Remembering a Hartford that didn’t kowtow to commuters

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The New York Times reported last week that Hartford is “teetering on the brink of bankruptcy” — a forecast that didn’t hit me like a freight train.

As The Times noted, the capital city has for decades watched its tax base shrink while “its
pension obligations and debts have piled up.”

In fact, one has to go back decades — before I was born — to remember a flourishing Hartford. Go back close to a century and you’ll find Hartford at its peak. And there are few symbols of Hartford’s prolonged decline more apt than the former G. Fox & Co. department store building at 96 Main Street.

Built between 1917 and ’18 after its five-story predecessor suffered one of the worst fires in the city’s history, the 11-story G. Fox building was a behemoth in its time. Under the leadership of Moses Fox — whose father, Gerson, founded the store as a one-story textile shop in 1847 — G. Fox became the largest family-owned department store in the United States.

It remained such under the leadership of Beatrice Fox Auerbach, Moses’s daughter who was affectionately called “Mrs. A” by her employees. G. Fox remained a commercial juggernaut until Filene’s (now Macy’s) acquired the name in 1965 and later vacated the store in 1993.

In its heyday, the tenth floor of G. Fox & Co. housed the bedding shop, furniture department, and the seven-room employee infirmary (opened in 1940 and indicative of Mrs. A’s attention to her employees’ well-being).

When I visited last spring, the tenth floor was empty — save for a couple-dozen half-painted concrete columns, large air vents leading nowhere, and other structural guts characteristic of abandoned buildings.

Huge windows offered panoramic views of the entire city — including the undeniably impressive Dunkin’ Donuts Park, home of the Colorado Rockies-affiliated Yard Goats, who continue to draw sellout crowds from the surrounding suburbs, yielding even worse traffic on I-84 before and after home games.

Despite its views of once-promising developments, 96 Main remains an 11-story hotel lobby serving only to separate the adjacent parking garage from people’s offices or Capital Community College classrooms.

Like most infrastructure in Hartford, the parking garage was built to cater to commuters.
(Legend says Auerbach used her clout to convince city planners to build an on-off ramp at the intersection of Interstates 84 and 91 to effectively funnel G. Fox customers in and out.)  And such kowtowing has now proved to be the city’s death knell.

Hartford is more than its downtown. And Hartford is more than its suburbs. Yet every recent revitalization effort — Dunkin’ Donuts Park, CTfastrak, the city’s push to develop apartments downtown, etc. — ignores all but the few square miles encompassing the city’s insurance companies and semi-professional sports stadiums.

The Times says as much: Beyond the city’s core, blocks are dotted with blighted buildings, some appearing to be overtaken by nature. Residents complain of parks that are poorly maintained and have expressed concern over violent crime. The Police Department is significantly understaffed, officials said, having lost more than 100 officers in recent years. The city’s library system recently announced the closure of three of its branches and other cuts have threatened community events, like parades and festivals.

Hartford has all but lost its usefulness. As industries shutter — or in the case of Aetna, relocate to the nearby financial capital of the world — jobs flee subsequently. And it doesn’t help that the municipal government continues to turn its back on residents who don’t live within walking distance of Bushnell Park.

Outside downtown, the standard of living is about to bottom out. Meanwhile, Hartford’s
infrastructure insures white collar suburbanites don’t have to look at it on their way to and from work every day.

Brendan Gauthier is a South Windsor native, 2015 Trinity College graduate, former writer at Salon.com and current graduate student at Columbia University working on a book about G. Fox & Co.

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