Howard K. Hill wants to bring the economic, social and cultural vibrancy back to Hartford’s Barbour Street. On a hot summer day, the funeral home owner may have been the only person dressed in a full suit strolling down a street peppered with closed businesses, dilapidated housing and streets in need of a serious cleanup.
Before the businesses burned in the late 1960s, Barbour Street was home to grocery stores, bakeries, a clothing store and other shops. Now Hill looks around and sees the opportunity to revive an area that used to thrive.
“When Martin Luther King died, it burned down and never recovered,” Hill said.
For decades, it’s been a shadow of what it used to be. Barbour Street is a stretch of blocks in the city’s North End that hasn’t been the same since a series of fires and looting spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Today, Unity Plaza sits across the street from a shuttered grocery store, the latter charred by the fires that erupted in the wake of King’s death. In the plaza: a small branch of the Hartford Public Library, a day care, dollar store, laundromat, an ATM, a post office, fast food spot and a grocery store that’s opened and closed several times since the 1960s. Hill himself is a business owner on Barbour Street. He purchased the third location for his funeral home in 2012.
“The vision here is to turn this whole area right along Barbour Street which we’re walking, into a business, a Black business district, and around it would be Black homeownership as well,” Hill said. “We want to make sure we have everything that any community needs in order for it to sustain itself and thrive.”
He calls the revitalization the Renaissance District. Hill said he knows his vision for the district is ambitious and not necessarily one that will come to fruition quickly, in particular because he hasn’t been able to secure the capital he needs to make it a reality. Hill said his plans include a bank, a comprehensive grocery store and a wellness center.
“I say wellness and not health care per se. Wellness includes holistic and not just your physical health,” Hill said. “And within that wellness center, there’s a mental health component which we really, really need to address as a people because we’ve been changed and damaged as a result of our collective experience of being Black in America.”
Racism's Lasting Effects
Studies continue to show that racism has a direct effect on people’s physical and mental health. A Journal of Mental Health Counseling study that found that 81% of African Americans who reported racial discrimination experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronic stress can lead to diseases and disorders.
Barbershop owner Marcus A. Brown said living in poverty and in communities plagued by violence and drugs for decades can create a damaging type of amnesia.
“We just forget how powerful we were as Black people and the power we have,” Brown said. “I’m a second-generation barbershop owner, my father in the 1960s, my mother’s hair shop next door, so I’m connected to this corner.”
Brown started cutting hair in high school and then took over Norris Barber Shop in the 1990s. His family owns the building that sits on the corner of Barbour and Westland streets.
“I got good tenants, pretty good tenants that communicate with. I’m here every day, so it’s kind of easier for me to watch over what’s going on, so my corner here, I try and take care of it the best I can,” he said. “We come in the morning, pick up trash, see somebody doing something they ain’t supposed to do, we speaking on it.”
As he cuts hair, Brown says he talks with the teenagers about their lives while trying to impart wisdom.
“I think the children need to see more Black men and women doing business,” Brown said. “I think the kids need to get out and see other communities that are Black and are striving, to know that they have a chance.”
A vacant lot sits diagonally from Brown’s building. Before it burned down, he said, the city-owned building offered social services.
“It’s a lot of dilapidated property in the neighborhood,” Brown said. “We would like to see more attention from the local government, bring that money in to help with these properties. When people [are] paying in taxes, try to kind of come in and help them clean up their properties, you know, hold them accountable. The property owners, hold them accountable. You hate to see trees all not cut and trash and paper.”
There’s no shortage of trash up and down Barbour Street. Hill says littering is a mindset.
“You have people who just don’t care. You have the influence of drugs and alcohol. You have the family that’s completely disjointed,” Hill said. “You have dysfunction sitting all around you. And this is the manifestation of it.”
A Lack Of Resources Within The Neighborhood
Cozy Spot, a simple soul food eatery that served Martin Luther King Jr., Little Richard, Hillary Clinton and others in its more than five decades on Barbour Street, beginning in the 1960s, sits vacant. Hill points out that it was one of many places where Black people gathered for meals, conversations and a bit of reprieve from the world around them.
“I was sad to see that go,” Hill said.
The John C. Clark School, named after a prominent Black Hartford city council member and activist, has become another symbol of blight, disinvestment and despair in the neighborhood since it closed in late 2014 after a toxic chemical was discovered within the school. Purchasing that building and turning it into a boarding school is also on Hill’s list of hopes.
Barbour Street lies within a Promise Zone, a federally designated, high-poverty area that could benefit from concentrated improvement in the areas of economic activity, educational opportunities, violent crime, public health and other priorities identified by the community, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Obama-era program doesn’t guarantee federal funding, a key factor in actually revitalizing neighborhoods.
According to the city of Hartford, the North Hartford Promise Zone has “helped bring in over $22 million in federal funding, [to] support projects across all focus areas.” The average poverty rate in the zone is 37%, compared to 31% citywide and 10.4% statewide. The unemployment rate within the zone is 27.4%. In 2015, the zone’s poverty rate was 49.4%, while the unemployment rate remains the same.
The most visible stride within Hartford’s Promise Zone thus far is the Swift Factory, a former gold leaf manufacturing warehouse that’s being converted into co-working spaces, commercial kitchens, school and health buildings, and offices. The project is spearheaded and funded by Community Solutions Inc.
Hill developed a three-pronged approach that focuses on restoring the people, property and culture in the area.
“The investment that needs to take place in this community, in our communities like this all across the country is so great, and far as I’m concerned, is all hands on deck,” Hill said. “It’s not reserved for the state or the federal government or local communities. It’s everything. It’s all of them. It’s corporations as well as everybody benefited from us, from our oppression. Everyone has. Everybody needs to take part in this.”
The desire for better, Hill says, is there.
“The people really know what they want. They want to feel secure. They want to be able to shop. And they want to be able to live, you know, and they don’t necessarily want to have to leave. You know, this is their home,” Hill said. “They see other communities thriving. And, you know, they want what other communities have, you know, and they want it right here. It’s no reason for us to have to get out of our community in order to make it, so to speak.”
Hill says the coronavirus pandemic brought the momentum he was gaining to a standstill, but now he’s working to figure out how to make the Renaissance District a reality. He’s says he’s taken a meeting with Mayor Luke Bronin to begin discussing possibilities and has established a fund through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.