Somewhat Contradictory

27 highrises from park unitedLinda Burton posting from Hartford, Connecticut – Hartford’s nickname is Insurance Capital of the World, you’ve heard that before. On my first drive-through of this 46th capital city on the Journey Across America, I was surrounded by sparkling highrise office buildings. UnitedHealthcare was spelled out across the top of one; the others I didn’t catch; I was concentrating on street turns to get to the capitol grounds. Ornate Victorian reflected against stark modern 27 highrises from parkin the waning afternoon sun that lit up the gold; gold on the trees; gold on the capitol dome. A pleasant sight; but somewhat contradictory; a mass of intersecting freeways cut through the city, yet the spacious grounds of Bushnell Park were serene; I could hear music, a concert of some kind, from across the tree-lined streets. Mark Twain lived here, back in the 1800s, and once said of Hartford “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, this is the chief.” I parked at the side of the capitol and struck out under the trees, kicking leaves, and looking both ways – at the old, and the new. Hartford is one of the oldest cities in the country; Dutch explorers came through in 1613; English settlers arrived in 1635; it was named Hartford in 1637. Samuel Stone, one of the original settlers, chose the 27 twainname to honor his home town of Hertford, England. Hartford is home to the nation’s oldest public art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum; the oldest public park, Bushnell Park; the oldest continuously published newspaper, The Hartford Courant. Some famous residents were author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) who lived next door to Mark Twain (1835-1910); dictionary author Noah Webster (1758-1843); inventor Sam Colt (1814-1862), financier J P Morgan (1837-1913), and poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). So what is the contradictory part?

After the Civil War, Hartford was the wealthiest city in the country for several decades; today a third of its residents live below the poverty level, the highest of any capital city. What happened? Here are some numbers from the 2010 US Census – the Greater Hartford metro area, not dependent on Boston or New York, has a population of 1,212,381; of that 124,775 reside in Hartford proper. That makes it the 29th most populous capital city; Topeka, Kansas and Springfield, Illinois are similar in size. Hartford’s racial makeup (as of that 2010 US Census) is 39% Black, 43% Hispanic, and 16% White, with a small percentage of Asian and Native American. In 47% of the households, English is not spoken in the home; 68% of those over 18 are high school graduates; 14% have bachelor’s degrees; those last two numbers are among the lowest of any of the capital cities.

27 windsor signMany say that the construction of the freeways that split the city helped to begin a movement from the downtown area; those who could afford to moved into the suburbs or one of many adjoining towns (Bloomfield, Newington, East Hartford, West Hartford, Windsor, South Windsor), leaving behind those with fewer resources. This theory is matched by numbers; population has declined since its high in 1950. The freeway traffic whizzing overhead in any city is ugly; so are mazes of concrete pillars underneath all the pollution and noise. In Hartford, North-South I-91 runs between the city and the Connecticut River; East-West I-84 splits the city 27 hartford mapthrough the middle; the map shows the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe homes on one side; the new and old state capitols on the other. Farmington Avenue still takes you from the river past stately homes and magnificent old trees out into the countryside. Hartford’s elevation is almost sea level; it’s a valley city spared the rockiness of much of the New England states; good farmland here, and pretty scenes.

I want to check it out; to explore the neighborhoods that are there today and to collect the stories of Hartford’s past. A visit inside the state capitol is on the list, and the historic old state house too, both in the downtown area. Pope Park and Trinity College are in the Frog Hollow neighborhood; the Twain and Stowe homes in Asylum Hill; Elizabeth Park and the Governor’s Mansion in West End. There’s the Charter Oak monument to find, and Armsmear, the estate of the Samuel Colt family. The northeast neighborhoods have Keney Park and many old and ornate homes; the south end of town has Little Italy; Blue Hills houses a large community of residents with Jamaican heritage; Upper Albany has many Caribbean restaurants.

27 Hartford insurance logoAnd about those insurance companies – The Hartford (yes, the one with the familiar logo of the stately elk stag) was founded in Hartford in 1810 and offered fire insurance; its president, Eliphalet Terry, used his personal wealth to cover damage claims. Aetna had its beginnings in the early 1800s too, offering life insurance at a time when some churches believed life insurance to be sinful. Travelers was founded in Hartford in the 1860s to offer travel insurance to railroad travelers, when travel was far more risky than it is today. UnitedHealthcare wasn’t founded in Hartford, but today is the largest single health insurance carrier in the United States. Various insurers have left Hartford and moved to nearby suburbs; yet many have expanded downtown; for sure, Hartford is a center for the insurance business still.

27 towersI wandered back through Bushnell Park to my car, parked near the striking and unusual Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. Two towers flank the drive; the Gothic/Romanesque Revival arch is made of Portland brownstone and was dedicated in 1886, commemorating the 4,000 Hartford-born veterans and dead of the Civil War. The park itself was an idea of Reverend Horace Bushnell; it was the mid-1850s and the idea of public open space was new. Bushnell was friends with Hartford native Frederick Law Olmsted, so asked him to design the park. Olmsted was in the middle of creating Central Park in New York city at the time, and recommended Jacob Weidenmann for the job. Weidenmann was a Swiss-born landscape architect and botanist; he put in clusters of trees to shield strollers from the city sounds; they function the same today, I noticed. A fountain has been added since; and a carousel in more recent times, as well as a performance pavilion.

27 capitol statueJust at the edge of the walkway I turned to catch another glimpse of the gleaming golden capitol dome and noticed an imposing statue. Was it Horace Bushnell? No, it was Israel Putnam, an American Revolutionary general who commanded troops at Bunker Hill. Reverend Bushnell attended the dedication of the Putnam statue in 1874, and was asked at the time where he’d like his own statue to be. To this day, there is no statue of Bushnell in the park that bears his name; but the park remains a major focal point in downtown Hartford; a pleasant space, softening the sounds of the city, and the freeway noise.

My pet-friendly hotel was ten miles away, north on I-91 near the airport. Back in my car and onto the ramp, I went whizzing past the high-rises and the history, leaving downtown behind.