Butt-ugly CollectiveMarch 2nd, 2010

There’s a piece of the downtown Hartford skyline, popularly known as the butt-ugly building, that protrudes so forlornly from the surrounding sea of parked cars that it draws the attention of motorists passing through on the interstate.  To some, it must symbolize the failure of our once-great little city. 

The building is located at what used to be a busy commercial corner, now isolated by highway interchanges.  It’s been vacant for years.  It used to have stores at the ground level and miscellaneous businesses above.  It was within easy walking distance of movie theaters, restaurants, and department stores and adjacent to a neighborhood of residential tenements, and it was near the intersection of just about every city bus and trolley line.  It was surrounded by other buildings, all gone now to make room for local and interstate traffic.  It’s on a hill, and you can see it from a quarter mile away in every direction, with the adjoining land partly paved and covered with parked cars during the day.  

Development in Hartford has been very slow for quite some time, and the butt-ugly building stands as mute testimony to our decline.  Hartford’s in trouble partly because of economics–unemployment is endemic in cities that used to make things but don’t anymore–and partly because of a lack of confidence in the city’s capacity to govern itself.  The butt-ugly building, with paint half-peeled from the brick and windows broken throughout, is pretty much worthless in these depressed conditions, except as a parking lot, its highest and best use.  Last I  heard, the landlord was asking for permission to knock it down, and some people think that’s a pretty good idea.  I don’t.

I look at the building and I imagine the parking lot as a green and the building in use.  In my vision, it’s a travel hub, with underground parking and no-fare public transportation in every direction.  Or, on limited capital, the building and land are converted to agriculture.  Urban farms are “cropping up” in vacant lots and factory buildings here in the Northeast, and this spot has plenty of land, especially if the whole vacant area were taken by eminent domain.  There’s a great southern exposure, there’s a ready supply of organic waste matter to nourish whatever gets planted, there’s plenty of labor available, and there’s a local market for the harvest.

Urban farming could be done at the butt-ugly building even with a small, private collective.  Raise capital with bonds, grants and savings.  Lease or buy the building and land.  Put the parking underground or simply green the whole lot.  Put a wind  turbine on top of the building to catch the breeze generated by the cars zooming through on the highways and put a garden and photovoltaics up there, too.  Move the members of the collective, maybe a few families, into the building to live and work. Refit the building to farm hydroponically on three or four of the six floors.  Make it Hartford’s own hanging garden.  And do the same thing for a dozen other butt-ugly vacant buildings within a mile of this one.

So many things to do and so many people to do them, and we’re paralyzed, waiting and hoping that something nice will happen to us.  Next time you’re on Route 84, take a second look at the butt-ugly building (if it’s still there).  Read its message: “People!  Do something!”