The Richest City in the Nation
Over a century ago, the press declared Hartford as “the richest city in the United States” per capita, a label from the past that seems strange to anyone familiar with its extreme poverty in the present day. That tagline came from journalist Charles Clark, who wrote a cover story on Connecticut’s capital city in 1876 for Scribner’s Monthly, one of the most popular illustrated literary magazines of its time. While Clark may not have invented this slogan, he certainly popularized it, based on some loose arithmetic of the city’s accumulated wealth, relative to the size of its population, approximately 40,000 people. His essay opened by surveying the value of vast financial and industrial corporations based in the downtown area. The city’s well-known insurance companies, including The Hartford and Aetna, held more than $113 million in assets, which rebuilt Chicago after its disastrous 1871 fire. Added together, the city’s numerous banks amassed over $50 million in deposits and capital. Five railroad lines fed Hartford’s extensive factories, including Colt’s Arms Manufacturing Company, “perhaps the most famous in the country” for its rifles and revolvers during the Civil War. Summed together, these businesses pushed the city’s taxable property value to more than $200 million.
In addition its financial assets, Clark also praised Hartford’s abundant cultural riches. The nation’s best-known authors, Samuel Clemens (more commonly known as Mark Twain) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (whose best-seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, influenced the Civil War), both took up residence in the city, alongside many of their literary companions, editors, and publishers. In addition to serving as the state capital, Hartford prized its extensive libraries, museum, and hospital. “The Hartford school buildings are said to the finest in the State,” Clark added, and called special attention to his alma mater, Hartford Public High School, the second oldest in the nation, which also enjoyed “a reputation with all the leading colleges as one of the best of all the preparatory schools,” as shown in Figure 1.1.2 In fact, the education that young people received in the city’s public school system far surpassed what was available in the outlying rural towns, known today as the suburbs.
Today we recognize Clark’s “richest city” slogan as boosterism. The twenty-eight-year-old son of a local congressman was a rising reporter at the Hartford Courant, the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper, and would later become its editor and owner. Clark “had an investment in the city,” observes historian Steven Courtney, and later served on the boards of corporations and philanthropies his essay praised.3 He did not offer a definitive statement on Hartford’s total wealth per capita, nor any direct comparison to financial statistics for other cities, to the extent they were available. Today, the idea of measuring a city by the wealth of its total corporate wealth, rather than the assets actually owned by individual residents, makes little sense. In 1903, nearly four decades after Clark’s essay, skeptics questioned some of its claims. One critic was Alexander Merriam, a Hartford Theological Seminary professor in the brand-new field of sociology. Although Hartford was still “computed as one of the richest cities of its size in the country,” he observed, “local wealth is not so large and available as the statistical aggregate might seem to indicate.” Residents included both “wealthier citizens… scattered in different parts of the city” and also “a slum of almost the first magnitude” of the poorest citizens along the banks of the Connecticut River. While Hartford still had significant pockets of wealth, they were not uniformly distributed. In fact, while Samuel Clemens lived in Hartford, he and his co-author satirically named this era the Gilded Age, referring to a thin gold layer that symbolizes wealth, but masks underlying social problems.4
But none of this skepticism mattered, as long as Hartford’s slogan as the “nation’s richest city” stuck in the public mind. It contained an element of truth that ordinary people could see with their own eyes, whenever they caught sight of a wealthy resident or passed by one of their prestigious homes in the city’s neighborhoods. In fact, the “richest city” label predated Clark’s 1876 article. Five years earlier, advocates for an art museum announced their fundraising appeal by declaring that “Hartford is the richest city of its size in the United States, we believe,” but must construct an institution “if she is to keep her pre-eminence, or is to be a city worthy of her wealth and acknowledged culture.” A similar 1878 appeal argued that while “Hartford is said to be the richest city in the country… so far, however, it fails to sustain adequately a public library.”5 Variations on the “richest” theme appeared in Hartford church sermons, commencement addresses, and local news and feature stories, sometimes accompanied by tax or bank records, into the early 1920s. Whether or not this claim was based in fact, enough people believed it to publicly repeat it.6
By the end of the twentieth century, the “richest city” slogan had turned upside down. Census 2000 ranked Hartford as one of the poorest major cities, with a population over 100,000, in the United States. When measured by the percentage of families living in poverty, Hartford was the second poorest, with 28 percent of its residents earning less than $17,600 for a family of four. Only the border city of Brownsville, Texas had a higher family poverty rate. When measured by median household income, Hartford was the fourth poorest city with a typical household earning only $24,820, just behind Miami, Brownsville, and Buffalo. Connecticut’s capital city first appeared among the ten most impoverished major cities in the 1980 Census. As of this writing in 2015, the city has not risen out of this dismal category. Although Hartford has inched upward from the near-bottom of the list in recent years, the token change in its rating has been caused by the sharper decline of cities such as Detroit and Flint, Michigan, rather than substantive improvements on its own.7
