January 7, 2019

Hartford is a great city. So why don’t you know it?

Greg Andrews

Dramatic changes in Hartford are transforming the core of Greater Hartford.

The city, however, remains shackled with a negative image that exaggerates its problems, ignores its many strengths and seriously affects the region's ability to build on its momentum.

Let's examine those negative perceptions and get some fact-based perspectives.

Hartford's reputation as one of the poorest and most violent cities in America distorts reality. The list of the 20 poorest American cities with populations of 65,000 or more includes Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, among others, but not Hartford. Among the 100 most violent American cities, Hartford ranks 57th — safer, for example, than admired cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Greater Hartford is the eighth richest metropolitan statistical area in America, just behind icons Boston and Minneapolis and ahead of Atlanta and New York. The wealth and resources of this region are real, but historical anomalies have largely placed them outside the core city, whose postage-stamp size of 18 square miles greatly exaggerates its negative statistics.

Hartford's precarious finances are another source of negative stereotypes.

The reality: Approximately half of Hartford's land is comprised of non-taxable government and nonprofit entities such as hospitals, colleges and museums. Growth of taxable properties has occurred primarily outside of land-locked Hartford. The region's social services are concentrated in Hartford, which must also provide for and maintain the urban infrastructure for more than 100,000 daily commuters.

Connecticut's antiquated and inequitable taxing structure is a major source of Hartford's fiscal woes; Hartford's municipal leaders cannot fix that.

The sense that Hartford is a shadow of the glorious, trendsetting city of the past haunts us today. Many see Hartford's historic achievements as evidence that the city is a "has been." Historic milestones like the first written constitution, the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper, the first public art museum, the first public park, the first public rose garden are well-known.

But later firsts, like the first coin-operated telephone, the first automobile ride by a U.S. president and the first jump using nylon parachutes, illustrate that innovation did not end in the 18th century. Inventors and business leaders from Hartford changed the world in the 19th century. It would not be a distortion to dub Hartford as the epicenter of the "Silicon Valley of the American Industrial Revolution."

This positive self-image, two centuries in the making, collapsed in the mid-20th century. Hartford, like many cities, fell victim to changing economic fortunes, outward migration, and rising levels of inner-city social and economic issues. With lightning speed, a chunk of Hartford's strong commercial and business core, population and self-identity disappeared.

A negative image overcame centuries of pride and accomplishment. In "the Land of Steady Habits," negativity and pessimism have become habitual.

It's time to break that habit. Hartford is once again becoming a center of innovation and economic vitality. Check out just a few recent headlines:

Hartford, No. 4 U.S. tech city; seventh for tech-talent growth; top metro for jobs in 12 of 21 professional fields; No. 3 among best American cities for women in business. And Connecticut? No. 3 among America's best states to live in.

The Capital City is booming. The evidence? New downtown housing — at full occupancy with more being constructed; the nation's best minor-league baseball stadium sold out for most games; a new professional soccer team; a thriving InsurTech hub; a downtown manufacturing and research center; the restoration and repurposing of the factories where precision manufacturing was born.

Ravi Kumar, president of Infosys, a global technology company that recently opened a Hartford tech hub, knows a good thing when he sees it.

"I am convinced Hartford's best days are still ahead … and Hartford has the potential to become a destination for companies of the future," he said recently.

With a robust image of Hartford at its core, a bright long-term future is within our grasp.

Greg Andrews is the director of Leadership Greater Hartford's Executive Orientation Program and Hartford Encounters, tours highlighting Hartford's assets.

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