Exploring: Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford (founded 1637) doesn’t show up on too many people’s “must-see” lists. Heck, as I discovered during a recent stay with relatives near there, it doesn’t even rate very highly among Connecticuters. (Cuter than what? I’m not sure!)


Real Art Ways building (see below)

“There’s the Wadsworth Atheneum,” my uncle told me, referring to one of the country’s oldest art museums. “Other than that, there’s not much to see. They decided to clear everyone out of downtown years ago, so now it’s just empty.”

The infamous they. Urban planners of the 1950s and 1960s, I imagined.

Still, I couldn’t resist a visit. “Empty” had to be an overstatement.

Dan and I did some research online and found some intriguing neighborhood names: Frog Hollow. Asylum Hill. Behind the Rocks. And just like that, we had an itinerary!

We ended up spending about 5 hours in town, tooling around in various neighborhoods and seeing various sights. My overall impression was that while it was far from empty, quite a bit of the city’s original fabric (and much of its oldest) has disappeared, devoured by freeways, parking lots and what appeared to be misguided attempts at urban renewal.

I’m not sure that proportionately any more of the city has disappeared than Cleveland or Detroit or Buffalo. But the impact is heavier because it’s such a small town, both in terms of population (124,000) and area (just 18 square miles,  about the size of Cleveland Heights and Lakewood smooshed together).

We kept being surprised by how close together everything was. We’d enter our next destination in the GPS and discover it was a mile or two away. That’s the scale at which this old city was built — everything had to be walkable. Today, while the distances aren’t that far, there’s not much street life to entice you out of your car. It’d be a good city to explore on bike, though. Compact and relatively flat.

Anyway, here are some of the sights and sounds we experienced during our visit.


Public Space: Elizabeth Park
(915 Prospect Ave.)
We started at this Olmsted park famous for its extensive rose gardens. The gardens were well past peak when we were there, so we didn’t spend too long. We did get to meet a couple yappy dogs, though, and saw some pretty old greenhouses.

Local Coffee Shop: Tisane
(537 Farmington Ave.)
Cozy coffee shop and bar that serves super-strong (and good) espresso drinks. H
ighly recommended! Farmington Avenue, the street it’s on, heads West out of Downtown. This appears to be Hartford’s version of Woodward Avenue in Detroit, or Euclid Avenue in Cleveland — a main cross-town artery along which the city’s wealthy migrated ever outward, eventually concentrating in the suburb of West Hartford.

Cool Building: Cathedral of St. Joseph
(140 Farmington Ave.)
This building, made of concrete and Alabama limestone, was dedicated in 1962 to replace a predecessor that burned down. Yet it evokes the clean lines and austere relief details of the Art Deco and Art Moderne eras of the 1920s-1940s. Rising nearly 300 feet above the sidewalk, it’ll command your attention as you travel west on Farmington out of downtown. Honorable mention: The Hartford state capital, ornate and fancy without being obnoxious.

Bustling Neighborhood: Frog Hollow
(Park Street between Pope Park and about Washington St.)
We wanted to explore Frog Hollow because of its great name, but once we found the neighborhood what impressed us was its street life — a rarity in otherwise sleepy Hartford. We parked our car and walked up and down Park Street, the main drag, feeling as if we’d stepped into some pan-Latino alternate universe. Spanish was pretty much the only language we heard, and businesses catered to Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and others. As a couple of white guys, one of us carrying a latte, we got a couple curious looks — but nothing hostile.


El Mercado, Park St., Frog Hollow

Amazing Food: El Mercado
(704 Park St.)
“They got the best food in here, guys,” a youngish Latino man told us as we walked down Park Street. He was carrying a paper container of what looked like delicious fried things, so we were inclined to believe him. We walked into the building he’d gestured at and found ourselves in a Latin supermarket, the aisles of food flanked by stalls selling Dominican, Peruvian and Mexican food — all at bargain basement prices. Tragically, it was only 11:30 and we weren’t yet hungry. But the pink-and-green seafood salads, crispy empanadas and cilantro-scented tallarin noodles looked delectable.

Italian Pastry: South End neighborhood
(Franklin Avenue between Maple and Jordan)
These days, this traditionally Italian neighborhood seems to be mostly a figurehead for the local Italian-American population, much of which has moved out to the burbs. But roam up and down Franklin Avenue south of Downtown for a bunch of Italian restaurants and bakeries.

Independent Bookstore: The Jumping Frog
(56 Arbor St., Suite #107)
This tiny bookstore is located inside an old factory not far from the Farmington Avenue main drag. The building’s star tenants are the 40-year-old Real Art Ways, an art space and arts advocacy organization, which seemed to be closed when we were there, and an art house cinema. The Jumping Frog specializes in used and rare books, and I found a number of intriguing 1940s detective novels and pulp fiction on its crowded shelves.


The Jumping Frog, 56 Arbor St.

Hip, Artsy Local Pride Store: Hartford Prints!
(42 1/2 Pratt St.)
This is the downtown storefront space for a printmaking and letterpress studio located in the Real Art Ways building. They sell all manner of Hartford pride T-shirts (“Small State, Big Heart”), cards and prints, along with some fine art pieces and other local crafts. Other than this place, downtown seemed serviceable and full of hotels, restaurants and chain retail, but didn’t have a whole lot to detain us. Dan got sad by the evidence of all the old stuff that seemed to have been torn down.

Relaxing Outdoor Lunch: Monte Alban
(531 Farmington Ave.)
This Mexican spot has one of the few outdoor dining spaces we found during our travels, and as the day was beautiful this is where we decided to eat. The food was solid-bordering-on-excellent. I had cheese enchiladas in mole; Dan the shrimp mexicana.


Monte Alban, salsa on its way!

Not Experienced! (Maybe next time)

Hartford’s main tourist draw, the Mark Twain House, is a gargantuan brick Victorian where the author lived from 1874 to 1891. We didn’t stop because we didn’t want to be inside on a beautiful summer day. Adjacent is the Harriet Beecher Stowe museum.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, the city’s art museum.


Hartford has one of the biggest West Indian populations in the nation. The friendly young woman at Hartford Prints! recommended two places: Jahmske’s Carribean Restaurant, 1291 Albany Ave.; and Dunn’s River Jamaican Restaurant, 2996 Main St. Both are in the North End, reportedly not the safest part of town, so lock up your car if you go. Time kept us from checking these places out, unfortunately.

Further Reading

To do more poking around about Hartford, check out Sad City Hartford, a now-defunct blog that explored the city’s culture and history. Tag line: “With its low self-esteem and high urban blight, Hartford is the ultimate underdog city. Sad City Hartford documents the joys, sorrows and eccentricities of New England’s Rising Star.”

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