A cornerstone that reads Deborah Chapel
The cornerstone of the Deborah Chapel in the Congregation Beth Israel section of Hartford’s Zion Hill Cemetery. Credit: Kerri Ana Provost / CTNewsJunkie
Kerri Ana Provost

Adults these days make a sport of lamenting over how kids don’t play outside, don’t play in the streets like they used to. Yet, this oft repeated belief does not align with my own reality. 

Beginning late in the afternoon on each day that is warm enough to require a T-shirt, the children on my block go out to play. In the street. In driveways. In people’s yards. It began as one. Then another joined in, and soon, the friend group grew to about a dozen youth, most of whom live on this short street.

Occasionally, an adult emerges from a home to correct one of the children on their loud and colorful use of language. Sometimes, an adult raps on the window to insist they not litter the plastic wrappers from their flavored ices. Okay, that one is me. The child picked up her trash, and in the month or so since, if there has been any subsequent littering, I have not seen it.

They ride their bikes, hoverboards, and scooters. There’s a ball game that only the kids seem to know the rules of. They sword fight with found materials (and an adult from down the block hollered for them to “put it down, now!”). They stand under street trees, gossiping about the kid on the street who’s allowed to ride a quad without any safety gear – the children come down hard on that one’s parents. Sometimes the water guns come out. There are rarely electronic devices in their hands. So far, they manage to resolve their light squabbling by themselves.

There’s a speed hump in the middle of this residential, one-way street which is an easy walk to two elementary schools, several grocery stores, numerous bakeries and restaurants, community gardens, and a library branch.

Children have a degree of freedom – some more than others. There’s a park very close by, and a few are allowed to roam. Others are not. The negotiations about group relocation are amusing to watch. The ones who can go farther out do. They take a few laps through the splash playground, but rebound fairly fast. Most of their friends are here, not there. All these kids? They’re under 10. The older ones watch out for the youngest, who does not come out as often, but when they do, there’s a lot of support given to the toddler trying to manipulate a basketball that’s probably a third of the height of a young child.

Where’s this magical throwback to the time abandoned? Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood. The same one where the Congregation Beth Israel president equated youthful play with deviance, and held this up as an excuse for why an historic and spiritually significant mortuary building, the Deborah Chapel, should be demolished rather than rehabbed for housing or any number of other reasonable, smart, and responsible uses. Neighborhood residents and members of the Jewish community fought the loss of the nearly 137-year-old brick and brownstone building. In July, they were informed that due to a technical error in the original documentation for the Frog Hollow National Historic District, the Connecticut Attorney General’s office will not be able to attempt to save the building, making it now likely that the congregation will get its way and be able to raze the chapel.

The news of this turn of events came during the weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, a fast day marking the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. While the Deborah Chapel never had the stature of a temple, let alone the temple, it’s hard to not ask how anyone could choose to demolish something of their own that bears undeniable cultural significance.

The perspective of Hartford as a sad place is most held by non-residents who have made no effort to become acquainted with the city as a place where community thrives. And why should they? The mindset of extraction – using the city as a place to accumulate their wealth, and then retreating to sub- and ex-urbs where policy ensures they can continue living separate from those of different economic classes and racial backgrounds – has served them well. Pop an “In this house…” or “Black Lives Matter” sign on the front lawn to give it a polish of performative politics, while disinvesting from and judging those exact lives.

Perhaps wholesome activities like children riding their Spider-Man bicycles in circles for hours, stopping only to eat popsicles, have vanished in car-centered landscapes. This does not mean no kids anywhere in America get to have this experience. This fact has escaped those who opt to remain cloistered in particular settings, never stepping foot in places like my neighborhood except for when they absolutely must. When these strangers make a cameo, they perceive normal childhood behavior as an indicator of social decay.  

Should I ever become so insular and cynical, please intervene and remind me that the neighbors and strangers I proclaim to love and to welcome are not abstractions but flesh and blood people whose lived experience should be trusted and believed. 

The impending destruction of the Deborah Chapel is a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp an opportunity to provide housing, a failure of collaboration, but above all, it’s a failure of neighborly love.

Brick chapel building overgrown with vines
The Deborah Chapel in the Congregation Beth Israel section of Hartford’s Zion Hill Cemetery. Credit: Kerri Ana Provost / CTNewsJunkie

Kerri Ana Provost is a Hartford-based writer who also publishes at RealHartford.org.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.