In this section, Carol T. Correa De Best explains the layout of the trail and offers brief histories behind all three neighborhoods where Puerto Ricans have made their mark. Make sure to click on links to listen to the interviews that offer unique insight into the neighborhoods and what it means to be Puerto Rican in Hartford.
Our Neighborhoods: The Three Sections of the Puerto Rican Heritage Trail in Hartford
The Heritage Trail has three segments that follow the three major inter-city migrations; sites have been chosen based on their ability to convey stories of Puerto Rican history and culture in Hartford, or on their national significance. Priority has been given to standing buildings or landscapes that still exist in their historic form and can be visited or viewed from the exterior. Those sites that have been significantly changed, such as Seyms Street Jail/Lozada Park and Maria Sanchez’s store, were considered because they have been well documented. In addition, sites were chosen that:
1 represent a “first” such as first school or church, or
2 are associated with a person, event, issue, or place of local and or national importance, or
3 has multiple meanings or uses that convey the Puerto Rican experience, and
4 are within the boundaries of Hartford.
The spaces chosen for the Heritage Trail enhance the sense of the Puerto Rican people’s identity for these structures, their sounds, smells and communal activities serve as homely pleasures. They symbolize experiences at times difficult to articulate, but easy to experience with a short walk down one of the paths.
To know a neighborhood requires the identification of significant localities, such as street corners and architectural landmarks, within its space. Space is experienced directly as having room in which to move, and visual space has structure and permanence, social and economic significance. When we visit unknown neighborhoods we lack the weight of the real and of the familiar, because we only know it from the outside, and don’t understand how its space is constructed and arranged, and what its boundaries are. We also construct social space as we walk it everyday doing daily tasks. These trails will give you a community’s view of how it maps its space according to the places that most matter to its daily functioning.
This Heritage Trail is based on Juan Fuentes’ chronicling of Puerto Ricans as having had three migratory movements within the city. According to Mr. Fuentes, Puerto Ricans began in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood of Hartford, later moved to South Green, and then were pushed further to the Frog Hollow and Parkville sections – areas Boricuas are currently abandoning and new immigrants embracing. Click here for more on Puerto Rican Movement.
Juan Fuentes arrived in Hartford in 1963 at the age of 31. The city was rapidly growing. The neighborhoods were vibrant; you could find anything you needed within walking distance. There were theaters, hotels, hardware stores, cafes and clothing stores. He recalls that there also was a lot of prejudice. His family and friends lived in overcrowded apartments and basements. When he arrived Puerto Ricans worked “their fingers raw” in “el tabaco” to send money back home. Don Juan Fuentes-Vizcarrondo has devoted his life to preserving those Puerto Rican Hartford memories in photos, for his passion is to capture the Puerto Rican community and its experience in a history of images that tell a compelling story of migration, adaptation, and cultural pride. Amongst many images are: “the 1972 visit of Marisol Malaret, the first Puerto Rican Miss Universe; the first San Juan Festival in 1978, where the great Tito Puente performed; the swearing-in of Juan Figueroa, the state’s first Puerto Rican state representative; the Los Macheteros trials in 1985 – – not to mention the hundreds of baptisms and weddings he has chronicled at Immaculate Conception and other Park Street churches.”
As he conveyed to me, “Things will change, todo cambia mi’ja. The only way we can show how we were is by photographs. Hay videos nena, pero once you freeze a moment with your camera, no matter what you do to the photograph, the moment is frozen por eternidad, for future generations.”
Introduction to Clay Hill/Arsenal Also Known as “El Norte”
Puerto Ricans first settled in the Hartford neighborhood of Clay Hill/Arsenal. Since they first put down roots in the 1950’s, Puerto Ricans have used their environment to reflect their culture’s image. It is expressed through rhythmic musical patterns, smells and tastes that saturate the senses of anyone walking down Albany Ave. The first Puerto Rican Parade began at the intersection of Main and Albany, a celebration that was the Puerto Rican’s way of exhibiting their accomplishments in the city. It was a day to express some serious Puerto Rican Pride, and virtually every Puerto Rican who owned a vehicle had a Puerto Rican flag hanging from it– along with the name of the owner’s town written with white shoe polish on the back window. Car radios blasted Salsa, Merengues, men would “tirar piropos” from the suped-up rides, young ladies sometimes danced alongside the cars and enjoyed the scenery and smells of bacalaitos, pinchos and the colors of thirst-quenching piraguas. The day was also part of an effort to promote voting, and organizers encouraged Puerto Ricans to register to vote and mark their presence in yet another manner. In addition, the parade was a religious procession, one of many that began in this space, and demonstrated the community’s deep faith in Catholicism and its traditions. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans, young women and men, children, fathers, mothers, and abuelos would line Main Street and participate or observe. The community was proud of its successes and the island imprint was visible and tangible in the personal and social lives of the migrated people. Mayor Eddie Perez’s arrival to Clay Hill/Arsenal
According to the National Register of Historic Places, the origins of the name “Clay Hill” is unknown. Clay Hill was the deliberate creation of the Irish immigrants that were pushed to a higher elevation due to the regular flooding of the slum they lived in, later the residential neighborhood would be totally cleared due to the construction of Constitution Plaza.
