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Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford

Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford
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From Yankee Magazine June 2006

The trees and shrubs of Bushnell Park in Hartford, including a Chinese mahogany, are in full bloom in June. Green fields slope up to the gold-domed Connecticut capitol, a child’s fairy-tale confection of marble and granite. On a 1914 carousel, children straddle antique hand-painted horses, striving for the brass ring.

There was no brass ring for Eddie Perez. Growing up just a few miles away, in Hartford’s North End, Perez cast his eyes downward at the junkies who littered the hallways of his tenement and outward at urban decay and destruction.

One night last year, Perez returned to the North End as mayor of Hartford and stood onstage at Weaver High School, facing a crowd of students and parents assembled for a talent show. Hours earlier, the mayor had stood at the hospital bed of a 15-year-old boy fighting for his life, a bullet lodged in his right frontal lobe.

Lorenzo Morgan Rowe, a 10th-grade honors student who loved football, computers, playing Xbox, and listening to 50 Cent — and wanted to be an engineer — had been shot in a burst of gunfire the night before while walking home from a Weaver basketball game with a group of friends. Rowe, who would die two days later, wasn’t the intended victim — just a kid caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Today has not been a good day for Hartford,” said Perez, who had once been in these students’ shoes on these streets. “I was with that student and his family today at the hospital, and it was not a good thing. I would rather have been here, watching all of you show off your talent.”

In trying to create better days ahead for Hartford, Perez draws on his own unlikely journey to city hall. He sits in the regal mayor’s office and speaks of his mother, on welfare with nine children; tenements so desperate that the family moved 21 times in eight years; junkies in the hallways; riots in the streets; friends who died; brothers addicted to drugs and sent to prison; his own involvement with a gang called the Ghetto Brothers.

“I model the behavior I want [kids] to follow,” he says. “I’m an example of the reality that it can be done.”

Perez went on to find salvation in education and became a community organizer. He fought poverty and racism, slumlords and city hall. Then, in 2001, after just about everyone had given up on Hartford — one of America’s poorest cities in one of America’s richest states — Perez became the first Latino mayor in Hartford history.

He was reelected in 2003, this time to a four-year term, and handed a new city charter that strengthened the mayor’s powers. Years of weak-mayor/city manager government had failed miserably. One city manager, in the early 1990s, had commuted from Chicago. Hartford had ceded control of its schools, its economic development, even its downtown parking, to the state. Hartford had been in free fall for decades, symbolized by the night in 1978 when the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed under heavy snow just hours after a college basketball game. The city’s lone professional sports franchise, hockey’s Whalers, left town. Football’s New England Patriots spurned a generous offer to move into a new riverfront stadium. Hartford, the nation’s insurance capital, was mockingly called “America’s File Cabinet” by a Boston newspaper columnist.

Now, in the early summer of 2006, Perez presides over a city that bills itself, optimistically, as “New England’s Rising Star.” New buildings and skyscrapers rise at a dizzying pace throughout the once-ghostly downtown: Adriaen’s Landing along the waterfront, a convention center, the science museum, hotels, upscale condominiums, apartments, offices, shops, pubs, and restaurants. The hope is that this investment of more than $2 billion will boost tax revenues, reclaim more affluent residents, and draw more people to the city’s cultural offerings — the Wadsworth Atheneum, one of the country’s oldest art museums; the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts; the Hartford Symphony; and a refurbished Hartford Civic Center, which serves as a second home for the national powerhouse University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball teams.

West of downtown, Park Street’s bustling shops and restaurants pulse to a Latin beat in a city that, per capita, has more Latinos than any city north of Miami and east of the Mississippi River. To the south, Franklin Street is the main artery of Little Italy, its bakeries and markets flanked by new establishments run by recent immigrants from Bosnia.

Perez immerses himself in the details, a micromanager who uses workmanlike metaphors — “plumber” and “bridge builder” — to describe his approach to governing. But building a bridge is an exercise in futility if you can’t get the people across — if you can’t bridge the gap between the ghetto and the downtown skyscrapers that loom nearby, like a mirage.

One day last year, Perez addresses an auditorium full of students at an urban magnet school for the arts in nearby Waterbury. He is an awkward yet endearing speaker, a short, paunchy man of 48 who wears wire-rimmed glasses. With his jutting jaw, sloping forehead, and receding hairline, he resembles the actor George C. Scott in the movie Patton. Told that the students had requested him, he jokes, “I guess J. Lo wasn’t available.”

Updated Friday, May 2nd, 2008

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