In 1875, Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood resonated with the clanging and drumbeats of heavy machinery from the bustling factories along Capitol Avenue and Lawrence Street. In the middle of it all stood the Billings & Spencer forge, a sprawling three-story brick complex with its landmark tower at Lawrence and Russ Streets. By the early 20th century it had become one of the region’s largest tool makers.
But by 1975 Billings Forge and most of the nearby factories were shuttered. The Forge gained a second life as apartments, but the surrounding neighborhood continued to struggle. Like many other urban centers, as factory jobs were lost, neighborhood unemployment and poverty rose.
Fast forward forty years: the sounds you now hear are children playing in the community garden, farmer’s market vendors selling fresh fare, people gathering to dine at Firebox restaurant, policy makers and advocates engaging in lively debates at the Lyceum, and culinary trainees trying out their skills at The Kitchen Café. Soon to join these wonderful sounds are those of saws and hammers as the apartments at Billings Forge are fitted with new windows, roofs, and fresh finishes.
How did we get here? It all started in 2003 with the original “big bet” the Melville Trust took when it purchased the historic Lyceum and renovated it as a center for housing policy and community development. From there sprang a series of additional community investments by the Trust, including the purchase of the 98-unit Billings Forge apartments, renovations to several nearby properties, and the launch of Firebox. These investments total over $20 million, and have reaped returns in the form of expanded access to quality housing, healthy food, and job training by local residents and increased private sector reinvestment in nearby properties.
But the Trust did not create community change alone. The palpable energy, increased opportunity and community engagement in Frog Hollow is the result of the incredible work of our nonprofit partners: Billings Forge Community Works, the Partnership for Strong Communities, and Preservation of Affordable Housing. You can read more about these partners, learn about the history of the neighborhood, and meet some of the people that live and work there in our new brochure, “Billings Forge, Continuing the Commitment.”
At its core, this work represents a long-term investment in the vitality of Frog Hollow and the Trust’s ongoing commitment to the people who live and work there. We believe that a good place to live goes beyond simply four walls and a roof – that a home is more than an address. It is a place of safety, privacy and rest, a place where we care for our families and connect with our friends and communities. Strong, vibrant, authentic communities are the soil in which we all grow and thrive.