The heart of Hartford 

Michael Downs’ true tale of urban renewal

Jane Austen wrote, “One does not love a place less for having suffered in it.” While she may have been right, it’s also true that loving a place and choosing to stay there are two different things. For those with the means to leave, living in a blighted hometown requires a special sort of devotion. No one knows this better than the five young men who are the subject of Michael Downs’ House of Good Hope: A Promise for a Broken City. The University of Montana journalism professor’s nonfiction account concerns a pact Hartford Public High School football players Harvey, Eric, Joshua, Derrick and Hiram make upon leaving for college: to return home to “live in the city and contribute something.”

In the late ’80s, when the group attends HPHS, nearly 28 percent of Hartford’s 140,000 citizens live below the poverty level. Their football coach receives notes saying things like “Please excuse Eduardo from practice; he was hit yesterday in the back with a baseball bat.” For these 17-year-old boys—each with a ticket out—to even think about returning home tells you everything you need to know about their character. They are talented athletes, sure, but they’re also good students, devoted sons and possess a social consciousness well beyond their years. Their vision for a better Hartford is not the least bit quixotic: no plans to repave streets, oust corrupt politicians, raze crack houses or attract big business. Instead, they’re going to come back and mentor kids, essentially offering the same counsel to the next generation that their football and track coaches gave them.

House of Good Hope belongs to the family of works that includes Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights and Darcy Frey’s Last Shot. Sports are less of a focal point for Downs, though. In the first third of the book, he wisely limits the play-by-play, concentrating instead on each boy’s upbringing and setting their dire circumstances against the affluent history of Hartford. In 1876, Hartford boasted the highest per capita income of any American city. Mark Twain, who lived there for 17 years, wrote, “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, this is the chief. You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.” Just over a century later, however, a police car drives up on the sidewalk and smashes Harvey’s brother into a chain link fence. Because he’s running the cops think he’s fleeing a crime scene, and after realizing their mistake they warn him “not to say nothing to nobody.”

Grisliness and corruption of this sort will come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched the news or gone to the movies. What makes this a good read is the author’s connection to the events he describes. Downs is no anthropologist collecting data. We learn in the book that he was born in Hartford and, after being raised in Tucson, returned there in 1989 to take a job with the Hartford Courant. Downs writes with an abiding, sincere wish that things were different, and he’s honest about the pain his decision to trade Hartford for Montana has caused him. Like those of the five boys who do not honor their pledge to the letter, Downs has to negotiate a truce with the place and the people he’s left behind.

This controlled mix of civic history, reportage and memoir nearly gets derailed a third of the way through when Downs shifts his attention almost exclusively to Melvin “Butch” Braswell for about 70 pages. Braswell is the track coach at HPHS whose “brow seemed permanently furrowed as if from the effort of forever balancing love and anger.” He discovers Harvey Kendall and transforms him into one of the best schoolboy triple jumpers in the United States. Also a special deputy sheriff at Hartford Superior Court, Butch is later convicted of giving cocaine to an inmate.

Downs covers the nuances of the trial and the holes in the case like an expert journalist, but this book isn’t about Braswell. During this section, when Downs breaks from the trial he writes primarily about his own family history, stretching all the way back to his ancestors in Poland. This part of his memoir seems quaint and sentimental when juxtaposed with Butch’s ordeal. Worse still, the five main characters recede too far into the background, and by the time Downs returns to his original protagonists, readers have to work harder than they should to reacquaint themselves with the now-grown men. What was once a tight narrative becomes diffuse.

Fortunately, one itches to know what’s become of these kids, and their adult stories, especially Eric’s and Joshua’s, are worth the wait. In the decade after the boys leave, Hartford does not fare so well, but for all the city’s failures it at least produces these dignified citizens. In chronicling their lives Downs offers an important lesson: If this country is ever to reclaim its lost cities, it will do so not with grandiose planning but by seeking out and celebrating urban success stories such as these. Thus, though it wavers for a spell, Downs’ book, like the people it discusses, finds a way to deliver on its early promise.

Michael Downs reads from and signs copies of House of Good Hope Tuesday, April 10, at 7 PM at Shakespeare & Co.
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