45-55 Bartholomew Avenue
S P A G H E T T I F A C T O R Y
The name, painted at billboard proportions in white, scrolls across the upper facade of an abandoned concrete building. Built in 1912 as a boiler factory, this squat, hulking structure sits at the back of a desolate lot, about 50 yards from the street. There is only one other building on this 1.5-acre parcel, a modest two-story space just off Bartholomew, where the Spaghetti Factory set up shop―indoor trolley car and all―in 1993. The "Spaghetti Warehouse" banner on the empty factory in the background was just a neighborly advertisement, targeting commuters over on I-84, the interstate that bounds Parkville to the east.
When the restaurant opened, "city officials and area merchants dreamed sweet thoughts of revival" for Parkville, according to the Hartford Courant. But the business unceremoniously closed in 1996. Those sweet dreams curdled a bit, and would continue to sour as the prevailing urban plan for Parkville, the Bartholomew Wellington Development Project, puttered along.
Today, the concrete factory has an unintentional hallmark of contemporary urban architecture: the green rooftop. Above the Spaghetti Factory banner, lush bushes sway in the blue Connecticut sky, their roots stretching deep into blocked gutters. Nearer to street level, five bricked-up window spaces hover about 15 feet off the ground. With their flat bottoms and rounded tops, these spaces look like Old West tombstones, all in a row. At the bottom right of the building, where the concrete has crumbled and rebar pokes through, green vines stretch up and across the facade, defiant with life.
This property is actually a 27,000-square-foot complex that contains three warehouses. Two of the buildings run parallel and terminate into a single, shabby brick facade facing Bartholomew. Four delivery bays are shuttered with enormous wood panels, painted black and peeling. On the second floor, all the windows are sealed with brick and glass block.
So far, pretty standard stuff in terms of urban blight.
But there's something strange about the top of the facade. Starting from the far left, the brickwork is staggered up and in, up and in, creating five large steps that lead to a level plateau in the center of the facade. From there, the brickwork staggers down and out, down and out, describing five descending steps―at which point the pattern repeats. I'm reminded of blocky 8-bit Super Mario castles, as well as the flat, dangerous movie-prop house that collapsed over Buster Keaton.
"We're always going to be where we're from, regardless of whether we relocate or not."
These two warehouses are open graves of dead enterprise, seeping eyesores that are impossible to ignore. They represent the Hartford that everyone has come to expect. This is the Hartford that lost its industry, lost its Whalers, continues to lose its native talent to more cosmopolitan cities, and that in the weeks following my visit will lose Aetna (after 164 years, and to New York City, of all places). This is the Hartford that, later this weekend, my host in Monhegan, Maine will deride as a "shithole" with pronounced disgust. This is the Hartford that serves as the capital of the richest state in America, where politicians fiercely advocate for the One Percenters down in Fairfield County, while less than five minutes from the statehouse in the Frog Hollow neighborhood, blocks of Park Street look like a scene from The Wire. This is the Hartford that now faces bankruptcy. This is the Hartford where gangs thrived in the 1990s, and that suburban parents still urge their kids to avoid. This is the Hartford whose downtown turns into a ghost town on evenings and weekends, as those I-84 commuters return home to West Hartford, Avon, Farmington, Plainville, Southington, Waterbury, Middlebury, Southbury, Danbury, any-bury, any place besides dead-and-buried Hartford.
To be sure, that's a legitimate reading of 45 and 71 Bartholomew, as far as it goes. But it only goes so far.
Enter the other Hartford, alive and well.
Cooper and I walk off Batholomew Avenue into a long, wide L-shaped alcove between buildings. We're following Cooper's younger brother, Luke Davis, and Marshall Deming. Those two guys, along with Dave Marcoux, run Hartford Denim Company (Hardenco).
Cooper is not officially part of the Hardenco business, but he's close to the brand. He became friends with Marshall and Dave in high school, and those guys met Luke through him. Cooper has watched Hardenco evolve from Luke stalking online denim forums and messing around on their mom's plastic sewing machine to Hardenco leasing two floors of the Champlin box factory. Add to that his obvious intelligence and big-brotherly license to question, encourage, and goad Luke, and Cooper has a well-informed, outside perspective that the Hardenco partners seem to welcome.
At the back of the alcove, we arrive at a windowless doorway in the side of an unmarked building. There's a modest shingle identifying the Hog River Brewing Company.
We walk in, order drinks, and sit down to talk about the real new New England thing.
