You’ll have to forgive me if it seems this post is piggy-backing on the conversation that’s happening over at Talk of West Hartford (an ongoing discussion about the successes and failures of BBS) – I was going to add another comment over there, but the more I wrote, the more it seemed clear this was going to be its own post.
It seems to me BBS begs a larger question than its parking garages (or even its own success or failure – which, let’s face it – we’re not going to adequately judge after the short gestation of nine months). And, though I don’t think a lot of you are going to like what I’m about to write, the question BBS begs is a regional and ethical question.
I caught some justified flack in response to my post about the Hartford shootings – people said that my call for greater regional responsibility was long on rhetoric and emotion and short on concrete ideas. And I think that’s true – when I wrote what I wrote, I was sorting through my own emotional reaction more than I was proposing solutions. I’m a critic, I’m a “feeling perceiver,” but I’m no politician – proposing solutions isn’t my strongest suit.
But as I’ve continued to sort, in my own mind, the disparity in dialog between West Hartford’s concerns (the cost of parking garages) and Hartford’s concerns (poverty and its consequences), one thing suffocates me – the energy West Hartford spends in its public spaces (everywhere from Blue Back Square to this blog) to create what amounts to a “Hartford amnesia.”
Blue Back Square makes a sound example of this. BBS was marketed as “mixed use development,” and it certainly is mixed use development. It’s shopping, living and it’s gathering – it’s your 21st century plaza, awash in brand and capital. And while I’m not always so crazy about capitalism, I’m willing to accept BBS for what it is. But in so doing, what BBS hides – or worse, what BBS encourages us to forget about, as we talk about it or walk through it — is that, as a new development, it has a social and ethical role beyond its own borders that it does not seem to be fulfilling. In other words, by mixing its properties and zoning, and by labeling itself “mixed use,” Blue Back Square actively encourages us to forget just how not mixed it is in the context of its region. It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that BBS was not designed with economic diversity in mind – but we seem to gloss over this essential problem in our dialog about it. As much as we talk about taxes and garages and LED lights, the greatest problem with Blue Back Square is that it lacks the economic and human diversity that will ultimately help the entire region grapple with the segregation poverty induces.
That all seems somewhat roundabout. We know who BBS is for, and that’s fine. We know who can live there and who can shop there, and that’s fine. I have nothing against those who do, and I’m not on any high horse – I’ve spent money at Blue Back Square, too. But I would challenge the town of West Hartford to make its next development project – its next mixed use project – a smart growth project. I would challenge the Town of West Hartford to make its next development project a project that welcomes economic and social diversity by making housing affordable and by making the focus of that development not its jeans stores or restaurants (which it may very well have) but rather the opportunity of access that is the bedrock of our ideals. It’s not that I don’t understand that development is more about money than ethics – it’s that I’m demanding that we begin to more seriously consider the ethical, democratic, human and regional implications of our development. In the end, it’s not about who we’re inviting in to what we develop – it’s about the passive, invisible and too often forgotten discrimination against who we’re keeping out.
West Hartford, Blue Back Square, and our bickering about it, is missing the point. The greatest problem isn’t the cost of the garages (though, as time goes on, that may prove to be a problem), the problem is that the development we undertook, by the nature of its exclusivity, induces an amnesia about the problems of our region and our own responsibilities in their light.