One man talks about his childhood in greater Hartford, race, and living in the heart of the shell.
In my darkest and most self-delusional moments, I like to think of myself as a different person. That fictional person is someone with a wealth of a certain kind of experience, having grown up in a different setting, worldly, mature, uncharacteristically well-adjusted (emotionally and financially) despite significant hardships, and extremely intentional in every decisions he makes — professional, personal, artistic, emotional, etc.
Because I have a strange and underutilized talent for painting vivid mental images, I think of myself as someone borne of an urban environment, having escaped the demons of America’s war on the inner-city. Basically, I’m still Sameer, but a battle-hardened and “realer” version of him.
I can trace some of this back to an upbringing that many are familiar with, in suburbia near pockets of immense poverty. I used to hate growing up in a stupid rich small town, and yearned to experience the kinds of things I only read about in the news: shootings, violence, any experience that felt more authentic and character-defining than being told that you can’t go to the Dave Matthews concert until you’ve pulled up your biology grade (didn’t happen to me, but you get the point). After years of distance, that polarized picture has become more nuanced. I now appreciate the unique advantages my upbringing gave me, and how much it was layered by the people who shaped me into the person I really am.
People are surprised when I tell them about the immense poverty in Hartford, Connecticut. They have good reason to be. Many people who haven’t seen or been to Connecticut’s tiny (only 18 square miles!) state capital only know it for its storied-yet-underrated role in American history. They might know about the 1814 Hartford Convention, during which wealthy New England Federalists discussed secession from the United States because of how the War of 1812 had disrupted trade with Great Britain.
Others may know it as the home of Harriett Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain, writers who made Hartford near-synonymous with the abolitionism movement. Today, Hartford is the centuries-old home of the insurance industry, whose aftershocks help make the Hartford area one of the most economically productive areas of the country. A quick stroll through downtown reveals the fruits of this economic activity –– massive insurance company headquarters, stunning theatres and opera houses, palatial public parks and gardens, and the regal State Capitol with its distinctive gold-leaf dome.
This is all true, and the Hartford area is still extremely wealthy. But take a drive through the city’s neglected neighborhoods and you’ll see a much different place — one that is run-down, predominantly black and Hispanic, and whose poverty rates continually rank among the top for cities of its size. Like many East Coast cities, Hartford reeled from the effects of de-industrialization and white flight as the suburbs grew. The areas around Hartford still remain starkly white and affluent, with pockets of rural poverty in some suburbs.
What makes Greater Hartford different from other urban areas with similar histories? Well, for one, it’s tiny. The actual difference in miles between urban blight and suburban splendor wasn’t massive, and anybody with a car and enough gas could easily travel between the city and suburbs in ten minutes (twenty to thirty in rush hour). Additionally, Hartford suburbs don’t look like other suburbs. The rolling hills, covered in riveting reds and oranges during the fall, masked towns and neighborhoods with immense personality and history. Cookie-cutter developments, while present and expanding, don’t characterize suburban sprawl in towns like Glastonbury and Simsbury.
But even though I can say that I grew up in “small town New England” with confidence, these towns still functioned like suburbs in the most traditional sense. Here, the money generated in Hartford was painfully obvious: massive houses, children whose parents worked in high-paying industries, exclusive private schools abutting nation-ranked public ones, and a characteristic disdain for what happened in the inner-city. Even if Connecticut routinely swings blue, the mentality of these towns is often firmly red.
People can grow up in the Hartford area and never make black or Hispanic friends. I certainly didn’t. Aside from the handful of kids bused from Hartford to my school, known to me only in passing, I can only recall a handful of students of color of any race in my classes. Most problems in Avon were characteristically suburban: underage drinking and driving, pot smoking, and in-class outbursts weighed on parents’ and educators’ minds far more than drive-bys, gang life or eviction.
The marks of my town’s whiteness were, in retrospect, subtler than I could’ve imagined. My friends and I, generally intelligent people with artistic and rebellious dispositions, despised most of the music on pop radio. To fight the system, we listened to punk and emo, eventually moving towards indie (indeed, most of my old friends could be incorrectly categorized as “hipsters” today). It took me years to fully appreciate just how white that experience was.
As a brown kid in Avon, I felt like an anomaly at all times. From a very early age, I was acutely aware of how much I didn’t look like most of my classmates or peers. Even economically, I was fairly different; although my family was actually more affluent than most of my friends’, my father’s job as a physician and my mother’s career change into social work separated me from many whose parents worked in the corporate sector.
Their influence, in conjunction with an awareness of how people who looked like us were portrayed after 9/11, fed a growing interest in social justice and an obsession with understanding how others lived. I recall my friends often accusing me of “acting black” or being “more white than Indian” when I was growing up because I accused them of being racist or actively started listening to the likes of Talib Kweli and The Roots in my teenage years. It took me a while to actually understand how to communicate concepts like “white privilege”, but in the interim, my friends probably just though I was a jerk.
Despite this desire to seek out “realness”, fueled by parents who wanted to instill a sense of public responsibility into all of their children, I lived a pretty sheltered existence. I don’t think I ever learned to throw a punch, and strongly feared the influence of alcohol and drugs. I didn’t even learn how to drive until I was almost 18, depending on my protective mother and ball-busting friends for rides, and still shy away from driving on highways since my mother often prohibited it.
To this day, my hometown is regarded by most of my peers as the kind of place you grow up in to eventually escape. Those who stay there tend to be the kinds of kids who couldn’t make it out. Call them what you want — townies, burnouts, etc. — but unless you were working to escape, you lived in the most poisonous kind of stasis on your mother’s couch. The recession’s changed that a bit, but few look to move back. And why would you? It’s boring, homogeneous, and the nearby city is a run-down cesspool of violence.
Only now can I regard my upbringing for its positives: giving me a comprehensive and safe public education, giving me access to nearby social justice opportunities without having to live in a tension-filled inner-city, and being relentlessly beautiful no matter the season. When I go back, I’m filled with every intense emotion from those teenage years, but I now know how to put them in context with every great experience I’ve had since. My desire to become a journalist and a social worker would not have been possible without this duality.
Years of distance also allow me to understand Hartford for what it really is, and not paint its historic problems in a romantic or essentializing light. In some sense, I was doing something even more racist than ignoring or despising it –– I was treating it as a place out of fantasies, defining “realness” in ways that little to do with the day-to-day of life in that city. As I go forward in my career, I know better than to think of city residents as canvases onto which I can project my fantasies of transformation. Their experiences, while significant, are just as real or American as my own.
Avon and Hartford, despite being far in the rear-view mirror, will always remain an integral part of my character. One day, I’ll hopefully learn to accept it on those terms.