What can Hartford , once America’s most prosperous city, learn from scholarship on cities in the global south?

Words by Garth Myers | 21 Sep, 2013

Scholarship within mainstream urban studies usually ignores cities in Africa. It considers them as “not-quite-cities,” or makes them into sites of dystopian fantasies. Recently, outside (non-African based) scholars have paid more attention to the continent’s urban areas. But rather than confronting the possibility that Africa’s cities may offer transformative possibilities for cities across the world, these cities are still too often shoehorned into prevailing trends of northern global urban studies. The African Centre for Cities manifests an exciting counter-trend to this tendency, redirecting global idea flows about cities. One reshaping of those flows means engaging global north cities from the global south.

The city where I work—Hartford, the capital of Connecticut on the northeastern US seaboard—is a fascinating site for such an engagement. In a recent paper I identified themes for why Africa’s cities matter. These themes include seeing African cities as postcolonial, informal, wounded, cosmopolitan and imaginative places; I also discuss the continent’s cities as “poor, unequal and unjust”. If we start to think about urbanism in the world from Cape Town, Nairobi, or Dakar—if we say these are the cities which define what cities are becoming—would their examples speak to Hartford? I think they would.

In the US Census lingo, by 2013 Hartford was the US’s 44th-largest metropolitan statistical area (MSA), with 1,2 million people. The City of Hartford, without its suburbs, is the MSA’s “core urban area”, with 125,000 people—the smallest core of any of the 50 largest MSAs in the US. In the late nineteenth century, Hartford was America’s most prosperous city, a hub of industrial wealth. It fell into decline in the second half of the twentieth century and is now a shrinking post-industrial city surrounded by suburbia.

But what if, instead of using these measures for characterising Hartford, we started with themes about African urban dynamics? Hartford surely can be considered a postcolonial, informalising, wounded, cosmopolitan, and imaginative city struggling with poverty, inequality and injustice. Hartford is a postcolonial city. Founded by Dutch traders in 1623, Hartford’s English settlement (1635) is the heart of one of the oldest regions of America’s colonial era. Even if colonialism ended in New England in the 1780s, it still haunts the city.

Connecticut’s contemporary state budget—and therefore Hartford’s city budget—depends heavily upon revenues from gambling and entertainment resorts on reservations of its surviving indigenous peoples, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan nations. About 43% of the City of Hartford’s population is Hispanic or Latino—and 75% of that Latino population is Puerto Rican (32% of the core’s total). Another 39% identify as African-American or Black—one-third of them foreign-born, Caribbean or African peoples. Hartford lives in the long, bloody shadow of English-settler and Euro-American Caribbean colonialism (especially of the US in Puerto Rico), even if those legacies are obscured—the Puerto Rican flags in apartment windows, the Spanish-only advertisement or information in stores and restaurants, or the stark divisions into a black north, a Latino south, and steadily retreating ring of whiteness surrounding the core (78% of the MSA is white).

Hartford’s wounds run deep, from haemorrhaging industrial jobs to persistent violent crime. A murder occurs once every two weeks. Informal economy is the new normal for many Hartford residents, occasionally tying into the wounds: the sidewalks in front of some bodegas (small grocery-convenience stores) serve as staging grounds for the drugs trade, or, recently, for prostitution. But less illicit informalisation is expanding. Sideline employment and off-the-books enterprises for car-repair, lawn care, odd jobs, and childcare become local economic mainstays for people on the economic margins.

Hartford is poor, unequal and unjust. A recent Brookings Institution study calculated metropolitan Hartford as the world’s richest metropolitan area in 2011 per-capita GDP, at US$ 75,086, ahead of Oslo, San Jose and Dubai. Yet Hartford’s Gini Coefficient of income inequality (0.457, comparable to Douala, Brazzaville or Accra) and estimations of its poverty (42% of the core’s population have incomes below the poverty level, and 50% of its children lack health insurance) mark it as one of America’s poorest and most unequal metropolitan areas. Socio-environmental injustices abound.

Despite this somewhat bleak cityscape, Hartford is also a generative, imaginative cosmopolis. Its cosmopolitan character is obvious in its incredible diversity. Beyond the African-American and Puerto Rican communities, one-fourth of the city core in 2011 was foreign-born. The countries in the city span the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Significant Ghanaian, Ethiopian, Peruvian, Colombian, Dominican, Jamaican, Bosnian and Brazilian immigrant populations enliven the city with new cuisines, musical traditions, businesses and arts. New urban imaginaries emerge regularly, from the African diaspora-oriented Artists Collective to the annual Samba Fest and International Hip-Hop Festival.

Surprises await the observant urbanist everywhere, from the informal shrine to Our Lady of Hartford, a vision of the Virgin Mary on the south end of firearms maker Samuel Colt’s former backyard, Colt Park, to the Roberto Clemente Memorial inside that park, commemorating the great Puerto Rican baseball superstar and humanitarian. And for every bodega that makes the news for drug busts or prostitution, dozens more provide valuable spaces for cosmopolitan community building, alongside the vibrant street life of many poor Hartford neighbourhoods—where a used appliance store takes over a parking lot, which then becomes a café-like gathering place, replete with umbrellas and tables where deals are made and bonds strengthened over games of dominoes or cards.

One could look at Hartford from other African urbanist perspectives and say similar things. It is a city that matches up well with the informal, spectral, invisible and trans-territorial visions of AbdouMaliq Simone: from ghostly corners like the Bobby Sands Hunger Strikers’ Memorial in the South End and Ebony Horsewomen’s African-American equestrian club in Keney Park in the North End, to what one can imagine as the greater Hartford-San Juan (Puerto Rico) area. Park Street, by its mercado in the Frog Hollow neighbourhood, pulses with the messy, complicated “Afropolitan” vibe of Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe’s Johannesburg. Any search for solutions to Hartford’s challenges ought to come from recognition of the factors of relationality that Edgar Pieterse suggests in City Futures (2008).

The tangible outcomes from rethinking a rust belt US city from African perspectives might seem at first to be ephemeral. I am reluctant to suggest that some urban policy that works in Cape Town should be plopped on top of Frog Hollow. A more fitting vision of Hartford from the global south might be to see it as a Caribbean city, or a Latin American city. And there is value in continuing to analyse Hartford in comparison with other US cities—perhaps as a test case for the hypothesised “great inversion,” where inner suburbs become highly diverse and inner cities regain white populations.

But I do still wonder what Hartford might learn from, say, Cape Town’s programme for Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading, or Nairobi’s youth NGOs, which helped prevent post-election violence there in 2013. It is not that I believe the world should follow where African cities are going. Instead, I mean to suggest that city learning is a two-way street. Maybe we can bring urban studies into better global balance through thought experiments like this one.

Garth Myers is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies and Director of the Urban Studies Program at Trinity College, Hartford