The first occupants cleared the forested area, built single and double family homes, and began to humanize the space that occupies 60 acres northwest of Downtown. Clay Hill/Arsenal became a vibrant community as the area began to fill with buildings and complexes that addressed the practical needs of the people, such as specialized shopping, bodegas or corner stores, medical care, social service agencies, etc.
Two major arteries maintained the mobility of the community both then and now-Main Street running to the north, and “The Ave.” or Albany Avenue which runs west. Both streets intersect at Tunnel Park. The recreational space of Tunnel Park was created by the railroad when the company built a tunnel below the intersection in 1874. It occupies a triangular one-half acre of land. Clay Hill currently has a total of 2,455 housing units, 247 are owner occupied.
Historically there has been little in the way of lasting commerce and industry in the neighborhood, aside from a 19th century lumberyard that is still active today. Hartford Lumber Co. is located on the railroad west on Albany Ave. The architectural style of the community is a mix of Italianate, Queen Anne, and Neo-Classical Revival.
No matter what the building material or architectural style, the structures maintain a uniformity of size and its spacing is uniquely remarkable. Edifices are close together, up against sidewalks and the streets, and “the buildings carry the eye along in unbroken rhythm” with the differing architectural styles adding character variation and visual stimulation. The bricklayers’ craft marks the Clay Hill neighborhood, its impression visible in several styles:
“Bricks laid on the diagonal and bricks laid alternating flush and recessed were used as segmental lintels, string courses and decorative features of chimney pilasters. This craft tradition provided a continuing link through buildings of differing styles. It is an important, cohesive influence in the district that stems directly from craftsmanship rather than from academic interpretation of architecture.”
“Within 50 years one member of the community said, you will see us listed in the telephone book as Doctors, Lawyers, and Businessmen.” – Hartford Courant August 29, 1960
Clay Hill is a repository of fragmented memories and dreams. For at least the last 3 decades Clay Hill has been deteriorating and has become one of the poorest neighborhoods in Hartford. The median household income is currently $14,552 and in addition, the majority of households constitute single parentage. Fire Marshall Ed Casares description of Clay Hill The development of Clay Hill from rural to urban, riches to rags conditions, was caused by the rise and fall of industrial growth of the city. In the beginning of the 19th century, booming construction expanded the wealth of the well-to-do and upper-middle-class families who reaped the benefits of the weapons sold to both sides of the Civil War. The later part of the century brought a proliferation of 3 to 6 family buildings and apartment houses which became the norm in the 20th century. The character of the community gradually shifted from owner-occupied to the renter who was working-class and poor, as later generations moved out to the suburbs, particularly after WWII. The ethnic landscape would also shift from Irish, to German who were mostly Jewish, to Clay Hill being almost exclusively Black and Puerto Rican. Currently it is heavily populated by West Indians.
The African-American community was willing to welcome the Puerto Rican into Clay Hill/Arsenal, but as the Puerto Rican community began to grow, mainly Puerto Ricans from the Island, they began to identify themselves in their own ethnic group. Whites and Blacks assigned to them their own set of stereotypes. This ‘new’ ethnic category eventually placed a visible wall between the African- American and Puerto Rican who for a while lived the struggle as allies in harmony, but then began to compete for city jobs and political positions.
The Clay Hill Puerto Rican community did and still does fit some of the ‘stereotypes’ attached to them. Their economic status and culture condemned them to certain areas of the city. They first began to live in Clay Hill, as housing became scarcer, they pushed into South Green and later into Frog Hollow, areas where landlords would rent to them. Landlords elsewhere were wary of the Puerto Rican, one landlord stating, “they are noisy, always having a party, and hanging out the windows.”
Very little if any regard was given to the fact that Puerto Ricans arriving from the island to Hartford faced serious cultural and psychological barriers. They were American citizens, but lived a different culture and were discriminated against accordingly.
