Last October the legislature voted to spend millions of dollars to bail out the city of Hartford, which was being crushed by staggering amounts of debt. As the city council prepared to approve the plan for the state to pay off the city’s debt this week, though, the moaning from other parts of the state got louder and louder.
“Help me understand when presumably suburban legislators outnumber city legislators — why this stuff happens?” griped the Facebook page of the Enfield Republican Town Committee, before going on to say that letting the city declare bankruptcy was the only way “Hartford stops dragging the region down and demoralizing everyone.”
It wasn’t just suburban conservatives who were furious, though — it was other city mayors. Both Mayor Joe Ganim of Bridgeport and Mayor Toni Harp of New Haven wondered why Hartford was getting a bailout while their own cities get nothing.
In short, nobody’s happy except for Hartford’s creditors.
Whenever the state does something for Hartford, this sort of grumbling takes place. On the face of it it’s not hard to see why. Hartford often seems like a luckless basket case with bad governance, crime, poverty, and a miserable reputation.
Here’s the suburban view: Hartford is where smart ideas and good intentions fall down a flight of stairs, through an open manhole, and into an alligator-infested sewer. This, after all, is the city that built the dystopian Constitution Plaza, paved over the Park River, ran two massive, destructive highways through downtown, and bet the farm on a ballpark developer that turned out to be totally incompetent.
But not only does that view ignore the real progress the city is making, it lets the suburbs and the rest of the state off the hook for Hartford’s problems.
You know how we are here in Connecticut, we’re used to thinking of things in terms of our own individual town or city. The only exception is if our town is part of a regional school district — and even then, it’s hard to think beyond the town line. In fact, we’re used to competition between towns instead of cooperation. So naturally, when those of us outside of Hartford see the city sinking, we’re quite happy to toss them an anchor and sail away. Helping to prop them up is an insult to the flinty Yankee independence a lot of us pride ourselves on.
Unfortunately, that sort of 18th-century thinking is not compatible with 21st-century realities. Connecticut is not a state of 169 separate, equal, independent towns that can each go their own way. Instead, we’re only one small part of a dense, interconnected urban web stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C.
The different regions of Connecticut, some of which spill across state lines, are connected to both one another and this larger web in many different ways, from where we commute to work or school to where we shop, dine, and play.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to disconnect one piece of the region from any other. Hartford is a major economic, transportation, cultural, and political hub, and letting it just fail would be a recipe for disaster that would impact the entire region surrounding it. It would also affect the state because, like it or not, Hartford is the capital and the state’s most visible city.
There’s another reason the rest of the state needs to support Hartford, and that is because the city’s problems are unique and, to a certain extent, caused by it serving as our capital and transportation hub.
Cities and towns in Connecticut can only raise money through property taxes, but so much of the most valuable real estate in Hartford belongs to the state government, and is therefore un-taxable. This would be less of an issue in some cities, but Hartford is already very tiny and very land poor. So much of the city is taken up by political and transportation infrastructure that it’s very hard to spur growth by building.
Lastly, the suburbs have ignored Hartford’s problems for too long. When Mayor Luke Bronin went in search of regional solutions for his city, he got very little traction despite the fact that the racially motivated exodus of wealth, people, and companies to the suburbs is a big part of why the city is in such trouble now.
So yes, we all have a stake in Hartford, and we’re all responsible for its future. Being neighborly doesn’t come easy to us, but it’s the right thing to do.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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