Putting Preservation on the Map

Guest blogger Jake Fusco is graduate student in Geography at Central Connecticut State University. He recently completed an internship with the Hartford Preservation Alliance working on the Farmington Avenue Cultural Corridor initiative. 

I could start this piece with a quote from a famous historic preservationist or author and what that quote means to me. However, that’s not how I got here. I found my way as an intern for an historical preservation non-profit through my education in Geography. I have found that during my time studying the science of Geography that just defining the term Geography has been half the battle. “So what do you do? You memorize capitals?” or “So you’re really good with directions?” are both popular questions and responses I typically hear when I let someone know this is the discipline I study. Of course I’d like to think that the answer to both questions is yes but there is much more to the world of Geography (pun intended).

Which brings me to Hartford, Asylum Hill and Farmington Avenue.  While the Stowe and Twain houses remain well preserved symbols of the history of Farmington Avenue we need not forget many others.

On my first day of class in Urban Geography as a first-year graduate student at CCSU I was told that Urban Geography is so great because whatever city you’re in or closest to is your laboratory of study. With that, I chose Hartford to be my laboratory which eventually placed me as an intern with the Hartford Preservation Alliance. I first met with HPA over the summer of 2015 after stumbling across their Facebook page.  Although my knowledge about architecture or historic preservation was nearly absent I was eager to be a part of the protection and revitalization of Connecticut’s capital, although I’ve never lived in, I’ve always had a soft spot for despite its perceived problems.

Aetna Diner Comet reprint vintage postcard date unknown

Aetna Diner “The Comet” reprint vintage postcard date unknown

Prior to our first meeting I received information about HPA’s ongoing grant-assisted project to revitalize six-blocks on Farmington Avenue between Woodland and Sigourney Streets. The afternoon before my first meeting I circled the area several times to acquaint myself with my new laboratory. What I found was actually a sense of relief, relief that there are genuine efforts in this city to protect the authentic character and culture of Hartford especially in the areas that need it most. The front page so to speak of this area and this ongoing project has been The Comet, a 1950’s era diner that reads “Dishes” across the front banner that has been vacant since 2000. This one building has served as a visible symbol of the fabric of Farmington Avenue yet as well a symbol of my learning experience of the process of urban revitalization.

This block on the Southside of Farmington Avenue contains no only The Comet but five additional vacant, abandoned historic properties. These blighted properties became my focus and as a member of the team I have assisted in the research to effect appropriate changes which should happen to this block. Six months ago my own logic would tell me that any vacant building should just be demolished. Tear it down and start over. New is always better for a city. The advantage that working at a historic preservation organization has given me is to look at aged buildings as assets to a community and to the authenticity of a neighborhood. In my research we have followed through with the concept of building on the body of knowledge. To put it a different way, to think about what can be done on Farmington Avenue we have learned by example by looking at similar projects everywhere from other cities in Connecticut to New York, New Jersey, Indiana and even Australia as well.

Even though The Comet to this day remains vacant you still look at it and get the impression that this is a place that is different. A CVS can be found anywhere but its not everywhere that you find a uniquely designed building which has served a s symbol of a city since before the moon landing. With that I now proudly claim myself as a preservationist.  So then, my newly-found response to “So what do you do? You memorize capitals? Or “You’re really good with directions?” is Yes, but what I’m really passionate about is protecting and revitalizing the character of Hartford’s historic places, that kind of Geography.”

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