Sunday, December 17, 2017

Illuminating Stronger Ties at Hartford's Night Fall

Night Fall event in Hartford with Connecticut's Capitol in in the background, October 7, 2017

Illuminating Stronger Ties at Hartford's Night Fall
By Preet Patel, Trinity College

Preet Patel (Trinity College ’21) is an aspiring economics major from Belchertown Massachusetts who is looking forward to getting more involved in Hartford in the coming years. During his first semester Preet volunteered at a Hartford Habitat for Humanity build with the Trinity Campus Habitat Chapter.

In the shadow of the illuminated state capitol building, hundreds of people sat mesmerized by a powerful show. Joyful laughter, sparkling smiles, and camera flashes dotted the magical landscape of Bushnell Park. Standing on stage and looking out onto people of many cultures and ethnicities, we raised and then lowered our lanterns, signifying the importance of a connected community rising through problems, and lowering barriers. Although it takes place only one night a year, Night Fall not only brings the community together, but serves as an epicenter for crossing borders, socially, economically, and ethnically, resulting in a region with greater social connectedness.

Night Fall and Social Capital
            Night Fall is a yearly community event held on the first Saturday in October, celebrating the rich culture, diversity and arts of Hartford through a majestic puppet performance. The show is the creative concept of lead artist, Anne Cubberly. The puppets and art featured in the show are created in conjunction with local artists and creative people of Hartford. Many of the performers and professionals in the show call Hartford home. Hartford's rich cultural communities are emphasized throughout the event. Before the show, the tempting aroma given off by the line of food trucks draws large crowds of people anxiously waiting for a delicious treat. Adults of different races, and cultures engage with one another, sparking fruitful conversations and interactions. 

People waiting in line at the food trucks at Night Fall

Despite the harmony at Nightfall, Hartford has seen a decline in social capital in recent years, with important consequences. Social capital as defined by Robert Putnam, is the social interactions, networks, and trust among community members that allow for collective action.[1] Hartford through a series of events such as deindustrialization, suburbanization, and homogeneous communities, has experienced barriers to collective action between the city and the municipalities beyond the urban core.

Declining Social Capital in Hartford
            Hartford is an often misunderstood city that has experienced extraordinary transformations throughout its history.[2] Today Hartford is fragmented both jurisdictionally and socially, contributing to weaker social ties between community members. There is not a clear chain of events to track Hartford’s decline in social ties, but there are some factors that illuminate the problem. One factor that led to the decline of Hartford was the city’s dependence on stable manufacturing, industrial, and insurance jobs. When those industries began merging with larger corporations, moving headquarters, or shutting down, the problems for Hartford really began.[3] The movement of high skilled workers out of Hartford created among the most racially and socioeconomically polarized regions in America. In part as a result, Hartford’s central city has among the slowest growing economies in the United States. Meanwhile greater Hartford actually ranks as among the wealthiest regions in the world.[4] The polarization between the suburbs and the city is also clear along racial and ethnic lines. The movement of people out of the city and into suburbs created a separation of people, ideas, and cultures, increasing the ever present divide.

The suburbanization of Hartford caused a profound ripple effect that led to the erosion of social capital between the city and the surrounding towns. Hartford has a disadvantage in that it has a fixed boundary, with no ability to expand. When the industrial jobs left, many high skilled workers left to the surrounding areas, because there was little growth within the city.[5] When largely white people moved to the suburbs, they created homogeneous communities of politics, cultures, and ideals. The separation between the suburbs and the city is toxic for bridging social capital which, according to Putnam, allows people and communities to get ahead in life.[6] The polarized communities across municipal boundaries prevent people from making social connections that offer potential for economic growth.

A large crowd gathered near the stage at Night Fall

Without bridging social capital, communities cannot benefit from sharing skills, and knowledge. Events like Night Fall are crucial, because they promote social connection of people across different town lines, ethnicities, and cultures, encouraging stronger social networks to address Hartford’s challenges and opportunities in the future.

Night Fall Strengthens Social Capital
Events like Night Fall work towards bridging social capital between the city and the surrounding towns in several ways. The food trucks with dozens of people in line force different people to interact with one another. The performers in the show are supported and are able to display their talents to the community. An audience member from West Hartford reinforced that she values Night Fall because it “increases social interaction between demographic groups.” This shared sense of culture brings the whole community together. Not only does this allow people from the suburbs to interact with people from Hartford, but it also bridges ethnic groups in Hartford. Night Fall allows these divided groups to come together and interact with one another, promoting unity and collective action among the people of Hartford and with people of greater Hartford.

One of most crucial ways Night Fall increases social capital is its emphasis and work within the community. In the time leading up to Night Fall, the organization hosts artistic workshops throughout the city. In the workshops, the community is connected to the show through the creation of lanterns.[7] Constructing the lanterns increases social capital within the community because it fosters a sense of cultural unity. The people of Hartford have a chance to showcase their culture, art, and diversity, encouraging connection to one another.

Night Fall’s ability to promote diversity in the community makes it powerful tool in creating stronger social capital and consequently a tighter sense of community.[8] In an interview with the Hartford Courant, LB Munoz, a chairwoman for Night Fall, stated: “every year we're trying to relate everything back to the neighborhood we're in. Downtown is incredibly diverse, home to people who have come from afar.”[9] Night Fall celebrates Hartford’s diversity, and acknowledges that the city’s diversity is an asset that can propel the city past its barriers.

View overlooking the stage at Night Fall

Transforming Hartford Through the Power of Collective Action
            It is clear that the people of Hartford and its surrounding suburbs have the power to transform the city. Residents in the surrounding suburbs should attend events like Night Fall, and engage with and invest in the sleeping gem that Hartford truly is. Events like Night Fall prove that interactions across barriers are possible and fruitful. If there are more social interactions between the suburbs and the city then, according to Putnam, the region will be better equipped to meet any challenge.[10] Just as I had the opportunity to lift the lantern from Night Fall’s stage, Hartford and the surrounding towns have the opportunity to illuminate a whole new generation in greater Hartford through collective regional action.

This article is the second in a series of four student blog posts featured from Trinity Assistant Professor Abigail Williamson's first-year student seminar Civic Engagement and Community as described in my blog post Classroom to Community at Trinity.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Preet Patel

[1] Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.)
[2] Chen, Xiangming, and Nick Bacon. Confronting urban legacy: rediscovering Hartford and New Englands forgotten cities. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015.)
[3] Walsh Andrew, “Hartford: A Glocal History,” Confronting urban legacy: rediscovering Hartford and New Englands forgotten cities. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015.)
[4] Chen, Xiangming, and Nick Bacon. Confronting urban legacy: rediscovering Hartford and New Englands forgotten cities. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015.)
[5]  Walsh Andrew, “Hartford: A Glocal History,” Confronting urban legacy: rediscovering Hartford and New Englands forgotten cities. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015.)
[6]  Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.)
[7] "Night Fall." Night Fall Hartford. (Accessed November 03, 2017.)

[8]  "Night Fall." Night Fall Hartford. (Accessed November 03, 2017.)
[9] Dunne, Susan. "Autumn Celebration Night Fall Moves To Bushnell Park." October 02, 2017. (Accessed November 03, 2017.)

[10] Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.)

1 comment:

  1. I would love to attend Night Fall next year! This is the first I've heard of it. I have friends in West Hartford who I can share the event with next year if there is a Facebook page etc. I will look now...