Connecticut Cities at a Crossroad
by Jennifer Swift
As Stamford mayor Michael Pavia prepares to leave office, he’s reminded of what the City That Works has been and what it has become.
Pavia, a lifelong Stamford resident who succeeded Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as mayor in 2010, remembers when downtown was a shell of its current self, when development was less robust and parts of the city were ravaged by crime. Though poverty and high crime rates persist in some neighborhoods, his successor will inherit a city with the fastest-growing population and perhaps the most economic upside of any of Connecticut’s major cities.
“I’ve been here all my life, and I’ve always noticed how Stamford continues to reinvent itself,” says Pavia. “It was once called the Industrial City, then the Research City, the Corporate city—and now it’s the City That Works. I think that’s an appropriate slogan because it works in every area and that success is apparent.”
Stamford’s rise has been one of the state’s biggest urban success stories over the past decade. It recently moved past Hartford to become the state’s third-largest city by population, and could top New Haven and Bridgeport in the not-so-distant future.
Downtown, once crime-ridden, is now flush with restaurants, bars and shops built in part around a group of national and international businesses with a significant presence in the city.
Stamford is home to the U.S. headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and the American sales and trading headquarters of UBS. It’s also home of NBC Sports, which recently moved from New York City, and to the studios of the Yankees Entertainment and Sports network (YES).
At a time when all of Connecticut’s major cities are in various stages of attempted revitalization, Stamford stands as a model of success.
Ed Canady, head of U.S. public relations for RBS, says the city presents “a unique blend of benefits” for RBS, including proximity to Manhattan and a Fairfield County location close to where many customers and employees live. “In addition, Stamford offers a vibrant and growing downtown business district with a broad array of shops, services, restaurants, arts and events,” Canady says.
Meanwhile, up the Gold Coast in Bridgeport, the poverty rate of 20.8 percent is more than double that of Stamford, Norwalk or Danbury, which, after the Park City, are the biggest municipalities in Fairfield County. Despite this, Mayor Bill Finch touts a boom in new housing as a sign that the city is poised to grow and become more diverse.
“When people drive past Bridgeport they see smoke stacks and think that’s our city,” says Finch. “That’s just a small portion of what we have to offer.”
New Haven, like Bridgeport, is engaged in a long struggle to curb crime and improve education. The Elm City’s poverty rate of 25.2 percent is the state’s second-highest, trailing only Hartford. But officials point out that New Haven, home to Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital, is poised to continue to add jobs in education and science.
While New Haven continues to grow, the existing problems of homelessness and poverty won’t necessarily be going away.
“I’m going to have to continue to have a disproportionate share of the pathologically addicted and mentally ill,” says Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who’s leaving office next year after serving for 20 years. “New Haven will continue to house those people, because frankly, there’s not a lot of places in Madison for them to go to live or to be supported, and that’s part of our role as a center city.”
Much like New Haven, Hartford faces the challenges of having executive buildings on one street and pockets of crime and poverty on the next. Its poverty rate in 2010 reached 32.1 percent—more than three times the state average. But Hartford, largely propelled by the insurance industry and state government, is still a major employment hub for workers from across the county.
While Connecticut’s cities grow and shrink and reinvent themselves after cycles of economic change, they each still have their own unique identity, and residents can find a home that matches their own social and cultural preferences.
DeStefano believes it’s a good thing to have such disparities among cities.
“If you want financial services be in Hartford, if you want immediate access to New York you ought to be in Stamford,” he says. “Each of our cities have their own competitive advantages.”