After the 2000 Census became public, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the depths of Hartford’s poverty. Reminding readers of the city’s former wealthy status, the article pointed to the powerless mayor, internal racial divisions, and public schools that were “among the worst performing in the nation” as markers of urban decline. “The NY Times piece was a teeth-kicker,” recalled Stan Simpson, a Hartford Courant columnist. “It rehashed the well-documented problems in the capital city—poverty, education, crime, race relations—and gave scant attention to any progress.” It was a riches-to-rags story, with no hope of redemption. Tom Condon, another Courant columnist, complained that the New York Times story “described Hartford as a decaying hulk of a once-grand city” and “left the impression that we’re all on skid row.” In response, the Courant published its editorial, “In Defense of Hartford,” which did not question the facts, but criticized the pessimistic portrayal of their city. “It hurts when outsiders point out the ailments that afflict Connecticut’s capital,” the editorial began, describing how this intensely negative national news coverage “felt like an insult.” The spin on Hartford had made a full circle back to the city’s oldest newspaper, where Charles Clark originally crafted the slogan of wealth more than a century ago.8
Where did the money go? What became of the wealth that once made Hartford “the richest city” in the nation into the early 1900s? During the twentieth century, the fortunes of the central city and its suburbs were reversed. According to Census 2000, when Hartford was rated as the second-poorest city by family poverty, its metropolitan statistical area (the city and suburbs combined) rose to the sixth-richest in the nation, as measured by median household income. Consider the size of this gap. Inside Hartford’s city boundaries, the median family earned $24,820 in 2000, but the median family in the metropolitan area earned $52,188, more than twice that amount. If we could exclude the city data from the surrounding metropolitan area, that gap would increase even further. The Gilded Age did not magically disappear from Hartford; most of it moved to selected suburbs.9
One way to visualize the spatial redistribution of wealth from the City of Hartford to its suburbs is to track home values by town during the twentieth century. For each decade in the map below, the average dwelling or single-family home value is indexed to the region to correct for historical price inflation, with higher values represented by darker shades of green. While not a precise measure, the rough differences over time are striking. In 1910, the region’s highest home values were located in the City of Hartford and its neighboring suburb of West Hartford. In second place were inner-ring suburbs with manufacturing jobs (such as East Hartford, Manchester, Windsor, and New Britain), followed by outlying farming towns to the west and southeast. In 1910, the average home value in Hartford was nearly $5,000, four times more than the average $1,200 home value in the agricultural community of Avon.
A century later, that relationship had reversed, as home values in the city fell to nearly the lowest in the region, while some outlying farm towns—known today as elite suburbs—climbed to the top. In 2010, the average sales price for a single-family home in Avon climbed to $536,000, more than three times the average $178,000 sales price in Hartford. In some eyes, the once-powerful city-based economic powerhouse had become a doughnut—a fiscally depressed center surrounded by an affluent suburban ring—though with wide variation in the middle, as shown in Figure 1.2.10
How do we explain this reversal of fortunes between Hartford’s city and its suburbs? Histories of twentieth-century suburbanization point to multiple factors, including white flight, urban rebellions, interstate highways, and job migration. But this book argues that the pivotal relationship between private housing and public schooling reshaped central Connecticut. During the first half of the twentieth century, the city’s public school system—and its crown jewel, Hartford Public High School—earned the highest reputation in the region, while most small-town and rural school districts were viewed as woefully behind. When the first generations of city dwellers moved to outlying suburbs, they were attracted by housing opportunities, not substandard schools. Yet this relationship quickly changed during the latter half of the century, when rising suburbs actively competed for upper-class white families and created elite public schools that acted as powerful magnets, while state policies kept most low-income black students at a distance. As the most privileged families fled Hartford, the concentration of poverty and limited resources led the city’s most prized high school to nearly lose its accreditation in the 1990s, while elite suburban public schools rose to the top of new ranking systems.
To tell this story about the changing relationship between housing and schooling, this book begins by retracing the lines that were drawn to separate the city and suburban towns, and later its school districts. During the 1800s, town boundaries were still a work-in-progress, and public school districts were relatively porous until the early twentieth century. Connecticut legislators sharpened these divisions under a 1909 school consolidation law, with deep consequences for a school desegregation lawsuit that arose eight decades later. Yet while mass suburbanization prompted more metropolitan governance for water, sewer, and transit between towns in the region, public schooling became more restricted to only families that resided inside local district boundaries. In today’s politically fragmented Connecticut, most policies about housing and education are made either at the State Capitol or in 169 individual town halls and school boards. Even the phrase “metropolitan Hartford” has no officially consistent meaning here. As a result, local self-interested policy decisions have generated some of the nation’s highest levels of inequality between the city and its suburbs, and also between suburbs of different social standing. This chapter visually describes what happened in the Hartford region, as a prelude to later chapters that explain in more detail why it happened, and how civil rights activists have challenged the status quo in different ways.