In Clay Hill more often than not, families were in extreme poverty and were made up of anywhere from 5-10 people, all living in a small one-bedroom apartment. Open space was limited, unlike on the island, and therefore the building stoops, the window sills, porches, hallways, basements, yards and the streets offered breathing space. These areas took on a different meaning for the Puerto Rican who missed home, who as a result sought to recreate some of the cultural norms within them. Talking to a neighbor via the window is akin to calling out and conversing with a neighbor from the back door of one’s island dwelling. Puerto Ricans typically congregated after dinner in the plazas of the town or barrio, there men would discuss news of the day, women would exchange gossip, young people would court and children would play. Everyone knew each other and had a sense of security and well-being. Fire Marshal Edward Casares discusses the Clay Hill neighborhood. The limited social spaces available to Puerto Ricans in Clay Hill forced the community to create new ones. This was interpreted by the previous immigrants as Puerto Ricans being loiterers, noisy, lazy and partiers, when in fact, this was the disillusioned Puerto Rican’s way to help make the racially forced ‘American’ assimilation process tolerable. Puerto Ricans, as most Latin Americans, have a different relationship to public and private space as do other U.S. citizens. They tend to prefer the public space to the private, and are more likely to socialize there. Social space is occupied through social rights, unlike in many U.S. spaces where people cross or inhabit only briefly on their way to private space.
The gatherings Puerto Ricans organized provided community building and a therapeutic remedy for homesickness; their perceived ‘idleness’ was a result of a lack of employment opportunities, a collective sharing of common space, and of course, the addictive drug that is the welfare system, that at times did the migrant more harm than good. Therefore, Puerto Ricans hung out of neighborhood windows, they celebrated together, and they motivated their children to maintain their culture while at the same time becoming Americanized. The spaces selected for the Heritage Trail within the Clay Hill neighborhood represent the pain as well as the vibrancy of the first Puerto Rican settlement in Hartford.
Introduction to Frog Hollow
“It cuts a busy, colorful swath through one of the city’s largest Hispanic communities. It is a troubled area where community pride battles unemployment and crime. It is also a street alive with good people.” Suzanne Bilello, Hartford Courant Staff Writer
From Washington St. to Park Terrace lies a part of a neighborhood known to most Hartford residents as “Park Street”, or “La Park”, but its name is Frog Hollow. Of the three paths of the Heritage Trail, Frog Hollow is the most contained as the neighborhood is dense. At one time the neighborhood was the most poor and populated. Today, Frog Hollow is home to 9,323 people %72 of which are Latino. Frog Hollow’s unique name is derived from a brook that flowed through the vicinity of Broad and Ward Streets. One can only imagine it overflowing with frogs; it was said that the brook was so populated by the creatures that on summer evenings as one sat on “the Rock” (now Trinity College campus) the sounds of the nocturnal serenade would entertain the senses. (Hartford Conservatory News, September 1975. volume3. No.3
In 1852 most of Frog Hollow was farm land. The development of its shops and housing was a result of the industrial development of Capitol Ave. by Sharps Rifle, Albert Pope, Pratt & Whitney and Charles Billings and Christopher Spencer. They fell in line with the nation’s industrial revolution and exploited the land. They brought the production of complex mechanisms such as guns, sewing machines, bicycles, and automobiles. “Pratt and Whitney machine tools were critical in the development of Frog Hollow because the company provided capital and factory space for several companies that built around them.” (HACN) Mr. Pope was another important figure as he created an empire in Frog Hollow. He would eventually donate what is now beautiful Pope Park.
In its day, Pope’s factories employed over 3,000 workers and produced 60,000 bicycles a year. (Southside Neighborhood News, 8/1/1994) The district rivaled that of Sam’s Colt.
Pope’s demise began in 1895 when his manufacturing moved to producing automobiles. Pope became entangled in an extensive lawsuit with Henry Ford. He lost and with that came the decline of his, and by default, Hartford’s involvement with automobile manufacturing. Pope sold his property on Capitol Ave. to Pratt and Whitney. Along with F. Rentschler, they helped establish a new venture, designing and manufacturing an air-cooled aircraft engine called the Wasp. By 1928 their facilities had become too small, and they abandoned the neighborhood and took with them the much-needed jobs. Their current site is in East Hartford.
During their time in the neighborhood, the industrial activity along Capitol Ave. stimulated the rapid development of residential property. The Babcock’s, The Russ’s and The Hungerford’s long-established families in Hartford sold their farms and estates for building. The Babcock farm was divided and multi-unit housing was built. The Hungerford and Russ estates gave way to more housing and the naming of the current streets.
