Sen. Murphy: Hartford's North End Should Be Federal Promise Zone

By:  U.S. Senator Chris Murphy
Hartford Courant

The story of the Hartford's North End is, tragically, all too common among the once-prosperous neighborhoods in America's cities. In the middle of last century, the Upper Albany and Clay-Arsenal neighborhoods were the epitome of post-war progress. Middle class families went to work and raised their children in a diverse, peaceful enclave in North Hartford, while small factories and commercial enterprises dotted the landscape, employing thousands.

But the once-idyllic refuge of the North End hit hard times in the 1960s. Cut off from downtown by the development of I-84, manufacturers began to close down and businesses moved elsewhere. When the jobs left, poverty and crime seeped in, city and state leaders began a pattern of neglect that spiraled economic prosperity downward.

But after decades of hard times, today there are signs of hope in the North End. Businesses, such as Scotts' Jamaican Bakery, Express Kitchens and Evay Cosmetics are growing. New waves of Caribbean immigrants are breathing cultural life into the neighborhoods. A new generation of community leaders and civic organizations are working together to build opportunities for kids to succeed.

It was seeing these green shoots of progress that caused to me suggest to city leaders a new idea for North Hartford. Two years ago, I sat down with community and government leaders and pitched the idea of Hartford pursuing a Promise Zone designation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I knew that this kind of national recognition would be a game changer for residents of the North End, so I dove into the effort head first, even hiring a staff member to keep pushing when I was in Washington.

Promise Zones are economically challenged neighborhoods with unique, innovative strategies to bring all sorts of community players together to set a new direction for kids and families. The handful of neighborhoods that get this designation then get preference for federal grants that support education, economic development and housing programs.

What started as conversations with folks in the community quickly snowballed, turning into a furious campaign with an unprecedented group of stakeholders. The North Hartford Promise Zone Executive Committee came together to forge solutions for the neighborhood, and it paid off. Our team put together a plan that would boost the local economy and put people to work by rehabilitating rundown housing and old buildings like the former Swift Factory into new spaces for businesses and residential expansion. It would give kids a more promising future by improving access to more healthy food options, fun physical activities and career development services. And it will help neighbors who are struggling by increasing access to behavioral health services and creating a new case management system for those who have experienced multiple traumas.

Now, as the award process enters its final stages, I'm working hard to get Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro to choose Hartford for one of the tiny group of new Promise Zones across the country. While the leg up on federal dollars will help, the morale benefit to Hartford of this kind shot in the arm is maybe what matters most. North Hartford does show a ton of promise, and my hope is that Washington sees my city the same way.