Increasing sales would be easy. The guys just need to cut a few corners on materials and production, and make some minor compromises on quality that nobody besides themselves would ever notice. Marshall wouldn't have to deliver pizza (he works on a paving crew, too), while also doing 30 to 40 hours a week at Hardenco. Luke and Dave could also devote all their time to the business, instead of working side jobs. There's only problem with that: They would be selling jeans that, from their perspective, wouldn't be worth making in the first place.
As teenagers, the guys all wore Carhartt, but Carhartt started prewashing their fabric (no more crispy canvas), and changed their fit. Luke decided to take matters into his own hands. Marshall remembers him "playing around in Jo-Ann Fabrics with cotton duck, and making random pairs of pants on his mom's plastic sewing machine." Luke soon discovered denim. He bought a pair of APCs. Then he bought a pair of Japanese selvedge, which "were dope but not the right cut." From there, he was off to the races. "It was one brand after another," Luke says. "One brand, the fabric is incredible, but the cuts were off, and I'm over 1000 bucks in the hole, and I'm still looking for pants. I was like, 'Fuck this. I'm gonna make them.'" Luke spent hours on denim forums, learning as much as he could. He looked at photos of jeans and shared photos of his own jeans, while tangling with trolls and "arguing over stupid details." (Today Luke is off forums. "The last thing I need to do is stare into my phone and argue with a guy about whose hem stitch is whatever," he tells me.) At 19 years old, Luke had so much information in his head that he had to do something with it.
The young Luke also wanted to make his own belt, one that was undyed and unbreakable. He visited a leather-worker, who showed him the basics and told him where to source materials. Luke ordered some leather and started making a wallet. He called Marshall and said, "This is pretty easy. You pretty much make whatever you want. It takes some time but you figure it out." Marshall took Luke's lead and began doing his own leather work. "He started making these crazy elaborate bags," Luke remembers. "They're really more like high-fashion art pieces than a bag you'd recognize. They're really out there." From there, Dave saw Marshall's bags and decided to make his own coal totes.
"We're not really the most profitable business model. It's uncommon to find a brand like us."
When Luke challenged himself to make 100 pairs of jeans in three months, the other guys joined in. "We're not the kind of guys who can stand around and watch," Marhsall says. So, they all started making jeans together. They didn't know it at the time, but Hardenco was underway.
On the second floor of the Hardenco space, the guys make garments with their only full-time employee, Melissa. There are several Union Specials and an array of ancient, but still serviceable, Singers. On the bottom floor, they have their warehousing, cutting table, and (in a first for me, visiting denim shops) a letterpress. "Every printed thing that we do is made on this press," Luke says. "We put way too much into our product to print some tags on the computer. Sometimes we get a plate made, but all of these tags are handset type. This is our business card, but each one of those is loose and set in. You have to get all the right-sized spacers so you can unlock it. There are multiple industries that we have had to teach ourselves."
Luke describes that self-teaching as "factory-building."
When Luke says, "We make the best jeans in the world," he's not being arrogant. To him, it's an objective observation. Hardenco has spent seven years pursuing a particular vision of blue jeans. Having realized that vision, the guys now challenge themselves with making aprons, work shirts, indigo-dipped beach jackets for their growing Japanese audience, and the occasional one-off chore coat with military-blanket lining. And they still need to make flashers and business cards on their handset letter press, and service their Singers and Union Specials. By virtue of "factory-building," the Hardenco guys have taught themselves brand-building. Everything in this factory, and everything that comes out of this factory, feels the same. The flashers, the webbing inside their denim totes, the new leather patch that references their handset type―it's all cohesive.
"We're not really the most profitable business model," Luke tells me. "It's uncommon to find a brand like us." He says this in response to me contrasting the brand message of cut-rate-denim specialists Gustin ("A better business model ... true wholesale") with Hardenco's approach, idealistic to the point of being quixotic.
"These three guys are product-oriented and process-oriented and fully immersed in what they do," Cooper says. "Translating that into marketing, whether that's dumbing down your approach to pull people in on the forums, or going to the trade shows and having a bunch of fake conversations, there's not a lot of patience for that with these guys. Which is, I think, a plus and a minus."
"It's preserved our integrity," Luke says, "but it's kept us from getting rich."
Earlier today I was trying to figure out where to go in Hartford. Like in Chicago it would be Wicker Park, with cafes and bookstores.
Oh ... you came to the wrong city.
There's no place like that yet. This is it (meaning Parkville), but it's 10 years from now.
