would not otherwise have. But often they forget that as they drive away on I-84 or I-91 and see the skyline disappear in their rearview mirrors.”
And so they spend their money elsewhere, they never think of investing or living in the city, they don’t come for festivals or events, and their perception of the city as a blighted, drug-infested hole stubbornly stays the same.
“I’m tired of hearing that Hartford has nothing,” Mayor Segarra said. “That we are a burden on the rest of the state. That we are a depressed urban-area in need of handouts.”
I don’t blame him. That sort of thinking holds back the entire region.
This prejudice against the city is why city-focused projects — project that might actually make the whole region a more livable and lively place — are roundly criticized by suburbanites. The Hartford-New Britain Busway is a fantastic idea that will make commuting to and from New Britain, West Hartford, and Newington much easier, but suburban naysayers wail about the cost and the lack of any perceived benefit to them. Subsidized housing and social services often are considered to be a waste of time and resources. Students and faculty have grumbled about the imminent move of the local UConn campus from West Hartford to downtown Hartford, and the list goes on. The end result is that we all sit in our separate towns and gripe about one another instead of working together.
If we want to be big league, which I think deep down we all want, then we need to work together to make the entire region strong and vibrant. Far more than a new arena or better parking options, we need to constantly work to tear down the fences between the city and the towns surrounding it. Connecticut’s new Speaker of the House, Brendan J. Sharkey, has long been a strong supporter of regionalism and has backed initiatives aimed at tying regions closer together. I’m hoping that with his leadership the legislature will be more open to regional solutions to problems.
It’s true that Connecticut doesn’t do “working together” very well. But who knows? If suburbs and city can find common ground, then the big leagues may not be so far-fetched after all. And we may find that a stronger, more connected region is better for us than a hockey team.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.