Escape From Connecticut’s Cities

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

April 8, 2001

The release of the 2000 Census in recent weeks has created an almost euphoric mood among many longtime observers of American cities. Places left for dead not long ago—New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Boston—are all experiencing growth in population. A whole host of urban indicators—poverty and unemployment rates, welfare rolls, property values, housing starts, crime statistics—are moving in the right direction.

Yet cities in Connecticut do not just face a fiscal crisis; they have a deeper crisis rooted in market irrelevance and social isolation.

The city of Hartford is a case in point. The city lost an incredible 13 percent of its population in the 1990s, the largest decline of any town in Connecticut. According to the census, Hartford lost more people in the 1990s than New London, New Haven, Groton and Bridgeport taken together.

As people go, so do jobs. Between 1992 and 1997, Hartford lost 11.5 percent of its job base. Its suburbs, by contrast, grew by 3.3 percent. The ESPN exurban campus in Bristol is typical of the “exit ramp” economy that now dominates Hartford’s metropolis.

As jobs move out to the fringe, the people left behind are disproportionately poor. Hartford’s poverty rate in 1990 was 27.5 percent, one of the highest of any city in the country. According to 1997 IRS data, 26.4 percent of the taxpayers in the city qualify as “working poor” compared to 8.8 percent in the region as a whole.

The implications of concentrated poverty are severe. People in these neighborhoods often face a triple whammy: poor schools, weak job information networks and scarce jobs. The neighborhoods themselves send strong signals to people and businesses: If you have the resources, get out and stay away.

These powerful forces—employment decentralization, population loss, concentrated poverty—place cities like Hartford in a fiscal vise. As companies and families move out, the tax bases of cities and older suburbs shrink, leaving these places without the ability to grapple with concentrated minority poverty, joblessness, family fragmentation and failing schools.

A Takeover Won’t Work

So where do cities like Hartford go from here? Can Hartford become Providence, a city that has had an almost magical renaissance in the past decade with a revitalized downtown, positive gains in population and renewed sense of purpose? Or does it become Camden, N.J., a city without any traction in the economy?

The first step of recovery is to understand the structural nature of these problems. A fiscal takeover is not a panacea. One can balance the books but still lose a city. Just ask Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia. He heroically brought Philadelphia back from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s only to find that it wasn’t enough. The middle class still left, the new-economy firms still moved 30 miles away, the neighborhoods still declined.

Cities like Hartford require radical solutions to extreme problems. As Edward Hill and Jeremy Nowak have written, “[The] subject is not poverty; it is the competitive viability of distressed central cities. Cities can help relieve poverty only by creating opportunity. They will become places of opportunity only when their assets are competitive in their regional economies. And they can do this only by creating environments in which city assets are part of self-sustaining, self-organizing markets—housing markets, labor markets and markets for business locations.”

What will make Hartford a competitive city? Only a systemic, sustained effort to recreate a market where businesses can invest and families (with or without children) choose to live.

Such an effort will require state-backed municipal tax reform, essentially slashing land and business taxes for a fixed period of time. It will require local land reform, so that available land can be assembled, cleaned and prepared for redevelopment. It will require an overhaul of local government, so that public bureaucracies (particularly schools) are held to high, no-nonsense standards.

State Must Reshape Growth

But city-only solutions will not be sufficient. Hartford’s decline is partly a reflection of state laws and practices that subsidize sprawl and permit suburbs to wall themselves off from regional responsibilities. Hartford’s rebirth, therefore, must be tied to regional housing strategies that enable low-income workers to live closer to suburban jobs and educational opportunities.

And it will require major state reforms to redirect infrastructure spending to older communities, invest heavily in the reclamation of urban land and constrain growth on the fringe of metropolitan areas.

The city—any city—cannot carry the burden of reform alone. In fact, the state is the only player with the power and resources to shape growth patterns in metropolitan areas.

A pipe dream? Absolutely, in the current environment, in which suburbs believe they can separate their fate from those of cities and urban policy has been reduced to magic-bullets solutions such as new stadiums or state empowerment zones or the healing power of faith-based institutions.

But as Nowak and Hill have argued, cities like Hartford and states like Connecticut have “nothing left to lose.” If business continues as usual, the state will continue to throw good money after bad to prop up failing school systems and dysfunctional local governments. Development will continue ever outward, chewing up Connecticut’s bucolic landscape and forcing residents of small towns and rural areas to grapple with the downside of unchecked and unwanted growth.

A stronger Hartford—or Waterbury or New Britain or Bridgeport—will mean a stronger state and stronger regions. There will be a lot less sprawl and a lot more energy and investment in places bypassed by the new economy.

In 1868, Mark Twain wrote that “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, [Hartford] is the chief.” Hartford and other Connecticut cities will never return to their former glory. Unlike Providence, they are not fortunate enough to bask in the glow of a major metropolis like Boston. Yet they can be better, more livable places if the cities, regions and state embrace real reform.