Introduction to Clay Hill/Arsenal also known as “El Norte”
Puerto Ricans first settled in the Hartford neighborhood of Clay Hill/Arsenal. Since they first put down roots in the 1950’s, Puerto Ricans have used their environment to reflect their culture’s image. It is expressed through rhythmic musical patterns, smells and tastes that saturate the senses of anyone walking down Albany Ave. The first Puerto Rican Parade began at the intersection of Main and Albany, a celebration that was the Puerto Rican’s way of exhibiting their accomplishments in the city. It was a day to express some serious Puerto Rican Pride, and virtually every Puerto Rican who owned a vehicle had a Puerto Rican flag hanging from it– along with the name of the owner’s town written with white shoe polish on the back window. Car radios blasted Salsa, Merengues, men would “tirar piropos” from the suped-up rides, young ladies sometimes danced alongside the cars and enjoyed the scenery and smells of bacalaitos, pinchos and the colors of thirst-quenching piraguas. The day was also part of an effort to promote voting, and organizers encouraged Puerto Ricans to register to vote and mark their presence in yet another manner. In addition, the parade was a religious procession, one of many that began in this space, and demonstrated the community’s deep faith in Catholicism and its traditions. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans, young women and men, children, fathers, mothers, and abuelos would line Main Street and participate or observe. The community was proud of its successes and the island imprint was visible and tangible in the personal and social lives of the migrated people. Mayor Eddie Perez’s arrival to Clay Hill/Arsenal
According to the National Register of Historic Places, the origins of the name “Clay Hill” is unknown. Clay Hill was the deliberate creation of the Irish immigrants that were pushed to a higher elevation due to the regular flooding of the slum they lived in, later the residential neighborhood would be totally cleared due to the construction of Constitution Plaza.
The first occupants cleared the forested area, built single and double family homes, and began to humanize the space that occupies 60 acres northwest of Downtown. Clay Hill/Arsenal became a vibrant community as the area began to fill with buildings and complexes that addressed the practical needs of the people, such as specialized shopping, bodegas or corner stores, medical care, social service agencies, etc.
Two major arteries maintained the mobility of the community both then and now-Main Street running to the north, and “The Ave.” or Albany Avenue which runs west. Both streets intersect at Tunnel Park. The recreational space of Tunnel Park was created by the railroad when the company built a tunnel below the intersection in 1874. It occupies a triangular one-half acre of land. Clay Hill currently has a total of 2,455 housing units, 247 are owner occupied.
Historically there has been little in the way of lasting commerce and industry in the neighborhood, aside from a 19th century lumberyard that is still active today. Hartford Lumber Co. is located on the railroad west on Albany Ave. The architectural style of the community is a mix of Italianate, Queen Anne, and Neo-Classical Revival.
No matter what the building material or architectural style, the structures maintain a uniformity of size and its spacing is uniquely remarkable. Edifices are close together, up against sidewalks and the streets, and “the buildings carry the eye along in unbroken rhythm” with the differing architectural styles adding character variation and visual stimulation. The bricklayers’ craft marks the Clay Hill neighborhood, its impression visible in several styles:
“Bricks laid on the diagonal and bricks laid alternating flush and recessed were used as segmental lintels, string courses and decorative features of chimney pilasters. This craft tradition provided a continuing link through buildings of differing styles. It is an important, cohesive influence in the district that stems directly from craftsmanship rather than from academic interpretation of architecture.”
