Dear Hartford: Climb Right In.

Feb 9, 2017

Commentator Julia Pistell moved to Hartford years ago on a compromise. Her not-yet-husband had a job in insurance in Hartford, so Pistell packed up her books and sublet her South Bronx apartment. She’s been here ever since, and is happy about what the city has asked of her. She wants others in the region to recognize it’s asking things of them too.

We didn’t have a car. I didn’t have a job. I had about $200 from walking pit bulls.

I challenged myself to a new experience every day. I walked to the Colt building, looked at the broken glass and thought it’s crazy that you can walk right up to this incredible building, and, if you’re brave, climb right in.

I wandered into a brewery a week later and got hired as a host.

I wandered into Hartford.

Seven years later, there are many things about Hartford I respect. I never get over the shock of being alone in a room with Miró at the Wadsworth, the wooded path by the Connecticut River, the sets at Hartford Stage, or Heaven Skate Park.

Or in the suburbs: Simsbury in the fall, the apple orchards, and R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison.

"But those aren’t Hartford!" some protest.

Sure they are.

This city puts me close to all those things. The most frustrating thing about Connecticut is how neighborhoods pretend there’s an ocean between them. There isn’t. We can enjoy the region’s successes, and we’re all responsible for the region’s problems.

If you live close enough to a place to feel personally affronted by its issues, then you’re responsible for the collective fix. I moved here because it seemed good enough, and I live here because it forces me to be good enough.

The big Hartford secret? You can have an impact. There are so many empty spaces: literal (all those empty storefronts; all those unrenovated buildings) and figurative.

When I complain that Hartford lacks something, that’s an opportunity to build. On that principle, I went from being an intern at the Twain House to the founder of its writing programs and co-createdHartford’s first improv theater. Hartford deserves the credit for those things. It made space for me.

We have to be brave enough to keep working. That’s true of any place. It’s dangerous to be brave. Walk right up to Hartford, look it in the eye. Even if there’s broken glass, climb in.

I’m distantly related to one of Hartford’s founders, Zachary Field — the city’s first chimney-viewer. Sometimes I look at the fireplace in my historic home, and wonder, "Did he inspect this chimney?"

Here are his questions as I imagine them. They are also my questions.

Have you cleared out what has burned?
Will you arrange your kindling so that it won’t burn your house down?
Have you let in the air?
Are you ready for a new fire?
When will you build it?

Commentator Julia Pistell lives and works in downtown Hartford.