Butt-ugly Collective

There’s a piece of the downtown Hartford skyline, popularly known as the butt-ugly building, that protrudes so forlornly from the surrounding sea of parked cars that it draws the attention of motorists passing through on the interstate.  To some, it must symbolize the failure of our once-great little city. 

The building is located at what used to be a busy commercial corner, now isolated by highway interchanges.  It’s been vacant for years.  It used to have stores at the ground level and miscellaneous businesses above.  It was within easy walking distance of movie theaters, restaurants, and department stores and adjacent to a neighborhood of residential tenements, and it was near the intersection of just about every city bus and trolley line.  It was surrounded by other buildings, all gone now to make room for local and interstate traffic.  It’s on a hill, and you can see it from a quarter mile away in every direction, with the adjoining land partly paved and covered with parked cars during the day.  

Development in Hartford has been very slow for quite some time, and the butt-ugly building stands as mute testimony to our decline.  Hartford’s in trouble partly because of economics–unemployment is endemic in cities that used to make things but don’t anymore–and partly because of a lack of confidence in the city’s capacity to govern itself.  The butt-ugly building, with paint half-peeled from the brick and windows broken throughout, is pretty much worthless in these depressed conditions, except as a parking lot, its highest and best use.  Last I  heard, the landlord was asking for permission to knock it down, and some people think that’s a pretty good idea.  I don’t.

I look at the building and I imagine the parking lot as a green and the building in use.  In my vision, it’s a travel hub, with underground parking and no-fare public transportation in every direction.  Or, on limited capital, the building and land are converted to agriculture.  Urban farms are “cropping up” in vacant lots and factory buildings here in the Northeast, and this spot has plenty of land, especially if the whole vacant area were taken by eminent domain.  There’s a great southern exposure, there’s a ready supply of organic waste matter to nourish whatever gets planted, there’s plenty of labor available, and there’s a local market for the harvest.

Urban farming could be done at the butt-ugly building even with a small, private collective.  Raise capital with bonds, grants and savings.  Lease or buy the building and land.  Put the parking underground or simply green the whole lot.  Put a wind  turbine on top of the building to catch the breeze generated by the cars zooming through on the highways and put a garden and photovoltaics up there, too.  Move the members of the collective, maybe a few families, into the building to live and work. Refit the building to farm hydroponically on three or four of the six floors.  Make it Hartford’s own hanging garden.  And do the same thing for a dozen other butt-ugly vacant buildings within a mile of this one.

So many things to do and so many people to do them, and we’re paralyzed, waiting and hoping that something nice will happen to us.  Next time you’re on Route 84, take a second look at the butt-ugly building (if it’s still there).  Read its message: “People!  Do something!”

One Response to “Butt-ugly Collective”

  1. Ed Turbert Says:

    Mr. Gadfly,
    I remember being in this building on Main Street a few times.
    The last time there, I was on unemployment compensation in 1982 or so. We would be obligated to appear in person maybe once a month to warrant remaining on the weekly check system. I would enter on the left rear part of the building and wind about till coming upon a large space whose walls and floors bore similar faded yellow paint and traffic worn tan linoleum flooring. It was a production exercise for the state workers and the jobless the atmosphere oppressive. I recall meeting the mother of a high school friend who worked there and her humanizing the event and her encouragement.
    Earlier by about twelve years, the building contained a jeweller and pawn shop fun by a pair of brothers named Gillespie. My father went there for a ring to give at Christmas to his wife, my mother, of thirty years or so. They married when he was drafted for WWII and speeded the process out of state without recourse to social pages, photography or engagement ring.
    His description of the old slow elevator to an upper floor and suggestion that the elderly brothers had access to or were part of the New York jewelry business made us all believe the ring’s stone was of fine quality and value. It added to the celebratory feeling of the gift for all of us shared in the family. I found the same jeweller located at Pratt Street when time came for me to shop for a ring.
    My first two wheel bicicle was a JC Higgins, the Sears brand of the time. I must have been 7 or eight years old that Christams. But before the holiday I accompanied my father to a store called Marholins located in the Main Street building. The elevator even then clanked and heaved and sighed as it brought us upward to a display room at one of the topmost floors. When the accordian gate and doorway opened, I stepped out into a space that appeared to be an acre of bicicles. So many brands, so many sizes, so many colors, some with mirrors or bells or plastic streamers.
    I paused last year at the stoplight at Main and Trumbull and saw the bills for Gospel, Reggae and Hip Hop artists who would be performing in Hartford soon. The layers of color looked Like a bit of NYC here in our provincial city.
    So the building stands alone now. It looks diminished, reduced in beauty, usefullness and value when alone and without neighbors. Like me if I was alone in a nursing home, or a queue for food stamps or at a bus stop without a shelter.
    So as I age memories attach to places that will have no existence when torn down.

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