Northeast Hartford is a place of contradictions, seemingly equal parts opportunities and obstacles. Walking through the neighborhood, one stumbles along crumbling sidewalks under broken streetlights, then finds groups of engaging young people gathered at street corners, energetic but bored. A large historic park provides hundreds of acres of green space, but it is seldom used, as fear of crime keeps residents traveling their own well-worn routes. Two and three-family homes line the streets, many long in need of repair. Six out of seven houses are occupied by tenants, who wield little power to fix their homes. Rates of foreclosure and eviction are among the highest in the City, and the instability that is a fact of life for so many families contributes to pervasive health issues. Though the neighborhood is vibrant with many cultures, it is also is one of the poorest in the country.
In 2011, Community Solutions began a community development initiative modeled on our Brownsville Partnership in this remarkable community. Our goal: to help make Northeast a safer, healthier and more prosperous community. By stabilizing the housing and health of residents in challenged neighborhoods like Northeast we are demonstrating how to prevent homelessness.
The catalyst for our getting involved in Northeast was a problem that needed to be solved: an historic property, a now vacant factory that had once been the neighborhood’s largest employer, was going to be demolished. The community hoped that a new use could be found for the site that could create jobs and make a significant contribution to stabilizing the Northeast neighborhood. At the urging of the neighborhood, the City of Hartford and State of Connecticut, we stepped in to help, and the owners of the property, the Swift Family, agreed to donate the property to our Hartford-based partner organization, Northeast Neighborhood Partnership.
Our plan for the empty factory is to create a lively community hub which will include affordable space for small manufacturing and “green” businesses, a digital learning center and community food center. But first, we had to learn – what makes this community tick? Who are the residents, how do they see the area, what are their hopes for their neighborhood? What does the neighborhood already have, and what does it need?
Last summer we set out with a clipboard and good walking shoes, mapping literally every building that is not a house. On over fifty streets, you find twenty corner stores, a small grocery, but not one sizable market. Even with all those stores, it’s really hard to find a tomato, let alone do a week’s grocery shopping in the area.
Around the corner from the factory, there’s a small library. Every time we visited, at least a dozen kids were reading and playing on computers. There are two community centers and a senior center, good places to find a cooking class or an open game. Reflecting the high rates of poverty and unemployment, the neighborhood has five food pantries and three soup kitchens.
The Salvation Army multi-service center, Catholic Worker after-school and summertime activities, Head Start programs, a robust and very busy job training program – all of this was keyed into a Google map, creating what we call a Community Asset Map.
In the course of our survey, we learned that the Northeast neighborhood is a hard place to be sick. Poor health is a major factor in people losing their homes: a common chronic health condition like asthma, diabetes, or heart disease can be challenging here, and start a downward spiral ending in eviction. In Northeast, it’s not easy to get to a doctor, with limited public transportation and all of the clinics located outside the neighborhood. Then there are all the negative contributing factors to poor health: lack of healthy food, deteriorated housing, poorly maintained public spaces. Among Hartford’s seventeen neighborhoods, this small area ranks highest in all kinds of preventable illnesses: obesity, heart disease, infant and neonatal mortality, preventable infections and communicable diseases.
Connecting the Dots
The great news is that there are organizations doing wonderful work in the neighborhood; some devoted to family nutrition, others creatively engaging children in exercise, and still more providing needed health services. The problem: these efforts have not been connected to each other, and no efforts have been aimed at finding the most vulnerable families, those least likely to seek out the help they need before there is a crisis.
Over the past several months, we’ve met with these other organizations to become partners in their work. We are setting out to offer wrap-around services specifically to local residents living with multiple health conditions who have the greatest difficulty getting to and managing their medical care. We’ll use the Community Asset Map to connect them to existing services and programs. Our skilled team will help them learn to manage their health, stabilize their housing and build a plan for their future.
And we’re growing a corps of Community Planning Partners, neighborhood residents who will enlist all of their neighbors’ help in prioritizing neighborhood improvement efforts. (Ed. note: more on Community Planning Partners in a future blog).
The plan for the factory space responds to what we’ve learned: parents will be able to work or find training opportunities; children and adults will have opportunities for digital learning, and families will have better access to healthy food and the jobs involved in growing it.
The Swift property is already taking on a new role in the community, as this year marks the second growing season at our Five Corners Farm on the property. Our farm at the former brownfield property is the first in a planned network of urban farms in the neighborhood.
Creating a safer, healthier and more prosperous Northeast means connecting residents, not-for–profits, and government organizations around a common vision: finding and supporting the most vulnerable, and improving services and opportunities for everyone.
To learn more about the Community Asset Map and the Healthy Northeast initiative, contact Catherine Craig at [email protected].
To learn more about the Swift factory, contact Sweta Patel at [email protected].