Steve Courtney, “Commentary: Was Hartford ’The Richest City In The United States’?” Hartford Courant, October 10, 2014, http://www.courant.com/opinion/op-ed/hc-op-courtney-was-hartford-richest-city-in-americ-20141010-story.html. On Clark, see Norris Galpin Osborn, “Charles Hopkins Clark,” in Men of Mark in Connecticut: Ideals of American Life Told in Biographies and Autobiographies of Eminent Living Americans (W.R. Goodspeed, 1906), 230–34, https://books.google.com/books?id=ARFh_Sbpg84C&pg=PA230; Joseph F. Nunes, “The Lasting Legacy of Charles Hopkins Clark,” Hartford Courant, October 18, 2014, http://www.courant.com/courant-250/your-moments/hc-courant-clark-profile-20141018-story.html; Joseph F. Nunes, “Chapter Four: ’Fighting Joe’ And Mark Twain,” Hartford Courant, October 18, 2014, http://www.courant.com/courant-250/your-moments/hc-courant-chapter-four-20141018-story.html.↩︎
Alexander R. Merriam, The Social Significance of the Smaller City (Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Seminary Press, 1903), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/64385345, reprinted as Alexander R. Merriam, “The Social Conditions of the Smaller City,” The Hartford Courant, July 21, 1903, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/555173471?accountid=14405. See also skepticism about the corporate assets underlying the “richest city” claim in , “The Richest City,” The Hartford Courant (1887-1922), October 23, 1903, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/555173471?accountid=14405. On satirical name, see Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1873), http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000664544.↩︎
Although the Wadsworth Atheneum opened in Hartford in 1844 and currently is described as one of the oldest art museums in the nation, the original buildings included an art gallery, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Young Men’s Institute (which later became the Hartford Public Library). Advocates sought funding for a separate dedicated art museum and public library. See , “An Art Museum,” Hartford Daily Courant, April 29, 1871, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/553680505?accountid=14405; , “A Suggestive Contrast,” Hartford Daily Courant, October 15, 1878, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/554105478?accountid=14405; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, “History,” accessed July 28, 2015, https://thewadsworth.org/about/history/.↩︎
For a selection of “richest city” claims, see Conn.) First Church of Christ (Hartford, “Address of Edward Everett Hale,” in Commemorative Exercises of the First Church of Christ in Hartford, at Its Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary, October 11 and 12, 1883 (Press of the Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1883), https://books.google.com/books?id=1ncsAAAAYAAJ; , “Girl Graduates: Closing Exercises of Mt. St. Joseph Seminary Cluster of Historical Essays on Hartford,” Hartford Courant, June 19, 1903, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/555144638?accountid=14405; , “Hartford as the "Richest City": A Great Financial Center,” Hartford Courant: Financial Section, October 6, 1908, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/555586930?accountid=14405; Otis Skinner, “Save Twain Home, Urges Otis Skinner: Should Be Easy for Richest City Per Capita in This Country,” Hartford Courant, April 23, 1920, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/556799530?accountid=14405; , “Hartford Holds Lead as Wealthiest City: Over 21,000 Local People Pay Federal Income Tax –Stamford Second and New Haven Third 10 Per Cent. In State Assessed,” Hartford Courant, November 26, 1921, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/556971490?accountid=14405; , “Wealth of Hartford Clearly Shown by Bank Statements: Per Capita Wealth, $600, Equalled by No Other City in U. S.–1921 Bank Dis-Counts Total $455,975,029 Insurance in Lead as Chief Industry City Known for Its Manu-Facturing for Over 150 Years–Center for Traders and Buyers for Radius of 50 Miles,” Hartford Courant, September 3, 1922, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.trincoll.edu/docview/557107212?accountid=14405.↩︎
See census data sources in “Calculating Wealth and Poverty in Past and Present” chapter, TO COME in this book.↩︎
Paul Zielbauer, “Poverty in a Land of Plenty: Can Hartford Ever Recover?” The New York Times: N.Y. / Region, August 26, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/26/nyregion/poverty-in-a-land-of-plenty-can-hartford-ever-recover.html. Contrast the NY Times portrayal with a later story by the LA Times, which Simpson noted had a more positive spin: David Lamb, “Once-Gilded City Buffing Itself Up,” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jun/15/nation/na-hartford15. See reactions by Stan Simpson, “Capital Progress: Read All About It,” Hartford Courant, June 28, 2003, http://articles.courant.com/2003-06-28/news/0306281788; Tom Condon, “‘Troubled City’ a Victim of Geography,” Hartford Courant, September 12, 2002, http://articles.courant.com/2002-09-12/news/0209120303; , “Editorial: In Defense of Hartford,” Hartford Courant, August 27, 2002, http://articles.courant.com/2002-08-27/news/0208270795.↩︎
See census data sources in “Calculating Wealth and Poverty in Past and Present” chapter, TO COME in this book.↩︎
Ilya Ilyankou and Jack Dougherty, “Map: Home Value Index in Hartford County CT from 1910-2010” (On The Line, 2017), https://github.com/OnTheLine/otl-home-value; See home value data sources in “Calculating Wealth and Poverty in Past and Present” chapter, TO COME in this book.↩︎
On The Line © 2021 by Jack Dougherty and contributors is freely shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.