Frog Hollow’s most characteristic residential type are constructions of three or six family homes; they are divided horizontally into flats. Hungerford, Babcock, and Putnam Streets still have good examples of the three family dwellings. Morton Street, Putnam Heights which just recently underwent revitalization and parts of Park Terrace are lined with the classic structures known as “the perfect six”. The immigrants and migrants that began to move in were drawn by the jobs offered by the industrial district. With them they brought their social and cultural richness: Danish, Swedish, German, Irish, French, Canadian, Lithuanian, Polish, Greek, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, South American, and Vietnamese people all composed the ethnic mix of the neighborhood. They made Frog Hollow.
This neighborhood is currently made up of parks, recreational facilities, mass transportation, schools, churches, good shopping, banks, restaurants, medical care Hartford Hospital and Trinity College (technically in the area called “Behind the Rocks”). Inexpensive housing and its close proximity to work, social services and Downtown are assets that continue to support and keep people in the area.
It is also a place where families live in turn of the 18th century tenements whose interiors are crumbling from disrepair. Most apartments are above store fronts are red brick walk-ups. Large amounts of the people who live in the Park Street area receive some type of public assistance. Fr. Donager said in 1982, “Park Street is an alive street, it’s a street with problems: problems with drugs, problems with crime, and problems with idleness. But it is also a street alive with good people.” (Hartford Courant, “Park Street” Sept. 19, 1982) Not so much has changed since then; Park Street with all of its social issues can be and is the beginning of a new life for immigrants and migrants alike.
Puerto Ricans settle
The Downtown redevelopment plan and the constitution plaza project had attempted to create urban renewal, but it displaced and pushed out the Puerto Ricans who had begun to settle in the South Green area. Puerto Ricans like E. Caro understood what continuous movement meant amongst the Puerto Rican Community: “Park Street is the last Mohegan as far as Puerto Rican neighborhoods go in Hartford…our potential for developing political power is being destroyed by constantly moving neighborhoods.” (South Side Neighborhood News, “Park Street Speaks About Its Future,” June 2, 1982 volume IV, Issue 9) He understood that we needed to grow roots, and that we needed to claim an area and be productive citizens by educating our children, and running our own businesses and civic organizations.
Over the years Puerto Ricans set down roots and took over as the largest ethnic group in the Park Street area. They have lived with all previous immigrants and now live side by side with new immigrants from Mexico, Columbia and Somalia. There are still small pockets of Europeans, particularly Portuguese, but the area is more culturally diverse than ever.
“La Park Street“
“Park Street, it’s a jungle and it is a paradise. It’s a jungle because it’s a constant struggle to survive, and there are other things, beautiful women, children, you can see the kids running around playing.”
-Lenny Durio, member of Street Gang Nomads and Neighborhood resident in 1982, Hartford Courant Sept. 19, 1982
Park Street is considered the commercial spine of Frog Hollow. “Originally called Malt Lane, it derives its name from Barnard Park (the South Green) which in 1821 was the only park in Hartford.” (Hartford Architecture Conservancy News, September 1975, volume3. no.3) The commercial buildings on Park Street are small, resembling those in NYC. Many shops began as residences, but as the need for commercial services grew, storefronts were added. Most of the storefronts you see today were being built around the turn of the 18th century at street level with apartments above (Cubanitos Bakery, for example).
Park was one of Hartford’s most desirable retail districts until the late 1950’s when the loss of nearby industry and the trend toward suburbanization sapped much of its vitality. In the past few years, there has been a renewed interest and revitalization of Park Street thanks to entrepreneurs of Latin American descent. That interest is symbolized by the colorful pastel cool island ethnic façades that are part of the Streetscape project sponsored by SAMA, the Spanish American Merchants Association.
The factories in the neighborhood began to leave after WWII as a result, the worker population which filled the tenements off Park and patronized Park Street businesses looked for job opportunities and housing elsewhere. The neighborhood then became available for new migrants to inhabit. In the early 1970’s due to Urban Renewal a stream of Puerto Ricans who had previously lived in Clay Arsenal and South Green began to move into Frog Hollow. The population spilled into Frog Hollow from the South and North of the City. By 1980 a large wave of Puerto Rican migrants took over “La Park”; most of the population was poor with little or no English language skills. Many people had nothing but the hope of someday having something, and they made the best of it. Some continue to work in minimum wage jobs, others receive their welfare checks, or do a little chiripas to make ends meet and raise their families the best way they know how. The spaces chosen in the Frog Hollow neighborhood are a direct reflection of that growth.