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Food the Focus in Hartford Community Renewal
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Billings Forge is an old, brick factory complex in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood. Metal tools used to be made there. In the 1970s, it was converted into apartments. Today, it's mixed income housing, with half of the units reserved for low-income tenants.

Frog Hollow is largely a Puerto Rican neighborhood. But at Billings Forge, with the addition of a new arts space and a high-end restaurant, it's drawing an increasingly diverse crowd. That's all part of the plan - to build a community where different people come together to live, work, and socialize. And it's increasingly focused around food.

Alice Waters, the godmother of the local food movement, visited Billings Forge during a stop in Hartford, and it was a big deal.

As she walked around the farmer's market, she was encircled -- by locavore converts bearing books for signing, by reporters and fans with cameras snapping, and by the neighborhood kids who planted the new urban garden she'd come to see.

"Ella famosa, ella famosa!"

'She's famous, she's famous!' a boy shouted, before following Waters through the garden, where she sniffed sage and chomped on a leaf of basil. And she was  impressed with what she saw.
 
"It's just a beautiful marriage, really, of housing around, of a place where people can gather and grow food, and come together as a community. And there aren't very many examples of this happening."

“Everybody eats, clearly. Everybody comes to the table and that’s really the way we talk about it.”

Cary Wheaton is the executive director of Billings Forge Community Works. But her background isn’t in nonprofit management. It’s in running restaurants.

She came to Hartford to help open Firebox, the restaurant in the square brick building that juts out in front of the complex. Since opening in 2007, it's won praise from critics for its commitment to fresh, local ingredients and farm-to-table philosophy, but this is no country cooking. Dinners are in the 20 to 30 dollar range. There’s even a $6000 bottle of wine on the menu.

But making it feel upscale is part of the idea - to draw customers to the area who might otherwise avoid Frog Hollow altogether.

"You know, food is an easy way in for people. I mean, if somebody is nervous about coming to this neighborhood because they haven't been here for a long time, or they've read something in the press about it not being a safe environment. It's not a huge investment to come for dinner."

And Firebox does build on the social mission at Billings Forge. Nearly half its staff is from the neighborhood. Some of its ingredients come from growers who sell at the weekly farmer's market, and eventually, some will come from the community garden that's new this spring. 

And it's transforming what it's like to live at Billings Forge. Jose Santiago has had an apartment here for about ten years. Now, he also works here -- teaching gardening, sewing classes, and computer skills in the on-site lab. 

"This building, it’s been like, gone from worst, to bad to better, better, better, you know? And it’s getting better and better everyday. Because at one point, before this company took over this building, this building was like, people didn’t even want to move here. And now, I’m at the bus stop and people are talking about Billings Forge, I would love to live there. That makes me feel good, because I live here, you know?”

And more is coming. Down the hall from the computer lab, old meeting space is getting transformed into a full-service kitchen. The giant artisanal bread oven just arrived from France last week. The fresh bread will supply Firebox restaurant and the farmer’s market. The kitchen will also house a catering business, a culinary job training program, and gourmet cooking classes for the general public. 

Jose Santiago calls all this an answered prayer. 

"It's not like Hispanic, or a color thing. It's about everybody, you know? Helping everybody out. And it's working. It's good, it's great. I mean, we see it."

The Kitchen at Billings Forge is on track to open some time next month.