For years, people smirked when they talked about the prospect of living in downtown Hartford.
There’s no there there, they’d say. Well, who’s smirking now? Probably quite a few of the 1,700 members of a “downtown dwellers” group. They trade tips on restaurants, ask for help on projects, announce upcoming events and share gossip at Dwelling in Downtown: Hartford on Facebook.
Aerial view of the Hartford skyline, the Connecticut River and the Charter Oak Bridge looking north. (Cloe Poisson / Hartford Courant)
The virtual town square for the growing residential population in the central business district was the idea of David Panagore, Hartford's former chief operating officer. He created the group four years ago, not as a city-sponsored initiative, but because he was a new downtown resident who noticed that there was no neighborhood identity, no spot where residents naturally gathered.
If 100 people used the Facebook group, he recalls hoping, it would be worth the work. As of April, more than 1,700members had signed on, and the group continues to grow. Some posts trigger as many as 50 comments or more, depending on the issue. And the number is certain to grow as another 1,000 downtown apartments are built in the next two years, creating a larger base of downtown dwellers.
“There was no community,” Panagore says. “... no sense of identity.” Meghan Freed, one downtown dweller, moved to the Linden in 2006. She bought another unit two years ago at street level for her law firm, Freed Marcroft. She says the Facebook group serves not only as a resource but also as a gateway into the community. “I know so many more neighbors than I used to because there never used to be a gathering place in the same way that there's now a virtual gathering place. It's created real-life gathering places,” she says, citing five close friendships that have developed as a result.
Not all participants on the Facebook page live downtown.
E. John McGarvey, a hairstylist who owns Les Cheveux Salon in West Hartford Center and lives in the West End, checks in to Dwelling in Downtown regularly in part because he owns half a brownstone and used to live downtown.
“It's great for anybody who wants to stay connected. Anybody who might be interested in living downtown or investing in downtown could have a look at this page and get a sense of what's going on,”McGarvey says. Other members include academics interested in urban issues and former residents who still want to remain connected to the city, says Panagore.
Daniel Latorre, a senior fellow for digital place making at the Project for Public Spaces, says digital space can be “an incredibly powerful tool” being used in cities around the country, from Brooklyn, N.Y., to towns in the Adirondacks to Tupelo, Miss. Freed says downtown feels closer-knit than at any time since she moved there. “It's become more of an experience of living in a vibrant small city, and the page absolutely was a main driver."