There is a cluster of businesses around the Hog River alcove, but I don't really notice. The Caral nightclub is unique; it has prominent signage and a conspicuous black-and-green-striped awning. The Hog River shingle is tiny, all but invisible from the street. I'm vaguely aware that the Hartford Restaurant Group is located somewhere in here. Someone mentions that every month, this alcove hosts Hartford's food trucks for the Know Good market. In a few weeks I'll find out that Wearsafe, a tech company that makes panic buttons that pair with smartphones, is headquartered right here.
The guys and I walk back out onto Bartholomew. We could walk north towards Park. At 1477 Park there's another brick building with a Mario Castle facade. It's home to a yoga studio, several condos with hardwood floors, and a workshop where Josh Westbrook does business as the Brothers Crisp. Josh makes traditional New England handsewn moccasins that he takes "back to the future," as he told Fox 61. But to find Josh, you'd have to know where to look.
We head south instead, backtracking towards Hamilton. I have no idea that a nonprofit called Hands On Hartford leases the brick building at 55 Bartholomew, and they even run a cafe out of the place. I'm equally oblivious to the presence of RLF home furnishings, Dirt Salon ("Hartford's only art salon"), and a place called―God forgive them―By The Seed of My Plants.
I am, however, aware of the Champlin factory, but only because it's home to Hardenco. The Champlin complex forms a huge 90-degree angle that hinges on the corner of Bartholomew and Hamilton. One brick hangar runs a good 80 yards along the west side of Bartholomew. Another, shorter space runs along Hamilton, and the two buildings connect at the intersection. The guys tell me that it's a functioning box factory. They don't mention that Champlin produces specialty packaging for one of Hartford's few remaining industries: precision manufacturing. If a military contractor needs six submarine propellers, there's a decent chance that Hartford gets that business. In turn, Champlin figures out how to ship the final product. Some sophisticated stuff is going on inside the Champlin factory, but you'd never know just by walking past.
The signs of life on this block far outnumber the signs of death. Its just that the multitudinous signs of life are hidden away, wheras the two signs of death, 71 and 45 Bartholomew, are emphatic and explicit. But even that is about to change, for the first time in decades. In addition to the building at 55, Hands On Hartford also owns the decrepit "Spaghetti Warehouse" factory at 45. The organization is rehabbing the longstanding eyesore to create 30 affordable-housing apartments. The bricks will get knocked out of the window spaces and glass installed. The gutters will be cleared, the rebar concealed, the ivy pruned, the "Spaghetti Warehouse" banner revised―but not erased, out of respect for what has become a bona fide Parkville icon, for better or worse. As for 71 Bartholomew, according to Cooper, the property has sold to a Manhattan performance artist. "He was priced out of New York," Cooper says. "He bought this whole factory. He could own it for three months' rent in New York City. That's kind of the hope around here, that Hartford is just close enough ..."
Looking around Bartholomew, Luke says, "We were on this street, it seems, before anyone. Of course there were people here long before us, but in terms of our generation being involved in this area, whether it's business or residential, we were the first guys on the scene over here. A lot of these buildings were boarded-up or empty."
In his interview with Fox 61, Josh Westbrook said, "I think that's what is amazing about Hartford: It's been a renaissance city before." As this block of Parkville appears poised to enter its own renaissance, it's worth noting the businesses and organizations that have paved the way, like Hands On Hartford. People who join nonprofits, as the name would suggest, are typically not motivated by profit. Clearly, neither are the guys at Hardenco. Hog River Brewing was founded by a married couple who "jumped the corporate ship, deciding life is too short to not pursue our dreams." A pair of Brothers Crisp handsewn high-tops go for $750, but Josh spends an entire week making them. There's something else besides money driving the people who are driving Parkville's comeback.
At least in terms of their exacting standards and perseverance, these people are―and I hope I'm using this term correctly―Yankees.
Right before I leave today, the Davis brothers will educate me on New England stereotypes.
The New England stereotype is not as accurate as the Yankee stereotype in general, which is a fast-talking, busy person with very fixed opinions ...
Luke, finishing his brother's sentence
... who is not going to stop because they don't have the right thing yet. They're going to make it happen. There's frugality and then there's stubbornness. Those are two key attributes.
As far as New England stereotypes go, the determined Yankee beats the hell out of GQ's hackneyed vision of WASPs in their Nantucket Reds at Martha's Vineyard. Later tonight, on a long drive to Maine, I will think about the Davis brothers' description of the archetypal Yankee: "... very fixed opinions ... stubborn ... they're going to make it happen."
I'll wonder: Did they know they were describing Hardenco?
In 2014, GQ published an editorial titled, "The New New England Thing: 7 Preppy Looks for Spring." It was garbage. This is the first of our three-part response.