It’s been generations since we’ve seen an urban renaissance in various Connecticut cities. Stamford certainly has a prospering corporate center and bustling growth, particularly with more New York transplants because of the covid pandemic. New Haven is still an education and medical hub and it’s growing in these longstanding areas because it remains an “eds and meds” shoreline city.
But Bridgeport (the state’s largest city) and Hartford (our capital city) remain ongoing works in progress. Both cities should be formidable municipalities because their locations are ideally situated with significant transportation infrastructure. Yet Bridgeport (known as “Park City”) and Hartford (known as “New England’s Rising Star”) lag in so many political and social areas and they have experienced little economic growth.
So, which city will see a significant comeback in the near future? In my mind, it’s been a toss up for years.
Since I used to work in downtown Bridgeport, I saw firsthand some economic development taking shape twenty years ago. I was hopeful that developers and investors saw the city’s promise of its shoreline and Fairfield County location along I-95 and Route 8 as well as nearby Route 15 Merritt Parkway. Bridgeport’s Metro North and Amtrak trains, ferries and bus hubs should be a marvel. Even its compact downtown, should be more walkable and less of an eyesore.
But Bridgeport and especially its downtown, has seen little growth. Even its busy McDonald’s shuttered six years ago. Park City’s public safety and schools have been riddled with problems. And its local politics is so troubled, it’s difficult to tell which scandal has gained more attention over the years: Bridgeport’s city hall officials or their state lawmakers facing recent corruption charges.
I’m likely biased to Hartford, especially since I was raised near the city’s border in West Hartford. Its downtown was once a flourishing space in the 1980s, but it’s been a desolate place for years particularly at night. The National Hockey League’s Whalers brought city residents and suburbanites to its downtown as restaurants and bars were filled. Hartford was partly the reason why I studied cities, even as a teenager.
Now New England’s Rising Star finally has its Hartford Line train service to suburbs and ends in New Haven for Metro North and Amtrak access. Decades overdue, but it can be a game changer especially when Bradley International Airport passengers will be able to connect to the train line in the near future. There’s even talk of regularly scheduled train service to Boston on Amtrak.
Hartford’s I-84, particularly its viaduct and likely I-91, will also undergo significant rebuilding. No doubt both interstate highways are key to the state and the New England region.
Similar to Bridgeport though, Hartford’s social and economic ills remain longstanding problems. Its school system, public safety and economic development have been textbook urban issues.
Unlike Bridgeport, Hartford has some political promise because there’s more competition within its Democratic Town Committee and there’s a viable Working Families Party getting candidates elected to the city council. Party competition could lead to more candidates for public office and more political reform initiatives. Hartford also made various charter changes including having a strong-mayor over strong-council process, like the majority of American cities.
Meanwhile Park City’s political machinery is scarily renown and little political reform has taken place. There’s hardly political party competition and voter turnout is abysmal for local races. If Bridgeport were to address its political reforms, maybe the city would experience a significant turnaround. Maybe its downtown would thrive and economic development could be the envy of Connecticut as well as the tri-state area. But I fear Bridgeport has remained in neutral for too long.
Besides, Hartford has something Bridgeport and no Connecticut city has: an alluring skyline. You can hardly avoid its glistening downtown towers and gold domed state capitol – and I could hardly miss it at sunset returning from Storrs this weekend. Maybe New England’s Rising Star could still rise – even over Bridgeport.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies associate dean and teaches political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.