I was struck reading Chapman’s book by many things. First, her geographic progression down Main Street and Asylum Avenue was exciting to read, as I know many of the streets and intersections well. I felt some vicarious pride toward my city. On the other hand, I also recognized the privileged lens through which she reminisced. Her vantage point seems to have precluded her from commenting on one of the most important neighborhoods in Hartford’s history – what would have then been called “East Side.” This is the area east of Main Street to the river, currently occupied by Hartford’s greatest civil engineering mistake – Constitution Plaza, among other “urban renewal” blunders. East Side was home to Hartford’s original Little Italy. Some of you have likely heard it referred to as the old Front St. It was often the place where new immigrants from all over the world first made their homes. By the time of Chapman’s book, many had begun to see East Side as a slum – a point of view that only got worse until the mid-20th century when urban renewal swooped in – but there are still many residents of greater Hartford who will remember it more fondly.
As for Chapman’s observations in the book, here are some that stood out to me:
She recalls with glee the area of the river through Bushnell Park (page 11), behind the YMCA building (the modern version is now empty, by the way). She talks about a portion of the river where stepping stones allowed one to cross over. This is the area where Hartford seeks to un-bury the river. I hope that they will put stepping stones across it! She also mentions that the YMCA site once contained the jail and hangings were done outside in public.
Chapman remarks about the Main Street bridge (22), which at the time she posited was perhaps the first of its kind in America. It is a keystone arch bridge – depicted in this print when the river still ran underneath. Today, the bridge is hidden in plain sight amongst the modern buildings and over the Whitehead highway on the way to I-91.
Click on the image to learn more about this bridge, and other significant ones in CT.
Nearer to my neighborhood, Chapman talks about the Colt land, and laments the Swiss village (23) that was largely destroyed there. However, interesting architecture from Colt’s development still exist in the form of nods to both German and Dutch architecture.
Check out Karen O’Maxfield’s treatment of this and other neighborhoods here.
I really enjoyed her description of bikes and tennis of the time (43-46). Both would have a profound impact on the advancement of women, but that’s for another blog. I was also intrigued by the group called “Friendly Visitors.” I had not heard of them before, but this link provides some interesting background. They were apparently an upper-class woman’s way of doing charity, which came with a certain perspective:
“The assumption that the poor were in need of upper-class role models to assist in their ‘moral uplift’ rather than decent wages and safe housing, was so widely accepted by most Americans that it severely restricted society’s view of the poor and their needs for several decades” (“The Friendly Visitor”)
This seems to locate Chapman among Hartford’s elite, along with the fact that she mentions television, something that had only been invented maybe a couple years earlier than the book’s publication. It would be interesting to contrast her depiction with those of people from lower and working classes. Still her prideful descriptions of the city were fun to read.