I've had two conversations in two days that have really made me think about Hartford, the town where I work...the town I've covered for 15 years...and the town where I lived for several of those years. There's a strange mix of inferiority complex, blind hope, resignation and energy that I don't think I've encountered anywhere else.
Tuesday night at Real Art Ways, a nice-size crowd gathered to hear a "panel discussion" about arts funding. It wasn't really about Hartford's fortunes, per se, but that's what it became to my ears. From former city councilman Mike McGarry's worry about the garbageman who might lose his job while the city tries to fund a new, expensive arts initiative; to Colin McEnroe's gasp-inducing recollection of an unsolved murder outside the entrance to the art gallery where we sat; to Stephen Haynes' frustrated plea for arts funding in the public schools...it all comes back to a city that can't seem to ever solve it's problems or serve the people who love it.
It's a city that hates some of its public art and just lost its opera company, but has organically created some interesting and thriving art spaces, like RAW and the Studio @ Billings Forge, and is set to open a gleaming science center.
So, anyway, that's what I was thinking about after Tuesday night's show: Can we be a competitive city where people support arts and small business? A place where garbagemen and painters both have jobs (and maybe even 401Ks)?
But then, the next morning's conversation reminded me these aren't the only problems Hartford needs to solve. My guest was Iran Nazario, a former gang member who many might recognize by his nickname: "Smurf." I've been reading about him since I first moved to Connecticut - to Hartford's West End in 1994. His life as an abused child, budding gang member who formed the "GQ Crew," then card-carrying member of "Los Solidos" is enough for a movie. But he's not seeking fame, or near as I can tell, much publicity for his transformation - certainly not compared to the countless ministers, community leaders and politicans who have come and gone in the city's recent history.
What he does with his organization, Peacebuilders, is mediate disputes between teens - before they turn into violent gunfights. He told me about the lives of thousands of kids, growing up just like he did - abusive parents, the family structure of gang life, the "huffing and puffing" attitude that sparks fire with every long-simmering dispute. He talks about his turnaround, his jail time, the loss of his older brother in a shooting last year, and the near loss of his young daughter after a threat from a rival gang member. Iran is almost exactly my age, and has lived a life twice as hard, and somehow looks ten years younger...reborn.
I was struck by how the problems of our first conversation about the arts and this one about guns and life on the street, might really tell a full story about Hartford. Maybe what Nazario told me about the uncaring attitude of parents, who actually urge their kids to settle disputes with fights on the street bolsters a case made last year by the city's police chief, who said following a shocking hit-and-run, "I'm ashamed to say our city has a toxic relationship with ourselves."
Maybe that toxicity carries over, and feeds our insecurity about the Capitol city. Maybe the annual cycle of summer violence is part of the same apathy that fuels suburban fears and the long-standing cry, "There's nothing to do in Hartford" - even when we know that's not true.
As I said, I don't live in Hartford anymore. Neither does Iran Nazario. His little girl survived the gang life he subjected her to, and she now thrives in Windsor's public schools. But we both come to work here, along with insurance company executives, painters and garbagemen, and we care about its success.
I guess I'm just rooting harder for Hartford today. I'd really like the conversation to change.