Comping Hartford: What is Hartford?

Pricing a house is all about using “comparable sales.” We always try to compare similar properties and the more similar the better. There is rarely a perfect match, but we can usually get pretty close.

Hartford looking southwest from over the Connecticut River

It seems to me that in evaluating a city we should be using a similar approach. When comparing our area to others around the country, we need to be comparing like to like. The current dust-up about Hartford being a “dead city” is the most recent, but far from only, example of how inappropriate comparisons skew reality in one way or another.

A wonderfully positive example is Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine recognizing West Hartford as a town for the coming decade next to Austin and Seattle. The point isn’t that West Hartford is unworthy, or to minimize all the hard work of the town’s leadership, rather that comparing West Hartford and Washington DC (#3 on the list) as equals is not apples-to-apples.

We unfortunately can’t control how other people do their analysis, but we can draw our own conclusions so that we can decide on our own what truly matters and what doesn’t. Amy and I have lived in a few different parts of the country, but we’re going to need help from our readers to find appropriate cities to use as comps for Hartford.

But before we get to that, our first order of business is to define what we mean by “Hartford.”

The word “Hartford” can be used in a lot of different ways, and means different things to different people. In some of the most common uses the speaker means…
– The Downtown neighborhood where all the tall buildings are.
– Everything within the Hartford City limits.
– The general geographic area that is centered on the City of Hartford.
– The seat of the County and State governments.

Normally defining the city wouldn’t be a challenge, but boundary lines are drawn differently in Connecticut than in many other parts of the country. Is it appropriate to compare Hartford to Detroit? Hartford (as defined in the article) is strictly the City of Hartford, which is 17.3 square miles of land. Detroit, on the other hand is 138.8 square miles. In order to make a geographic area of comparable size, we would need to include Hartford, West Hartford, Wethersfield, Newington, Rocky Hill, Bloomfield, Windsor, and half of Windsor Locks. Would the conclusions be the same if the analysis included all of those towns?

I propose that we think of “Hartford” as the region – the general area centered on the City of Hartford, but including all the surrounding towns. There is no right answer, of course, but I think that taking a regional view is most appropriate because we have a regional economy with people frequently traveling between towns for work, to shop, and to have fun. Additionally, taking this view is the only practical way to compare Hartford to other cities since they are usually geographically much larger. The negative of looking regionally is that it will be very difficult to gather data on the Hartford region.

Going back to the article praising West Hartford, I think that Hartford (as a region) would still be worthy of inclusion as a best city for the coming decade. I’m no expert on Washington DC, but if Kiplinger is able to look past their challenges to see the potential, then they should be able to see past our challenges too.

I’d love to have folks weigh in with their take on how we should define “Hartford.” And if we can agree, then we can begin to look for other similar cities to which we can compare our current situation and future ambitions.

6 thoughts on “Comping Hartford: What is Hartford?

  1. I think the history of the city and its origins (e.g., centered around a particular industry) are a good starting place. You can’t really compare East Coast cities to West Coast cities that have developed from a different historical perspective. In addition, a comp city to Hartford also has to have an identical composition of surrounding affluence (i.e., suburban Hartford County and CT as a whole are markedly affluent). It is this latter that makes Hartford so tragic and prone to criticism. Cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland– which have some similar historical context but have managed to revitalize themselves to an extent — are thus not great comparisons because they don’t exhibit the dramatic SES contrasts that serve to illuminate Hartford’s shortcomings to the outside critics.

  2. I grew up in Los Angeles, where pretty much the whole county is considered “Los Angeles”: everything from West Hollywood to Long Beach is LA. The downtown LA area is tiny and most people rarely go there; the city boundaries are jagged (downtown is a good 15-20 miles from the port, but a narrow strip of city runs along the Harbor Fwy between them); and as you say, the whole area has a regional economy.

  3. I would define Hartford narrowly – the city limits and not in terms of a larger geographic area. Though smaller in square miles, it shares the other traditional attributes with other cities which are surrounded by suburbs. And in fact – I would say its more isolated in many ways from its suburbs than other cities I have been in that are actually larger. There is no particular county structure of governance – and although some services extend across multiple towns – the integration is limited and doesn’t suggest to me that one can think of Hartford as all of Hartford Country and meaningfully compare it to other cities. I’ll think about a comparison city – I know Providence comes to mind and has been a comparison city in various newspapers. Perhaps Portland Maine?

    To me the City is no better, and no worse either, than it was 15 years ago when I arrived — maybe a bit better in less crime and a few new buildings here and there — Moving here, I promptly experienced total shock when I moved downtown expecting a downtown – having come from Boston. Instead – ghost town. The shock wore off thankfully, and I left downtown for the West End. There is much good in Hartford – but honestly – if my neices or nephews asked me where they should move – unless they had a really specific reason, I’m be hard pressed to think of any particular reason to tell them to make a future here. In fact, I’d dissaude them – and that’s sort of sad. That is really the issue for me – young people are not attracted to the area and what we’re left with are people who are here for jobs or family – or simply inertia. There was recently a good program on NPR about the flight of young people from this area. Anyway, the politics reflects the mediocrity at times, though I have high hopes for the new mayor.

  4. Great comments guys, thank you all.

    Beth, I definitely agree that history should factor into the discussion, but I don’t want to get stuck looking in the rear view mirror. I guess I’d look at it as working to leverage our historical (though perhaps not present) strengths to evolve the city for the future.

    Erica, you’re right, LA is a really weird shaped city ( And huge geographically at 469 square miles (!

    Michael, you’re our first outright vote for a narrow definition of the city, and I understand your argument. In suggesting 7.5 local towns equals Detroit, I have definitely incorporated some of the ‘burbs into the regional definition of the city. Would it help if I picked different towns? Perhaps take the most thoroughly developed or those with the highest population density?

    Portland, ME ( seems like a possibility at first glance. Like the City of Hartford, it is small geographically at 21 square miles, though it is less dense with only 63,000 residents. I’ll keep researching that one.

    Providence, RI (,_Rhode_Island) might be an even better comparison with 18.5 square miles and 175,000 residents.

    Thank you all … keep the ideas coming.

  5. My view is that the best way to make “apples to apples” comparisons between and among US cities is to use the metropolitan areas drawn by the Office of Management and Budget and used by the Census. The criteria are uniform and meant to define a geographical region with relatively high population density at its core and close economic ties throughout the area.

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