I’ve been been writing for several months now about one issue, the only issue I think matters for greater Hartford. I believe that unless and until greater Hartford begins to govern itself as one community, our future is bleak.
I believe that by governing ourselves as ten separate communities, we will continue to be unable to address effectively the issues that have made greater Hartford unattractive to entrepreneurs and major employers and unattractive to young professionals and retirees, issues like jobs, housing, education, taxes, and transportation. Those issues and others require a coordinated approach across the entire community and a unified effort in the General Assembly. That kind of coordination is virtually impossible when we persist in thinking of ourselves as separate towns instead of one community.
Some see a silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud. They would have us believe that human migration driven by the pandemic can trigger the revitalization of greater Hartford. All we need to do is await the influx of thousands of well-heeled refugees from New York City whose employers are now encouraging them to work from home and who are looking for an alternative to the megalopolis. Voila! Population growth and economic growth for greater Hartford!
Dumb luck, even if it emerges from the horrors of a pandemic, isn’t going to save greater Hartford. First, people have been moving to cities for 10,000 years, and no previous pandemic stopped that trend. For most people, small cities are more attractive than rural life, and large cities are more attractive than small cities. Bigger cities typically offer better and more job opportunities. Bigger cities are more attractive – somehow we find life among more people more exciting. As an example, consider this: The Spanish flu killed over 20,000 people in New York City in 1919 and 1920. People should have fled the City, right? Instead, in the following decade the population grew almost 19%. In 1923, in the wake of the crisis, construction of Yankee Stadium began. What’s the point? The point is that people do what they want, and what they want is to live together and gather together.
Second, even if despite thousands of years of history this time is different and people will be leaving Boston and New York City, take a look at a map. Those people have plenty of choices: New Haven, New London, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Danbury, Albany, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Scranton, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, and all of New Jersey, plus all the small towns that dot the landscape between those cities. All are comfortably within range of New York City, just like Hartford. Similar competition for Hartford surrounds Boston. Hartford is by no means the slam-dunk default location for people and businesses looking to leave the big city but remain within a two-hour drive; Hartford will be fortunate to capture a sliver of the population shift.
People in towns like Avon and Simsbury and West Hartford and Glastonbury might say, “Maybe Hartford won’t be a winner, but our good schools and sweet lifestyle will attract more than our share of people escaping the City.” Think about that. A significant influx of home buyers looking for good schools will drive up the cost of housing. Increased demand for schools and services will drive up taxes. Those towns never have been leaders in the affordable housing arena, so the imagined real estate boom and increased cost of living in those towns will drive the least wealthy out. That will exacerbate one of greater Hartford’s biggest problems: de facto segregation by wealth and by race. The wealthy ring towns need Hartford to be a winner.
If we’re realistic, we will recognize that COVID-19 isn’t reversing trends, it’s accelerating them. Greater New York City and greater Boston will, after the shock subsides, continue to grow, and Providence and Worcester and Fairfield County will continue to benefit from that growth. We’ve seen the trend for greater Hartford since 1990, and the acceleration of that trend is bad news for all of us. What happens when the Travelers and United HealthCare and others decide that work-from-home should be our future? Downtown and the ring towns both will suffer.
If we want greater Hartford to be a winner in the post-pandemic world, then regardless of whether major demographic shifts are underway, greater Hartford has to be an affirmatively better choice than its competition around the country and around New England. Dumb luck isn’t the answer.
Greater Hartford needs a new beginning. We shouldn’t rebuild what we’ve lost in the past few months, because what we had wasn’t building a positive future. We need to build something better than we had, something that will make employers and entrepreneurs, young families and retirees, the wealthy and the aspiring all want to live here.
If we want greater Hartford to be a winner, we have to get together and get to work.