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"Where City Style Meets Village Charm"

- Town of West Hartford Website

The view from the seats on the sidewalk at the Starbucks cafe in West Hartford, Connecticut is so similar to being on Columbus Avenue on New York City's upper west side, it's spooky. If you're driving (which 99.9% of folks are in West Hartford), the parking meter requires a refill every two hours. If one can find a parking meter. Parking's a problem, and costly, in West Hartford (compared to the smaller, more rural hamlets to the west of town).

The passers-by provide a fashion show of name-brand clothing, costly accessories and equally expensive coiffure. The slimmest, latest cell phones are de rigeur. Seventeen-year-old kids brandish Blackberries. The cars parked at the curb reek of conspicuous consumption (except for the tiny Toyota Camry, which ironically is owned by one of the folks in town with old money. So much in fact, that she could probably write a check and buy all the other cars on the block, and the owners' homes, as well.)

Attractive garbage pails on every corner and mid-block have done little to reduce the bits and pieces of life that visitors and residents alike leave behind. Bits and pieces that reveal the lurid underbelly of the ostensibly charming hamlet that is West Hartford:

  • An ATM receipt for a withdrawal from an AMEX card (instead of a debit card)

He: "We can't afford a Lexus." She: "Oh, just use the home-equity. I have to have a Lexus.
Marie Brown's husband gave her a friggin' Jaguar for Christmas.
What have you done for me, lately?!"

  • A crumpled cigarette pack

Customer: "Do you have any gum here?" Restaurateur: "No. We have mints."
Customer: "Crap. I told her I'd quit; I need to do better than mints. Where can I buy gum around here..?"

She: "Are you going to come home sober one night this week?!"
He lies: "Aw, I'm not that bad. Besides, it was cheap. I went to that dive in Hartford where the drinks are $2.50 apiece."

West Hartford is adjacent to and west of the City of Hartford, Connecticut's state capital. At the town line between West Hartford and Hartford on nearly every main artery connecting the two locales, there is an abrupt change in the infrastructure and the demographic. The fact that every main road out of the Town, but for the Interstate (I-84), empties out into a Hartford neighborhood ridden with urban blight, epitomizes the rapid demise of the middle class, at least in Connecticut terms.

The Town encompasses 22.2 square miles and has a population of 61,046 (2000 Census). West Hartford is a residential suburb of the Hartford metropolitan area. The Town encompasses a full range of quality housing from starter homes to luxury estates. West Hartford boasts a strong retail and service business sector.

There is a wealth of shopping opportunities, from neighborhood stores to regional shopping centers including the renowned West Hartford Center and Westfarms Mall. Additionally, West Hartford has well-established manufacturing companies that employ a highly skilled labor force. Although well developed, West Hartford has commercial and industrial land available, in particular in the southeast section of town.

- West Hartford's Town Website

If the liberal leanings of the town's population were actually expressed in the voting booths, perhaps the above bit about "full range of quality housing" would be true. However, there is indeed a dearth of affordable housing in West Hartford. Enter Connecticut Transit, the Hartford-based bus system. The buses lumber along in the early morning and late evening, transporting those who serve West-Hartfordites' every need and want. The Dial-A-Ride program effectively insulates non-driving handicapped and elderly persons from (God forbid) the huddled masses on the City busses. Light rail service and shuttle-trolleys have been discussed from time to time, but I guess nothing provides more entertainment for the residents who actually walk the sidewalks to see two well-manicured ladies with $250 hairdos engage in a verbal battle royal over a parking space. It never comes to fisticuffs, but I guess luxury car ownership does nothing to prevent the use of even the coarsest obscenities by the driver. Oh, that's right, Zsa Zsa Gabor was driving a $475,000 Rolls Corniche Convertible when she slapped the cop in L.A., but I digress.

The "skilled labor force" discussed hereinabove are predominately workers at the Colt Weapons Manufacturing Plant, who're laid off more days a year than they work. There are, indeed, a few government contractors and myriad wide-eyed startups in businesses ranging from finance to advertising, but they come and go as fast as one can spell "bankruptcy."

The mil rate (property tax rate) in West Hartford is currently around 43. Thanks to a recent bond issue, it will surely go up. In practical terms this means that a house assessed at $300,000 pays taxes of about $9,000 a year. It'll go into five figures unless the town somehow increases its tax base.

Now, the bond issue was for neither infrastructure nor schools. It was for "cooperative development of the public spaces" of a multi-use commercial and residential project called "Blue Back Square," developed by a private corporation. The name comes from the title of a reference volume penned by one of the Town's earliest residents, Noah Webster. Creative accounting and a multi-million dollar advertising and public relations program convinced the voters that development would be good for the town. The fact of the matter is that there's a snowball's chance in hell of the town paying off the bond issue without either cutting services or raising taxes. The users of the services vote; the taxpayers, sadly, are apathetic. So guess who wins.

A recent call to the renting office set up for the project revealed that commercial space will rent for over $50 per square foot, net-net-net (which means that the tenant is responsible for everything; taxes, water, sewer, HVAC repairs, etc.). The residential units (condominiums) start at half a million dollars. Those one-bedroom units are available. The ones ranging from $1 to $5 million have been snapped up already (and the building, at this writing, consisted of a steel frame).

The movers-and-shakers in town tend to be involved in either real estate, banking, politics, or all three. The Town Manager of fifteen years recently retired (what a coincidence - given the fact that he was a proponent of Blue Back Square). During the flurry of controversy over the project, his closet doors flew open and skeletons came flying out. It turns out that he'd resigned or been suspended as Town Manager in two previous residences in the midwest, both times for misfeasance and malfeasance with regard to similar downtown development projects.

