Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford
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.