"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
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
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
- 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
A weblog pertaining to Portsmouth, Ohio describes the feelings of one West
“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
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
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
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
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
West Hartford Town Website
Blueback Square Developer Website
Robert Forrey's Weblog