A weblog pertaining to Portsmouth, Ohio describes the feelings of one West Hartford resident:

“West Hartford town manager Barry Feldman crawled to a public meeting the other day. All that smarmy over inflated greasy bag of ego did was allow the attendees to admire his grasp of all things meaningless and his arrogant mouthings of whatever platitudes he assumed the great unwashed needed to hear from the top of his lofty self constructed mountain of his sweet smelling excrement.”

As a Manhattan businessman moved to what we New Yorkers call "the country" I assumed that doing business up here would be a whole lot easier than handling the filthy bureaucracy that is New York City Government. Nope. It seems that there's a fee for everything one does in the interest of promoting or expanding business. Ironically, it's patently obvious who gets hurt the most: the small business owner. Let's say a coffee-shop owner wants to erect a sign on the outside of his business, nothing fancy, just something to stand out a little bit. He is subject to myriad regulations, and should he want to work outside of them and receive a zoning variance, the legal costs alone would break him. And the "sign permit" is $75. Now, I'm a much bigger operator with a very, very expensive Liquor Permit (fee paid to the state). In Connecticut, Liquor Permits must be registered with the Town Clerk each year upon renewal. One would think that the fee structure for looking at a piece of paper and saying "okay" would be similar - $75 - but no. The Liquor Permit registration fee is $3. I wonder how many Permittees were on the Town Council when the issue of that fee was last revisited.

Enough acrimony. West Hartford should, indeed, be proud of its school system. A few years ago, whatever National rating board or committee or agency that rates schools placed the quality of education in West Hartford above that of wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut (long number one in education). You know, Greenwich, the place that's home (or was) to folks like Michael Skakel, Leona Helmsley, Ivana Trump and none other than George W. Bush.

There is indeed sincere charm to be found in West Hartford. There are a few businesses left who've held in there despite the giants nipping at their heels from the city limits. The hardware store on the town's main drag, Farmington Avenue, can get you just about anything that you could want from Home Depot, at a similar price, and with priceless service. The "Deli-Ette," a combo diner/delicatessen, serves some of the best brisket, pastrami and corned beef I've ever tasted (better than the Carnegie Deli in New York City, is the brisket). The bakery in the Elmwood section of town is a fine place with good-quality, fresh pastries and breads at a ridiculously low price. And the local "chic" hangouts, despite their high prices and often snobby attitude, have the presence of mind enough to remember one's name even if you've not been there in a couple of months.

The parks in West Hartford are beautiful and plentiful. And the public spaces, well, the public spaces are breathtaking. I must say that if we spent half the money fixing the potholes in the roads that we did putting seasonal plants in all over town (four times a year - at taxpayer expense) drivers here feel like they were riding on rails. The homes aren't bad, either. In fact, West Hartford is a town rich in architectural wonders. An old school was converted into Senior Living (starting at $350,000 for a one-bedroom apartment) - but the renovation of the 1920's vintage building was done with care and respect for the architect's vision.

A poor kid from New York City, the niceties afforded those of us who reside in West Hartford never cease to amaze me. Not just the creature comforts, but things like safety (we don't have to lock our doors - but we do, to deter inebriated and/or tripping teenagers from walking into the wrong house and crashing). A rich buffet of culture is hiding just under the surface of the veneer of conspicuous consumption. All of the arts are represented - including some very respectable galleries, off-off-Broadway theatre and music. Oh, the music. Even the High School jazz combos (there are two High Schools) are quite talented. Classical music programs abound at the ten churches and nine synagogues in town, as well as various ethnic music concerts according to the time of year. The libraries (yes - three branches) are well-endowed and filled with helpful people. The police make it a habit to get to know business owners and homeowners alike and customize patrol to their need (or lack thereof) of a police presence.

Finally, a transcript, paraphrased from memory, of a phone call between a visiting New Yorker (impelled by tradition to bring baked goods, along with a house-warming gift, to one's new home) and myself:

Her: Paul, we're walking around town and looking for the bakery.

Me: The bakery is in Elmwood; I'll have to take you there.

Her: Wait a minute, Joey found a bakery. I'll call you right back "click!"

Me: Oh, Gott im Himmel!

(Ten minutes later)

Her: Paul, you better give us directions to that bakery in Elmford.

Me: It's Elm-"wood". I know what happened...

Her: YOU'RE SO FUCKING RICH YOU HAVE A FUCKING BAKERY FOR DOGS!  ANIMAL FOOD THEY GAVE ME WITHOUT EVEN TELLING ME!

Me: Calm down, honey. I'll feed the baked goods to pets visiting one of the restaurants I have.

Her: SIXTY FUCKING DOLLARS, FOR LAP DOGS. I WAS GONNA DROP-KICK ONE OF 'EM...

Me: (Hangs up the phone).

I drove to the "Three Dog Bakery" (of Public Television fame) to rescue them from my cousin. She'd left already, but not without leaving a tab, in my name, for fully $75 in pet delicacies that I fed to friends' pets.

Next Episode: West Hartford's Party Circuit

SOURCES:

West Hartford Town Website www.west-hardford.com

Blueback Square Developer Website www.bluebacksquare.com

Robert Forrey's Weblog http://rivervices.blogspot.com/2005/03/feldmans-legacy.html

 

 

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