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Eddie Perez: Mayor of Hartford

He talks about how reading allowed him to explore worlds beyond his neighborhood in Hartford, how his interest in science satisfied his curiosity about how things worked, how school helped lift him out of the ghetto. He wanted to be a lab technician, “but I chose the people business instead.”

“I live the American dream every day,” he says. But too many in Hartford don’t.

“In 2003, we should have graduated 1,600 students from high school,” he says. “We graduated 800. And only 83 went to a four-year college, and only half of them will graduate…. To survive in this city, you need … a job that pays $40,000 a year. Forty percent of my people are below poverty level. They’re left out of the American dream.”

His biggest challenge as mayor, he says, is dealing with the rash of violence by “youngsters against youngsters — showing them that there are means to solving a dispute without resorting to guns and weapons.” The city has identified high-risk teens, whom Perez calls the “Shooters” because they could be the ones shot or the ones doing the shooting.”

The mayor tries to meet individually with the Shooters and their families, but his message doesn’t always sink in. Shortly after one such meeting, the teen was arrested with a gun. Now, says Perez, “he’s going to ‘juvie’ for a couple of years, where he’s going to get tougher instead of smarter.”

Even when Perez ran with the Ghetto Brothers as a teenager, he recognized that there was more power in knowledge than in a gun. His nickname was “The Professor.”

“I was the only gang member carrying books around,” he says. The students laugh. “That’s right, guys. Carry your books and you’ll be a dangerous guy.”

In 1623, the Dutch built a trading post where Hartford stands and called it the “House of Hope.” After the Civil War, Yankee ingenuity made Hartford the richest city in America. In the summer of 1868, visitor Mark Twain (later a local resident) wrote that Hartford was the “handsomest” American city he’d ever seen.

A century later, in 1969, Eddie Alberto Perez moved to a city near anarchy. Most of the whites had fled to the suburbs. The Puerto Rican community erupted after a city firefighter was quoted as calling them “pigs.” As rioters threw Molotov cocktails at state troopers, young Eddie watched from a nearby rooftop.

Perez was the second oldest of nine children, eight of them boys. He was born in Corozal, Puerto Rico, at that time a rural village without running water or electricity. The family moved to New York when he was 8. By the time he was 12, his father was drifting out of the picture; his mother, Felicita, moved the family to Hartford, where she had two brothers who had come to Connecticut to pick tobacco and then moved into other jobs.

They lived in the slums of the North End, moving frequently. The pipes would freeze, or the city would condemn the building. Perez helped his mother raise the other kids, translated for her at his school, took care of the paperwork at the welfare office. The responsibility may have helped keep him out of trouble, which was never far away.

“Four of my brothers developed drug-dependency issues and are still struggling,” Perez says matter-of-factly. “They’ve all done time in prison, mostly for possession. We’re still very close.” Eddie grew accustomed to stepping over the bodies of junkies who had overdosed in the hallways.

“After awhile, you accept it as a way of life,” he says. “When I was in the ninth grade, I had a friend who asked me to help him shoot up, because he was too shaky to do it himself. It was pretty scary. He told me never to do that to myself.”

In the eighth grade, Perez was assigned to Room 318 at the Barnard-Brown School. “Before that, I’d been stuck in a regular class. Then an adviser said to me, ‘You belong in Room 318.’ That’s where the sharper, cooler kids were — the high achievers, the jocks, the hall monitors. That’s the first time I was challenged. If not for Room 318, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school.”

In 1973, when Perez was a sophomore at Hartford Public High, he and some pals started the Ghetto Brothers — “six cool guys who could dance.” The group grew quickly and soon had 400 members, says Perez, who emerged as the treasurer and strategist.

Updated Friday, May 2nd, 2008

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