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One Hartford Building's Colorful History in the Shadow of I-84

Nov 17, 2015

Bob Rinker said the neighborhood never recovered after being split by the elevated highway.

When construction of I-84 viaduct in the 1960s plowed through neighborhoods and historic landmarks in Hartford, a modest brick building in the West End of the city was spared. 

The building’s appearance is small and unassuming compared to the concrete roadway that towers overhead nearby. But, if you look closely, you’ll see the centurion pillars engraved around the entrance from when the building was a police precinct, or the circular marker the U.S. National Geodetic Survey put on its front steps in the late 1970s. In the parking lot, there’s a manhole that will take you into an old Cold War bomb shelter in the building’s basement. 

The CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 union is currently housed in the building on Capitol Ave., and according to Bob Rinker, who was the director there for 30 years, the building has had a colorful history sitting in the shadow of the viaduct. 

After World War II, Rinker said the building was a center for the Russian relief effort. After that, the police athletic league took over the building and held televised boxing matches on the second floor. When the highway was constructed and the Park River was diverted underground, Rinker said an addition was put on to the building where part of the river once ran. When I-84 was being constructed, the building served as the headquarters for the Connecticut Department of Transportation -- and in 1961, it was turned over to the union that represents the department’s workers. 

Rinker retired last year, but still helps out around the union’s office. The viaduct looms a short distance away from his old office window. 

“I love this building. And I love it because it’s really open to the membership. It’s their building,” Rinker said. 

Bob Rinker stands in his old office. The highway on-ramp can be seen outside his window.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
The CSEA union building on Capitol Ave. next to ramps leading to the I-84 viaduct.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

The state is beginning to plan for the nearby crumbling viaduct’s future. Rinker, who stays up-to-date with transit projects from talk around the union office, said that while burying the highway in a tunnel would have the best payoff, it would be too expensive for the state to do. Rinker said lowering the road and decreasing the number of on and off ramps would probably be a more viable option. 

Rinker said he hopes the I-84 reconstruction will revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the union.

And, Rinker said, he thinks the state should close off the viaduct completely when they start to rebuild it. 

“If you’re just going to shut down lanes, and do it over a five-year period of time, personally, I would think that it’s going to be a disaster anyway, and I would rather have it be much shorter term as they’ve done with other projects,” Rinker said. 

The success of the project, he said, hinges on encouraging commuters to use mass transit. 

“If we can train [in] people from the north and the south -- as we finish adding another track so people can actually take the train into town -- if people can take the busway to the east of the river, so people who are traveling from East Hartford, Manchester, or Tolland can get on a busway and get in quickly -- those are all areas that need to be expanded and put into place, frankly before we get to the construction of I-84,” Rinker said. 

Bob Rinker looks at the manhole that leads to the union's parking lot. The room he's in was once a bomb shelter during the Cold War.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Looking out of his old office window, Rinker noted the plywood covering sections of the on-ramp. He said the state is now rehabbing the overpasses because it’s been 50 years since they’ve done any major work on them. 

“There’s things that have happened to the highway structure since I’ve been here. One, it’s rusted,” Rinker said. “Also, concrete from the pillars that had been holding it up are falling off, so they had to take care of that as well.”

Rinker said he’s seen the neighborhood go through many phases since the highway was built, but it has never recovered fully since when it was split by the viaduct. 

In the late 1980s, Rinker said a strip club was in business in a lot adjacent to the union. He said degraded the quality of life in the neighborhood and attracted criminal activity. 

“They talk about the spike in murders [this year], but during the 80s when the gangs were running and there were drugs, there were a lot more murders going on. You’d be in the building at night and there would be gunshots around,” Rinker said.

A building in the adjacent lot to the union on Capitol Ave., now vacant, that was a strip club in the late 80s and early 90s. Rinker said the business decreased the quality of life in the union's neighborhood.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

The good news, Rinker said, is that the strip club is gone. The bad news? It hasn’t been replaced by anything yet that has lasted in that location. 

But the union building has withstood the test of time. Rinker said he hopes the I-84 reconstruction will revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the union, even if they have to move to a new building to make way for construction. 

And yet, that “We came into the neighborhood in ‘61 and we always wanted to be good neighbors. We always, as opposed to people who’ve left Hartford, will be in Hartford because that’s where our members are,” Rinker said. 

The front of the union building on Capitol Ave.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Over the years, major negotiations have taken place between the governor’s office and the union at this location. Rinker said that’s partially because the parking here is good. 

“I don’t know if we’ll find a better place that has the access to the Capitol and has access to our members that we want. We’ve looked in the past for places, but there’s no place better than home,” he said.