Chris Powell: Infrastructure projects not enough to offset slob culture

MANCHESTER, Conn. Geographically New London is spectacular, with Long Island Sound on one side and the Thames River on the other, and a beautiful old train station downtown with passenger service north to Boston and south to New Haven, New York, and beyond. The city practically shouts of potential.

Geographically Waterbury is spectacular too, built on hills along the Naugatuck River with sweeping views, an expansive downtown green, and its own beautiful old train station, which, while now occupied by the city's newspaper, the Republican-American, remains the terminus for passenger service to New York and beyond. Potential is also Waterbury's middle name.

Unfortunately the other day both cities were not realizing any potential but just having their noses rubbed in gritty reality.

In New London, as reported by the city's newspaper, The Day, nine downtown residents complained to a City Council meeting about disgusting misbehavior in their neighborhood -- public drunkenness and drug use, panhandling, vomiting, and worse by vagrants, whom political correctness has euphemized as "the homeless." The residents said they were not just offended but fearful.

"It's very intimidating and frightening walking alone," one told the council. "I love this city. I think this city has incredible potential. But with this situation, who wants to come here?"

Crime by predatory young men has been a chronic problem in downtown New London, the most infamous incident being the murder of a pizza shop worker 3½ years ago by a wolf pack of six who, upon their apprehension, said they had set out to assault someone because they were bored.

At the council meeting a deputy police chief sympathized with the complaints but offered only the weak hope of increased police patrols if the department ever recovers from a personnel shortage.

Meanwhile Waterbury was learning from the Republican-American that the state Department of Economic and Community Development had just ranked the city as the most distressed municipality in Connecticut, displacing Hartford, which had spent years at the top of the list and dropped to No. 2. New Britain and Bridgeport ranked third and fourth, the rankings calculated from personal income, employment, education levels and property values.

The newspaper quoted local officials as saying that a municipality ranked distressed has the advantage of some preference for state government financial grants. Yet that preference has not done much for Hartford, which, as the state capital for 140 years, long has had another advantage, hosting what are now thousands of well-paid state government jobs only to fall steadily from being perhaps the richest city in the country to being among the poorest 10.

Geography gives Hartford, New Britain, and Bridgeport great potential too, but as things have turned out, such natural advantages are not decisive for quality of life. Indeed, natural advantages seem to mean less over time, as does a municipality's physical infrastructure, on which state government lately has concentrated, with new government buildings erected in Waterbury and Hartford, the bus highway being built between Hartford and New Britain, the Coast Guard museum being planned in New London, and such.

No, the decisive element of a municipality's infrastructure and potential is only what it always has been:  the people who live there.  Capable, self-sufficient people can accomplish much, but a half century of public policy in Connecticut purporting to raise people out of poverty has only driven them into it deeper and made them more dependent on government, policy that has correlated only with urban decline and the explosion of a demoralizing slob culture.

Much  more than colleges relocated downtown, renovated theaters, convention centers and stadiums, Connecticut needs someone in authority to ask: What exactly has happened here and when is any of this stuff supposed to  work?


Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.