“Within 50 years one member of the community said, you will see us listed in the telephone book as Doctor’s, Lawyers, and Businessmen.” Hartford Courant August 29, 1960
Clay Hill is a repository of fragmented memories and dreams. For at least the last 3 decades Clay Hill has been deteriorating and has become one of the poorest neighborhoods in Hartford. The median household income is currently $14,552 and in addition, the majority of households constitute single parentage. Fire Marshall Ed Casares description of Clay Hill The development of Clay Hill from rural to urban, riches to rags conditions, was caused by the rise and fall of industrial growth of the city. In the beginning of the 19th century, booming construction expanded the wealth of the well-to-do and upper-middle-class families who reaped the benefits of the weapons sold to both sides of the Civil War. The later part of the century brought a proliferation of 3 to 6 family buildings and apartment houses which became the norm in the 20th century. The character of the community gradually shifted from owner-occupied to the renter who was working-class and poor, as later generations moved out to the suburbs, particularly after WWII. The ethnic landscape would also shift from Irish, to German who were mostly Jewish, to Clay Hill being almost exclusively Black and Puerto Rican. Currently it is heavily populated by West Indians.
The African-American community was willing to welcome the Puerto Rican into Clay Hill/Arsenal, but as the Puerto Rican community began to grow, mainly Puerto Ricans from the Island, they began to identify themselves in their own ethnic group. Whites and Blacks assigned to them their own set of stereotypes. This ‘new’ ethnic category eventually placed a visible wall between the African- American and Puerto Rican who for awhile lived the struggle as allies in harmony, but then began to compete for city jobs and political positions.
The Clay Hill Puerto Rican community did and still does fit some of the ‘stereotypes’ attached to them. Their economic status and culture condemned them to certain areas of the city. They first began to live in Clay Hill, as housing became more scarce, they pushed into South Green and later into Frog Hollow, areas where landlords would rent to them. Landlords elsewhere were wary of the Puerto Rican, one landlord stating, “they are noisy, always having a party, and hanging out the windows.”
Very little if any regard was given to the fact that Puerto Ricans arriving from the island to Hartford faced serious cultural and psychological barriers. They were American citizens, but lived a different culture and were discriminated against accordingly.
In Clay Hill most often than not, families were in extreme poverty and were made up of anywhere from 5-10 people, all living in a small one-bedroom apartment. Open space was limited, unlike on the island, and therefore the building stoops, the window sills, porches, hallways, basements, yards and the streets offered breathing space. These areas took on a different meaning for the Puerto Rican who missed home, who as a result sought to recreate some of the cultural norms within them. Talking to a neighbor via the window is akin to calling out and conversing with a neighbor from the back door of one’s island dwelling. Puerto Ricans typically congregated after dinner in the plazas of the town or barrio, there men would discuss news of the day, women would exchange gossip, young people would court and children would play. Everyone knew each other and had a sense of security and well-being. Fire Marshal Edward Casares discusses the Clay Hill neigborhood. The limited social spaces available to Puerto Ricans in Clay Hill forced the community to create new ones. This was interpreted by the previous immigrants as Puerto Ricans being loiterers, noisy, lazy and partiers, when in fact, this was the disillusioned Puerto Rican’s way to help make the racially forced ‘American’ assimilation process tolerable. Puerto Ricans, as most Latin Americans, have a different relationship to public and private space as do other U.S. citizens. They tend to prefer the public space to the private, and are more likely to socialize there. Social space is occupied through social right, unlike in many U.S. spaces where people cross or inhabit only briefly on their way to private space.
The gatherings Puerto Ricans organized provided community building and a therapeutic remedy for homesickness; their perceived ‘idleness’ was a result of a lack of employment opportunities, a collective sharing of common space, and of course, the addictive drug that is the welfare system, that at times did the migrant more harm than good. Therefore Puerto Ricans hung out of neighborhood windows, they celebrated together, and they motivated their children to maintain their culture while at the same time becoming Americanized. The spaces selected for the Heritage Trail within the Clay Hill neighborhood represent the pain as well as the vibrancy of the first Puerto Rican settlement in Hartford.
National Register of Historical Places, Hartford Commission on Arts and Culture.
JANET ANDERSON. “American Dream Suffocating.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1984), March 17, 1970, http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed May 5, 2009).
Interviews of Mayor Perez, and Fire Marshall Caseres, January 2009