What Have We Learned About Urban Renewal in Hartford?

December 2, 2014 · Collections ·

Connecticut artist Richard Welling chronicled the ever-changing Hartford cityscape through detailed ink drawings. Acting as both works of art and documentary snapshots, these drawings reveal the additions and subtractions to and from the city’s architectural skyline in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Our newest exhibit, (Re)Building Hartford: A City Captured by Richard Welling, showcases his drawings and explores how how and why Hartford changed and how it affects us today.

Urban renewal projects changed the face of Hartford by removing homes, movie theaters, restaurants, and shops in the downtown area and replacing them with large-scale office buildings and parking lots.

It’s tempting to dismiss those bull-dozing urban renewal planners as misguided and destructive. Is that fair? Would we have made better decisions then? Are we making better decisions now?

In 1950 Hartford faced traffic gridlock, frequent flooding of old and crowded neighborhoods, downtown businesses threatening to flee to the suburbs, and middle-class residents already on their way out. The new interstate highway network (funded by the U.S. Government) and a new office complex with cutting-edge design (funded by private investors) seemed like promising solutions.

These projects solved some problems, but Hartford soon faced new challenges, such as the loss of more manufacturing jobs and a recession in the 1970s. Some of the projects included in the original plan for Constitution Plaza—like mixed-income housing—were never implemented.

Since then, countless city planning documents, newspaper articles, and resident voices have proposed new ideas for developing a vibrant city. (Re)building is a never-ending process.

Let’s take a look at some viewpoints on urban renewal in Hartford and how it has changed since 1964.

Concept drawing for Riverside Plaza, 1960s, CHS collection

“You have seen lots happen just since you were small. Down in the center of the city, in Constitution Plaza, you get an exciting picture of one way that cities can make themselves over…The plaza takes the pedestrian away from the hurry and danger of modern traffic into a place of quiet beauty…Other parts of the city will be rebuilt with modern stores, factories and apartments. All this is called renewal—making things new.”
—From Our City of Hartford: A Book for Boys and Girls, published by the Department of Elementary Instruction, Hartford, 1964.

Illustration from The New City by Albert Putnam, drawing by Richard Welling, 1966, CHS collection

“A cheerful city bright with space and air
Has risen from the worn buildings of years past.
The work of a few men and of many men,
Responsive to the hopes and needs around them,
Who dared to lead in building the New City.”
—From The New City by Albert Putnam, 1966

Constitution Plaza, 1965, photograph by Theodore Newcomb, gift of Richard C. Black

“The central City has done well in terms of office development in the 60’s. However, it has lost nearly all its color and vitality with the elimination of its former residents and evening entertainment activity. Consequently, Downtown Hartford is today as routine and uninteresting as the ‘eight to five grind.’”
—From Downtown Hartford: the 70’s, a 10-year development guide written by the Hartford Commission on the City Plan, 1969.

Hartford, 1976, photographer unknown, CHS collection

“Were stabilization of the downtown area the only pressing need for Hartford, Constitution Plaza could be rightfully hailed as the city’s savior. Unfortunately, Hartford, like most older northern cities, has more problems than how to keep business. Housing, mass transit, education, and unemployment, particularly among minority groups, continue to demand attention.”
—Patricia Lohman, Hartford Courant, 5/6/1979.

View of Hartford looking South, about 1982, CHS collection

“The period from 1970 to 1983 began with great uncertainty and ended positively with residential and commercial construction, reconstruction, and investment occurring throughout the City. These encouraging signs must be tempered by the fact that there is a growing disparity between the income and lifestyle of City and suburban residents.”
—From State of the City by the Hartford Comprehensive Planning Unit of the Planning Department, 1983.

Illustration from The Downtown Hartford Economic and Urban Design Action Strategy by Urban Strategies, Inc., 1998, CHS collection

“A legacy of demolition, acres of surface parking lots, poor quality streetscapes, street closures, and diminished gateways all contribute to the sense of disconnection. . . Downtown should build on the outstanding cultural resources, and blend more housing, retail, cultural and entertainment uses with a strong base of office employment.”
—From The Downtown Hartford Economic and Urban Design Action Strategy by Urban Strategies, Inc., 1998.

Site Development Plan: Constitution Plaza, 1960s, CHS collection

“What went wrong with Constitution Plaza? Did sensible people really mean to build a sterile,
9-to-5, suburban-style office park mostly disconnected from the downtown it was supposed to revive? Well, no. The project was supposed to be connected to Main Street by a pedestrian ramp. It was supposed to have housing. It was supposed to generate economic activity in surrounding blocks. But none of that happened.”
—Tom Condon, Hartford Courant, 9/9/2002.

Photograph of the Hartford downtown riverfront, 2014, courtesy of Simmie Reagor

“Yes, fewer people than planners envisioned enjoyed the space [Constitution Plaza] over the years. But that in no small part is because planned housing for the site was never constructed and the planned connection to the river was not complete until 1999. But the Riverfront Recapture connection to the river has brought more people, and planned housing on or near the plaza will bring more. Its potential may yet be realized.”
—Phil Barlow, Hartford Courant, 9/25/2013

What are we learning about rebuilding Hartford?

Interested in learning more about Hartford or Richard Welling? Visits chs.org/Hartford for more information about programs, exhibits, and events.

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